In this episode of Human Rights Chat, we speak to Ta'Mara Hill, Policy Officer at the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), who works on building CVT's portfolio on US-based human rights abuses – targeting police brutality, criminal justice reform, and other related issues. Ta’Mara shares about her work in the Healing, Incarceration, and Policing (or HIP) program and policy initiatives to make change in Minnesota.
The Center for Victims of Torture focuses its work on healing, training and advocacy concerning torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. In the U.S., our criminal justice and policing systems still today often violate human rights, including violations that amount to torture. In this episode of Human Rights Chat, we spoke to Ta’Mara (Tuh-Mair-ruh) Hill, Policy Officer at CVT whose portfolio focuses on Healing, Incarceration, and Policing (or HIP).
Every year the U.S. spends $80 billion to keep more than two million people incarcerated. The US makes up 5% of the global population, but holds 20% of its prisoners. We’re the global leader in a contest no one wants to win. U.S. police officers kill more than 1,000 people annually, and the data shows that BlPOC Americans are disproportionately killed and abused.
The use of excessive force, violence and brutality at the hands of police are violations of human rights. As you’ll hear in our conversation, most Americans wouldn’t think that torture and slavery still exist in the US, but they would be wrong. These cruel systems continue to exist today in American prisons, and reform is needed at every stage of the legal and criminal process, from arrests, bail, criminal defense, trial, sentencing, and incarceration to systems of release and parole.
Ta'Mara works on building CVT's portfolio specifically on US-based human rights abuses – targeting police brutality, criminal justice reform, and other related issues. Ta'Mara has worked in grassroots community organizing and human rights advocacy in multiple states and countries in nonprofit, for-profit, government, and education sectors focusing on policy issues related to education, public health, legislation, race and gender based violence, and more. Ta'Mara has a Master of Human Rights (Policy), was a Scholar for the White House Initiative on HBCUs, formerly a Fulbright Scholar in Athens, Greece, and runs a human-rights-based True Crime podcast called Right the Wrong.
We began the conversation with an introduction to her work in human rights, specifically around policing and incarceration. Later in the podcast, we discuss the ways in which activists in this sphere can maintain their personal wellness in the midst of such challenging circumstances.
How did you end up working at the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT)?
Ta’Mara moved to Minnesota in 2019 to get her Masters in Human Rights (Policy). At that time, all she knew was that it was cold and that Minnesota had the Mall of America. She flew to Minnesota with only open-toe shoes and had to borrow snow boots. All of this to say, Ta’Mara had little knowledge of Minnesota coming from Texas, but quickly learned that Minnesota is at the center of human rights advocacy in the United States. CVT has a long partnership with the University of Minnesota and some of the faculty there. In her classes, Ta’Mara heard from staff of the New Tactics in Human Rights program. She was interested in working with CVT, but as her academic and career focus was not in immigration, she did not think there would be an opportunity for her to work in policy.
When Ta’Mara graduated, a new opportunity was posted to work with a portfolio in human security issues, public safety, policing and incarceration. Ta’Mara was excited to see this opportunity as, at the time, there were not a lot of human rights organizations working in this space.
Can you talk about how the murder of George Floyd, in the community CVT serves, influenced the development of this portfolio?
Although Ta’Mara’s position became available fully in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, CVT had been developing this area of work for many years. The conversation ebbed and flowed every time somebody was murdered by police in a high profile murder or shooting. At the time, the murder of George Floyd was the catalyst for many organizations to finally take action around police brutality. And there are many organizations who are still having this conversation today.
At CVT, Ta’Mara gives two reasons that CVT felt it was crucial to prioritize the development of this advocacy portfolio:
- CVT was founded Minnesota, and it’s where the “headquarters” office still sits. When we talk about police brutality, murder and violence, and mass incarceration in Minnesota, we're talking about the communities we serve, the community we were founded in, and the communities that benefit from our direct clinical services. In sharing space with these communities, it is important for us to give back.
- George Floyd was tortured to death, and we all saw it. The Center for Victims of Torture exists to “heal the wounds of torture on individuals, their families and their communities and to end torture worldwide.” There are other people who are being abused, violated and torture by our systems. It is part of CVT’s mission and mandate to include those kinds of issues in our work.
People don't often think of torture and violations of human rights as something that's happening in the United States. Ta’Mara recently wrote an op-ed for Teen Vogue called Police Torture in the US: What to Know About the History of Law Enforcement Violence.
What should people know about what's happening with police violence in the US?
Ta’Mara recently wrote an Op-ed for Teen Vogue entitled Police Torture in the US: What to Know About the History of Law Enforcement Violence. She says there is a certain US elitism that comes with working within a human rights organization in “the West”:
“We often think human rights abuses happen in “other places.” And “other places” are usually places where indigenous, black and brown people live. And that we have to swoop in and save them. And that’s absolutely not true. In many cases, other countries have experienced violence as a result of imperialism and colonization by Western countries. Hiding behind the white savior complex is another form of colonization, gaslighting and racism.” -Ta’Mara Hill
It’s important for people to know that law enforcement-inflicted abuses happen every single day in the US. We only see a small fraction of these stories make the news. These incidents may or may not meet the United Nations’ definition of torture, but irregardless, they can still be considered acts of abuse and violence.
In our conversation, Ta’Mara mentioned several items that are considered in the UN’s definition of torture:
- People living in uncontrolled climates, whether too hot or too cold
- Being attacked or victimized by police canines or other animals
- Being sexually abused, rapes or tortured while incarcerated
Ta’Mara’s op-ed highlights stories which clearly meet these definitions:
- She references the story of man who died in prison because of constant cold conditions. No one has been charged in connection to his death, despite the fact that the complaints he and other individuals on the cell block made were repeatedly ignored.
- A woman in California was attacked by a police dog that removed a portion of her scalp. Police K-9 units are used as heavily now as they were during the Civil Rights movement, especially for suspected drug infractions.
- Women have routinely reported being sexually assaulted, harassed or abused by police officers while incarcerated. Ta’Mara mentions that there have been continuous reports of abuse by women in Shakopee Women’s Prison in Minnesota. In addition to harassment, incarcerated women are pressured into inappropriate relationships with prison guards in efforts to guarantee their safety.
For every one of these stories we might hear about, there are many more happening that don’t make it into the news. More than a thousand people are murdered by US police every year. There is an extremely low burden of proof for officers to show that their actions were a result of fearing for their lives. This is why we hear stories about people reaching for their wallet or putting their hands in their pockets and being shot by police. It's also why police are not being charged with those murders.
We live in a country where deadly force by police is overused and not often penalized. When comparing the difference in treatment of BIPOC individuals in the U.S. to policing in other western countries, or the treatment of white suspects, BIPOC people are disproportionately shot and injured during apprehension. Their white counterparts are more likely to be taken into custody without being shot. Ta’Mara highlights an observation that is key to understanding deadly force in the U.S., it is possible to make arrests and police without it, and despite this, deadly force is still being overused against black and brown individuals.
Since your work began, what have been CVT’s legislative policy goals in policing and incarceration?
Ta’Mara starts by discussing the gravity of working with policy while recognizing all the things people have lost because of a broken system. This work is heavy, and a lot of people have lost a lot. Envisioning, hoping and imaging the world that we want is an important tool in continuing our advocacy. The power of imagination cannot be lost in policy advocacy. Envisioning and hoping for the world they want is a tool communities and organizations use to continue in their advocacy despite the hardships they’ve endured.
Over the past year Ta’Mara established six principles for how CVT interacts with policy advocacy in the Healing Incarceration and Policing (HIP) program. HIP uses six principles to decide policy advocacy and policy ideas that CVT supports. The six principles are part of the world that CVT imagines. This world would:
- Ensure dignity and human rights for all
- End race-based policing
- End mass incarceration
- End law enforcement inflicted abuse and torture
- Heal through accountability
- Provide healing for survivors
Ta’Mara points out one of the things that makes CVT unique, which is reflected in principles five and six: CVT’s focus on healing. CVT was founded to do clinical services and provide healing to people who had experienced torture in other countries. Though CVT doesn't provide clinical services to people who have experienced police violence or incarceration currently, healing is an important part of the work CVT does in policy. There are numerous policies which can be passed to help individuals heal. Ta’Mara gives shape to the general form of CVT's goals. If CVT could choose six things it wants, these are the six things.
What successes have there been in policing and incarceration recently?
In the past year and few months there have been a lot of changes happening in policing and incarceration reform. Ta’Mara discussed how states often model their policy choices after other states who have done innovative or groundbreaking things.
State Response to the 13th Amendment: The 13th Amendment outlaws slavery. However, the amendment has an exception which says that slavery is allowed if it is punishment for a crime which is “involuntary slavery” or “indentured servitude.” Ta’Mara explains that state constitutions often reflect the United States Constitution with state-specific additions. Therefore, state constitutions also have the indentured servitude/involuntary slavery clause. She moves on to express exactly why this is an issue. Ta’Mara clarifies that if people are doing indentured servitude or enslaved work while they are incarcerated, it's not easy work. It's in hard conditions where they are most likely being verbally and physically abused. Even outside of the danger potentially involved in the work, it also is damaging to their dignity and to their healing process.
People are now pushing to have those state constitutions amended and remove the clause. A few have been successful. Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont have voted to get rid of involuntary slavery or indentured servitude. According to Ta’Mara, this is important because when people are sentenced to incarceration the time is the punishment. No one's punishment says they must be a slave. Being enslaved while incarcerated doesn’t do anything for individual rehabilitation, nor does it create safer communities once people are released.
Keep Families Connected Act: California recently passed a bill that makes all phone calls from inside prisons free. Ta’Mara explains that the act is incredibly important for the dignity of those who are incarcerated. If incarcerated persons are paid in prison, they are making tragically below minimum wage. Their families may not have a lot of money either. As poor communities continue to be overpoliced and over incarcerated, a bill like this has the potential to change how they feel when they come out of incarceration by keeping them connected to their communities without monetary stress.
Crack vs. Cocaine Sentencing: The Department of Justice has many ongoing investigations into police departments such as the City of Minneapolis Police Department. These investigations have led the Department of Justice to reanalyze its classification of crack versus cocaine. Crack and cocaine are essentially the same drug. They have some slight differences in how they are used but the key distinction, Ta’Mara explains, is that cocaine is considered a “high-class” drug and crack is considered a “poor” drug. The over-incarceration of people who use crack is a historical issue. She points out that those users were often BIPOC individuals. They lived in poor communities and were over policed and received longer sentencing then those who take cocaine who are in wealthier communities.
Have you heard of any movement on legislation for no-knock warrants and ending qualified immunity for police?
A federal No-Knock warrant bill called the Amir Locke End Deadly No-Knock Warrants Act was recently proposed by representative Ilhan Omar in the US House. Minnesota is still early in the session but Ta’Mara believes the bill's passage is just a matter of time. One reason she believes this: the legislature had the opportunity to pass the bill prior to Amir Locke's death, and it was unsuccessful.
“Because they didn't do that his life was stolen. No U.S. police force keeps a tally on how many deaths they caused through no knock warrants so getting an official number isn’t possible. People can estimate but we know Amir Locke in Minnesota is dead. How many more lives may we have lost between now and then?” -Ta’Mara Hill
CVT works closely with the nonprofit that wrote the bill to end no-knock warrants in Minnesota. They also work with community organizations that involve survivors of police violence and family members of those whose lives have been stolen by police. As CVT continues in that work, Ta’Mara remains hopeful changes in legislation will prevent the same violence from continuing. Legislation such as this should not be reactionary, or only put forth when someone’s rights are violated. It should be proactive, to prevent police violence from occurring in the first place.
Ta’Mara refers to legislation around ending qualified immunity as an “envisioning” bill - one o the things we imagine when we think about the world that we want to see. Qualified immunity is one of the things that law enforcement cling to, so it is going to take a lot of effort to see this change in legislation. Qualified immunity is a federal law that protects government officials from lawsuits to a certain degree. Officers can testify in front of legislatures and have unions, boards and experts aiding them. TaMara says looking to the future it is important to focus on bringing more people to testify to offer alternative opinions.
“Not to negate the experience of the police officers, but it's to add different perspectives. If we get people from all kinds of backgrounds of expertise to talk about qualified immunity, and it sways the opinion of legislators, that’s how we do it. Its exciting, because there's a lot of different kinds of people working on it.”- Ta’Mara Hill
Organizations like Communities United Against Police Brutality and Minnesota Justice Coalition are a couple of the partners that CVT works with in the Minnesota community. Both organizations have led progress on a bill updating qualified immunity even before CVT came into the space. CVT itself is a nonpartisan organization, and Ta’Mara makes clear that policy does not have to be partisan. As we continue forward on a path to end police violence and uphold accountability, there is a need to work with individuals across the political spectrum.
As a human rights activist, what does your own self care look like?
After the New Tactics Twitter Chat on balancing activism and self-care, Ta’Mara's contribution to the chat garnered a lot of interest.
“I had a lot of people contacting me on Twitter and on LinkedIn to talk about how great everyone thought my self-care and boundaries were during the conversation.” - Ta’Mara Hill
It's here Ta’Mara presents a startling truth about advocacy work: for many people in the field it is not just work; it is their life and livelihood. Many people pursue advocacy not because it became an interest but because they’ve been marginalized in their existence. From people who are BIPOC, from a marginalized religious group, LGBTQ+, to disabled, etc – It is their life.
“A lot of people do advocacy because we live in communities, in bodies where if we don’t advocate to change stuff, our lives and the lives of people we love are not going to get any better.” -Ta’Mara Hill
It’s why she says self-care is radical.
“When you're working against these systems, they want you to be unrested. The system wants you to not take care of yourself. It wants you to break mentally, to break physically, to die young, to check out and burn out. The less of us that exist in the work, the less likely it is to change. That's why self-care is radical.”- Ta’Mara Hill
Self-care is an act of defiance to any system that isn’t interested in your voice, and she believes it is just as necessary as any form of advocacy. Rest is necessary in order to continue our advocacy for the long haul. Ta’Mara gives the following advice:
Ta’Mara explains that many people are incorrectly taught that rest is bad or lazy. “That's what they tell you to make you feel bad so you won't rest.” Ta'Mara makes clear that boundaries are your most important tool to make space for your self-care and rest. Despite the negative connotation that productivity culture would ascribe to the word “boundaries,” Ta’Mara emphasizes their importance. Boundaries are for everyone, and they're important. They don’t have to be all or nothing. Taking time to yourself, even if it's just to work alone if you need it, is a gift you give to yourself. Our lives are meant to be lived joyously, not in sadness and hardship and work.
“I could very easily work on this work constantly but I want to live a life of joy and I've worked to live a life of joy.” -Ta’Mara Hill
Listen to your body
When Ta’Mara first heard this many years ago, it seemed so obvious. Many of us, particularly in the US, are desensitized to the self. We’re taught to look at our own self-interests and cultivate a “me-first” mentality. But we’re not taught to look inward or analyze how we’re interacting with our communities. No matter your situation, work obligations, or income, you can give space to how you need to exist by listening to your mind and body – from food to work to rest.
This looks different for different people, but Ta’Mara recommends everyone spend time in nature for its healing qualities. Some may like to go camping in the middle of nowhere. Others may want to sit on the patio at a local brewery.
She emphasizes that whatever practice you find healing, restorative and relaxing, find what that is and make time for it.
What has been your journey to self-care?
Ta’Mara initially struggled with self-care for two reasons:
- Her younger self thought that ambition and self-care were mutually exclusive.
- She also believed making her needs secondary was necessary until she had more time to herself.
It wasn’t until later that she realized an important lesson: ambitions don’t preclude the needs you have. They still must be taken care of. Ta’Mara explains that practicing self care is a muscle that you have to work out. She believes it is a skill you have to grow in just like any other skill.
For her it took things in her life getting hard to master the practice. Her mental health was bad, and she wasn't taking care of herself. It resulted in her being unhappy, even as she continued to succeed in her goals. She realized that she was doing things that didn't serve her. She did things she didn’t enjoy because she believed they would bring her closer to success.
She broke the cycle through reflection and introspection. From there she tried making small changes starting with something she struggled with her whole life: all or nothing thinking. For Ta’Mara, self care seemed like a luxurious and time-consuming process. She began to practice intentionality and making whatever moments she could find work. Her tips:
- Reject all-or-nothing thinking
- Reject the idea that you're not doing it right. There is no right way to do self-care.
- Make whatever amount of time you have worth it. If you have just 10 minutes to ground yourself, do it, and bring that restoration back into the work you're doing.
Ta’Mara emphasizes that everyone's journey is their own. Ending productivity culture requires true reframing of our mindset.
If you’re interested in the work of CVT’s Healing and Incarceration program, in either local or national level policy initiatives, you can find more information at cvt.org or email Ta’Mara at email@example.com.