Human Rights, Human Stories: A New Kind of Civil Rights Project in Eugene
In this video, Scott McKee sits down and talks about his experience as an internal investigator for both the Eugene and Springfield Police Departments.
During the thirty-three minute interview, McKee explains that the internal investigation procedures he’d learned over the course of his career were inherently flawed – and how that changed his outlook on life.
He discussed the fact that officers are taught the “us vs them” mentality from day one. He says that police are not given the tools to properly identify their own biases, let alone how to investigate one of their own.
“It is a fraternal organization,”McKee says. “And it always has been.”
As an internal investigator, McKee’s job was to investigate claims of misconduct within the police department, a job from which he would eventually be “honorably separated.” During the interview, he continued to explain in greater detail a few cases which deeply affected him and the community: specifically the sexual misconduct of two officers formerly with EPD.
McKee’s video is the first that has been produced as part of a local human rights project created by Ibrahim Coulibaly called Human Rights, Human Stories.
Coulibaly, who immigrated to the United States from the West African nation of Burkina Faso in 2008, said he first had the idea for the project four years ago. As part of Eugene’s Human Rights Commission, he was able to take part in group work sessions aimed at listening to marginalized voices in Eugene.
He said the HRC wanted heartfelt feedback from community members. However, there were challenges gathering the information needed to report to the city council about future investment needs.
The mission of the HRC is to promote the implementation of universal human rights, values, and principles in all programs to the city council . To meet their goals, the commission formed a subwork group called Whole Eugene Community United, or WeCU.
The work group meets monthly and provides opportunities for marginalized community members to share their experiences about life in Eugene.
Coulibaly believes that more people need to hear these stories. Listening to them “allows people to put a face to the struggle.”
These work groups give minorities a safe space to speak about their concerns as individuals with other community members present to listen. He said those types of conversations can make positive change, especially since each experience is unique.
“A Black immigrant experience is not the same experience that a Black person born in the [American] South has,” said Coulibaly. “We have a diverse community with individual experiences which can often result in issues and arguments.”
But “conversation is possible, conversation is needed” he said.
So Coulibaly decided to record one-on-one conversations instead.
The second video in the series involved community feedback about the building project at 1059 Willamette – the old Lane Community College downtown campus. This development project, put forth by deChase Miksis/Edlen LLC, includes a $10 million city council-approved subsidy for affordable housing.
The subsidy has three forms of public assistance:
- The transfer of publicly-held property at 1059 Willamette to the developer/owner at direct market value of $6.8 million
- $1.1 million in public funds
- A ten-year property tax exemption, worth around $2 million.
As part of Eugene’s 2016 Urban Renewal Plan, this redevelopment is aimed at increasing the number of units available for low-income or affordable housing. The project will dedicate:
- 65 studio apartments for $980 a month
- 1 studio for $1050 a month.
There will also be 58 market-rate one bedroom apartments with an additional five market-rate two-bedroom apartments.
Coulibaly, along with his associates, wrote an open letter from 29 local organizations to Eugene’s Mayor, City Manager, and City Council asking them to reject the current development plan as it underserves the community’s needs.
According to the city’s own estimates, the largest deficit in housing availability is among individuals and families with a maximum household income of $24,999 a year, who can afford no more than $625 in monthly rent. Thirty-two percent of Eugene households make less than 25 thousand a year, but there’s a shortage of over 13,000 affordable units.
1059 Willamette will actually add units to a demographic which already experiences a surplus in housing. Therefore, this project completely misses its own stated goals of increasing affordable housing.
Coulibaly said that, initially, three city officials, the project developer, and Cornerstone–a Healthy Homes program partner in the development plan–agreed to be a part of the panel discussion. However, Cornerstone and the developer backed out the night before. The city backed out the very next morning.
According to Coulibably, Cornerstone and the developer backed out because they wanted the discussion to be off the record. The city backed out because there were concerns that this would just be an opportunity to throw the city under the bus, he explained.
(Double Sided Media reached out to the city for comment but did not receive a response from Community Relations Director Laura Hammond.)
The third video in the series focuses on conflict in the Middle East. Taking part in the discussion were Daniel Borson and Ibrahim Hamide.
Borson is Jewish-American and the vice chair on the Eugene’s Human Rights Commission. Though he has never been to Israel, he offers listeners the perspective of what Israel means in the American-Jewish consciousness from a progressive Jewish lens.
Providing listeners with a Palenstinian lens is Ibrahim Hamide, also a Human Rights Commissioner for Eugene. Hamide was born and raised in Bethlehem, Palestine, in the West Bank near Jerusalem.
He immigrated to the United States in 1969 and has lived here since. Hamide still has family who reside in Bethlehem and said “it’s a place that is still near and dear to my heart.”
Coulibaly began the discussion by asking both Borson and Hamide to explain their views on the history between Israel and Palestine.
Obviously, it’s a complex history involving religious claims over land that go back to ancient times, but modern Israel only became a state in 1948, at the end of World War II.
In Borson’s understanding, Israel, is a place that “provides a safe refuge” to Jewish people all over the world, especially after millenia of oppression. After the Holocuast, this fear among Jewish folks increased as people began to think “it could happen here,” explained Borson.
Borson said that most cities occur along trade routes, or waterways, or are close to agricultural sources. Jerusalem is none of those but rather an assemblage of holy sites sacred to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Borson said that due to this complex history, the current conflict in the Middle East is not quite the same as conflicts stemming from European colonialism. He explained that this is due to the fact that Israel was formed in direct response to those “horrors.”
“The tragic irony is that what Jews have done in the state of Israel is perpetuated that settler colonialism and oppressed the Palestinian people in the name of our own safety and security,” said Borson. “So in that sense I think the dynamic, the emotional dynamic is far more complex than a classic settler-colonial, indigenous people type of dynamic.”
As a result, he said a “so-called Jewish state is violating one of its own core values, which is around fairness, and justice, and equality.”
Hamide agreed. He said that Palestinians were displaced and there was no opportunity for guaranteed refuge due to the formation of Israel. People were, literally, evicted from their homelands. This displacement and inequality has led to the current state of constant conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Both have claims to the same homeland; this has led to years of war.
“We cannot solve our problems by oppressing one another.” said Hamide. “That message should be loud and clear to the leaders of Israel and to the leaders of the settlers.”
Borson said that it is important to understand the role of the Christian Zionist movement in the United States and Europe. This has escalated the division between Israel and Palestine, especially, during the Trump administration.
He said he has spent a lot of time studying the fundamentalist Christian prophecies about the second coming of Jesus and finds them to be terrifying, but this is one of the things preventing peace in the Middle East.
“It really is in the benefit of Christian Zionists to escalate these tensions in the Middle East to move towards an apocalyptic end-time war that will start in the land of Israel and spread to the whole world.”
Borson believes that this was the motivation of the Trump administration.
Coulibaly ended the conversation by asking them how peace might be achieved. Borson feels that this will only happen if Israel and Palestine form a “single-bi-national state” – the so-called “one-state solution” that would provide equal rights for all citizens, both Palestinians and Israelis, regardless of ethnicity or religion.
“Jerusalem is supposed to be a city of peace, and it cannot have peace if there is injustice,” Hamide said. “It’s just simply incompatible.”
The panelists explained that the United States can be galvanized towards peace by encouraging individuals to reach out to their representatives by writing letters and making phone calls.
“Let them know that we do not support the status quo.” said Borson, who believes that the United States can really have an impact on what happens in the Middle East.
Hamide, drawing on the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., concluded by saying: “injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. I wish you not to be pro-Palestinian, I wish you not to be pro-Israel, I wish you to be pro-Justice.”
Looking to the future, Coulibaly plans to film more interviews focused on individuals who fight for human rights locally. He plans to have twelve in the initial series, but hopes that there will be opportunities for more.
When asked why he chose to include former internal investigator Scott McKee in the series, Coulibaly said that human rights involve everyone – even white male former police officers.
“It’s important to share the stories from all folks fighting for human rights, regardless of their backgrounds, jobs, race, or color of skin. Human rights are for everyone,” he said. He explained that after McKee separated from the city, he began to advocate for human rights.
McKee also worked with the Ad Hoc Police Policy Committee and was extremely valuable to the group in providing critical insight, according to Coulibaly.
Coulibaly said that this project wants to focus on local voices. He thinks that there are considerable problems in both Eugene and Springfield which need to be addressed.
He has been a member of the Service Employees International Union, first joining in 2015, and has held multiple leadership positions in the organization since. He currently is the President of SEIU Afram, Co-Chair of the SIEU Civil and Human Rights Committee, and a SEIU Finance Committee member.
Currently, he is serving his second term as a Human Rights Commissioner and was the recent president of the Lane County NAACP. He also investigates human rights violations for the state as a lead investigator with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries.
Civil rights violations in the workplace are a big issue right now, according to Coulibaly, along with white backlash and rage. So the struggle for human rights often “takes one step forward and two steps back.”
He believes that many organizations like the NAACP saw their membership of “allies” increase after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
However, the problem, according to Coulibaly, is that there is no plan of action, no follow through, and people don’t really know what to do.
As a result Coulibaly said “We are missing true allies in leadership roles and we are being out organized.” So, he hopes to work with churches, youth groups, and grassroots organizations, especially those run by and for marginalized communities, to provide free education for civil engagement as well.
Coulibaly hopes to offer another path for progress by opening up these conversations to both sides. He believes that through these shared experiences, bridges are crossed, and then it becomes possible to make plans for change.
By opening up the conversation, Coulibaly feels that he will bring in a larger audience — even white nationalists. When asked if he would hope to have conversations with people like Barry Johnson or Marcus Edwards—Black men heavily tied to white nationalist groups—Coulibaly replied:
“Those are the toughest conversations to have. There is a lot going on there that isn’t being talked about, most likely self-hate. Likely they will have what Jamaicans call a ‘negro moment’ – when insiders become outsiders.”
He explained that the false sense of inclusion, or “belonging,” is what keeps people going to those groups. But he said “there is no Black connection there, no Black history there, and no ties to their own identity.”
Human Rights, Human Stories has produced three videos so far and is currently working on developing a website.
On Aug 27, 2021, Human Rights, Human Stories celebrated its one year anniversary as a non-profit 501(c)3. Funding for the project has been raised through donations totaling $7,500 so far.
The money goes towards equipment and administration costs. Coulibaly is hoping that launching the website will help bring in more donations, but more than that he hopes it raises awareness and there is much more in store for the project.