Hypocrisy and Public Works: Local Perceptions of MONUSCO

The first time I visited Congo, I was talking with a new friend, a local leader in a small community north of Dungu, under his paillote. I had finished interviewing the radio operator there earlier in the day, and we passed some time under the thatched roof, just chatting. Amid casual conversation, joking around, and taking a photo together, one of his entourage who had been sitting with us complained about MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping stabilization mission in Congo.

As a driver for another organization, this man had witnessed the UN helping the LRA in 2010, dropping off rebels and sending them back into the bush. He described this amidst a litany of accusations, from the UN arming the rebels to refusing to let them surrender. I struggled to understand this then, and it received only a small discussion of rumor and violence in my MA thesis at the time. I’ve tinkered around with writing more about it as I continue to work through making sense of how people make sense of MONUSCO’s presence and the LRA’s ongoing activities.

In 2017, I heard a story in the village of Dungumai about a time a few years prior, when the local population there cut down trees and blocked the road in protest of the UN’s complicity in LRA violence. This story was also something I fell into—I had been visiting RTK, a radio station in Dungumai that played “come home” radio messages (the subject of my previous research), and talking with the director there about people’s complaints about such programs. An older couple had stopped by to speak with him, and as we wrapped up our conversation it turned to accusations against MONUSCO. He mentioned this to his visitors, and I ended up hearing a story from a woman as she recalled the protests there. People blocked the road, attempting to stop MONUSCO’s work and hold the mission accountable. “We had heard, but that day we saw,” the director translated for me, pointing emphatically at his eye, “that the UN was helping the rebels.”

This fieldwork trip, I’ve placed questions of MONUSCO at the center of much of my research, because one of my key research questions concerns who people turn to for security and to whom people attribute insecurity. The answer is filled with gray areas as basically everyone that is supposed to protect civilians is also accused of abusing them or abandoning them. Even the one consistent positive answer regarding who effectively protects communities—self defense groups, both ad hoc and organized—have had a history of abuse further south in the Kivus. Attributing security and insecurity to certain actors isn’t an easy task.

The MONUSCO offices in Dungu town, where protests have also occurred.

I’m still working through the transcripts of various short trips I’ve made during this stint of research so far, but during two days back in Dungumai this month I heard the word “hypocrites” used to describe MONUSCO multiple times. “Ils jouent un double jeu,” one person said—MONUSCO plays a double game. Someone else called the peacekeeping force “two-faced” for its declarations of combatting the LRA while it actually helped them. In Niangara town, rather than describe MONUSCO as responding to existing violence, several people associated the arrival of MONUSCO troops with impending violence to come (something Kristof Titeca has pointed out in explaining how people in this region make sense of increasing violence in their midsts as multiple armed actors arrived in short order).

And yet, when I put to these respondents the question of whether MONUSCO should stay or go, an overwhelming number of people in Dungumai said that they should stay, but do better. A few in other communities said they were glad MONUSCO had closed some bases in the region, and a couple said they hoped the peacekeepers would leave altogether. But a vast majority attributed some benefits to having MONUSCO around even as they criticized what they saw as not only complete failure to protect them but a betrayal of this commitment. For many, this ambivalence was attributable to the infrastructure projects that MONUSCO has engaged in, especially maintaining roads and rehabilitating bridges. A few buildings at schools had been constructed by MONUSCO, and some young men had found work with the peacekeeping force as well. Many others pointed to training the FARDC as an important practice carried out by MONUSCO. In short, there were benefits to having MONUSCO in the region, even if those benefits weren’t security.

A playground built by the Moroccan Battalion of MONUSCO in Dungumai.

The main bridge in Niangara, rehabilitated by MONUSCO’s Indonesian Garuda Contingent.

One hears news of MONUSCO packing up in Haut Uele altogether, though recent LRA incidents near and far may push this timeline further back. I should note, however, that such incidents are more than mere coincidence for some of my interlocutors, who wondered aloud why LRA attacks were increasing just as the peacekeepers’ mandate was winding down and now might have to be renewed. “No Kony, no job,” one person said in English, and I’ve heard similar phrases uttered on previous trips here. Allegations of MONUSCO complicity run far and they run deep. For over ten years the LRA has been preying on the population, and for much of that time UN peacekeepers have been performing poorly in countering the violence, in the opinions of people I’ve talked to.

Thus, while the peacekeeping force was under almost universal critique for failing at its primary objective of protecting the population and combatting the LRA, people mostly stopped short of calling for its departure, partially due to the other benefits of MONUSCO’s presence separate from security. To what extent might we think of the UN peacekeeping force as a development enterprise? Especially since several forward bases have closed and the remaining Moroccan Battalion only occasionally conducts patrols these days, the main encounter with MONUSCO seems to be through its infrastructure projects and maybe also its human rights monitoring. Most international NGOs have left the Uele region, and several people lamented being “forgotten” by NGOs and unable to get the attention of the government. But MONUSCO remains (for now), and just a few weeks ago a team of Indonesian peacekeepers smoothed out some of the major dirt roads here in town. How might we understand the public works projects of MONUSCO in the broader context of their mandate and effectiveness?


Congo Election News Roundup

Since I was here in the Congo during the election, I thought I’d go ahead and put together a roundup of sorts for those following.

Here’s some context. Joseph Kabila’s second term as president was supposed to end in December of 2016. If elections had been held and a new president taken power, it would have been the first relatively peaceful transition of power in the country’s history. Instead, though, and following a trend of “constitutional coups” across Africa, Kabila tried to pull a Museveni-Kagame-Nguesso and change the law in order to run again. He faced widespread protests and ultimately failed to do this, so instead he simply delayed the elections, securing the ability to stay in power until a successor was chosen despite the end of his mandate. Every delay is another act of glissement, or slippage, in Congolese parlance.

Alongside the delays, several leading opposition figures were also deemed ineligible to run. After attempts by the opposition to consolidate behind one candidate (an effort which succeeded for 24 hours), there emerged two: Martin Fayulu and Felix Tshisekedi were the major opponents to the regime’s chosen successor, Emmanuel Shadary. In the final month leading up to the elections, the state violently suppressed the opposition at every turn, with reports of the recruiting youth to instigate violence at opposition rallies, the use of live bullets and tear gas to disperse rallies, the refusal by government officials to allow rallies to occur.

My first night in Congo, I watched TV while having dinner in an Aru hotel room. The leading story was that a large fire had damaged a majority of the voting machines in Kinshasa, the country’s capital. The voting machines were already a source of suspicion for many, but the burning of them was also suspicious, as many believed it was an attempt by the state to justify yet another delay. This only made matters worse for elections that have faced logistical problems, partially because CENI, the electoral commission, rejected any foreign assitance (see Laura Seay’s twitter thread about the difficulties of Congolese elections, with or without MONUC/MONUSCO assistance). In the end, CENI announced a one-week delay of the elections.

And then, in the intervening week, CENI announced that the vote would be further delayed until March in three locations—Beni and Butembo in North Kivu and Yumbi in Mai Ndombe—due to concerns around the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the former and insecurity in the latter. This decision effectively disenfranchised over a million people, all in opposition strongholds, and for reasons that didn’t pan out. As many pointed out, Ebola has been a persistent problem in North Kivu for months, but people continue to go to school, church, and markets, they could surely vote. In the following days, protests in North Kivu resulted in several deaths. As one friend here said, “C’est un provocation.”

Heading into the election, the Congo Research Group and BERCI released a major opinion poll about the vote. You can access the full report here [pdf], but the key takeaway is this:

If elections are free and fair, an opposition candidate would be almost certain to win the presidency. According to our survey, Martin Fayulu is clearly the favorite, with 47% (BERCI: 45%, Ipsos/GeoPoll: 49%) of the intended vote, ahead of 24% for Felix Tshisekedi (BERCI: 28%, Ipsos/GeoPoll: 20% ); and 19% (BERCI: 20%, Ipsos/GeoPoll: 18%) for Emmanuel Shadary.

With two years of delays, denying several opposition candidates the chance to run, cracking down on popular mobilizations, and disenfranchising several opposition towns, the regime still faced massive rejections by the populace. It was obvious to both observers and Congolese that a free and fair vote would go to the opposition—the question was whether or not the elections would be rigged.

During election day, it quickly became apparent that the elections did indeed turn out to be a logistical nightmare—marred by technical failures with machines, people not showing up on voters rolls, and polling stations opening many hours late—as well as problem of the polls’ security—with reports of armed groups intimidating voters at multiple stations. In Beni, activists held a mock vote in an act of resistance to their disenfranchisement, demonstrating that a vote could be held without incident. When I took a tour around Dungu late that morning, I passed by three voting stations where people were queued and the situation was calm (I didn’t talk to anyone), though I did later hear of potential issues elsewhere in the province. In the days after the election, though, reports about election day began to get more complicated.

There were reports of “systemic irregularities, particularly missing or broken machines, missing or incomplete voter lists, late openings, long waits, restricted access for independent observers, interference by armed actors, and fraud.” The day after the election, the government shut down internet in most of the country, as well as SMS, to prevent “chaos.” On January 4, the Catholic Church, which had 40,000 observers at polling places across the country, issued a statement that, according to their observations, one candidate clearly won the election, and they called on the government to publish accurate results. The next day, Human Rights Watch published a report outlining instances of both voter intimidation by armed groups and spontaneous violence in confrontations between voters and police or CENI staff. Christoph Vogel wrote a useful update focused on the Kivus – of note is that armed group intimidation was diverse, with different groups rigging the vote for the ruling party and opposition.

Jason Stearns tweeted an important note as everyone awaited the vote tally. “What happens in the next 1-2 weeks will have a huge impact on developments over the coming decade,” he wrote. “This could unfold in many ways. I find it v hard to believe that Kabila/Shadary will accept defeat and step down. I also don’t think they will be able to rig elections and move on, as we now know that the Catholic Church, opposition and civil society, will put up a fight.” Stearns noted that, in the event of a return to mass violence, especially in major cities and in the East, these weeks were a key moment on which things would pivot (see Laura Seay’s thoughts on what could be done). We are still within a critical juncture as this continues to play out).

Everybody said that they had won. Especially concerning was when someone from Shadary’s campaign said “For us, victory is certain.” A few days later pictures circulated of Shadary’s campaign preparing for a victory celebration. Many were concerned about a rigged win for the regime. But soon these worries were replaced by rumors that a deal had been made. Tshisekedi’s camp had met with ruling party officials to ensure a peaceful transition. People began speculating that he had negotiated some sort of power-sharing transition deal in exchange for beating out Fayulu. Many suspected that whatever the election “results” would be, they would be negotiated by elites rather than represent the actual will of the people.

And so the provisional results were set to be presented on January 9th at 11:00pm in Kinshasa (midnight here), and state television began broadcasting shortly before. As we “slipped” from the 9th and into the 10th, people on Twitter joked about yet another instance of glissement. After a long pre-game show of watching people file in and out of the room, CENI finally began around 2:00am my time. CENI officials then proceeded to name each of the more than 700 provincial deputies elected in the country, an announcement that wasn’t supposed to happen for weeks, pushing the presidential results until 4:00am here in Dungu, where myself and three others sat watching TV in the paillote in the compound.

Finally, in the early hours of the 10th, the results were announced.

Tshisekedi had won with 38% (7.05 million votes), followed closely by Fayulu’s 34% (6.36 million), and with Shadary’s 23% (4.36 million) a distant third. Many were releieved that the election hadn’t been rigged for Shadary, but for most it seemed an even stranger outcome: that the government had rigged the election for the opposition in an effort to deny a different opposition candidate the presidency. Reuters later confirmed that the Catholic Church had privately briefed some diplomats that Fayulu had won handily.

In the days since, there were instances of violence in a number of cities on the 10th and 11th. While over a dozen have been killed since the proclamation, and several died on election day, in the face of the potential of riots or a return to civil war, it feels like an instance of declaring it “all quiet on the front” here despite the violence. Fayulu has explicitly called the results fradulent, and may be moving forwards with a formal complaint. Meanwhile, Tshisekedi leaned into his victory, lauding Kabila as partner of democracy in Congo (really).

Some have speculated that Tshisekedi’s deal may have been arranged as far back as when he initialy bailed on the opposition coalition. Pierre Englebert reevaluated the CRG/BERCI opinion poll to show that the results were implausible, stating that “data suggests that the probability Tshisekedi could have scored 38% in a free election is less than 0.0000. There is a 95% chance his real numbers would be somewhere between 21.3% and 25%.” He ends his analysis with some good hypotheses as to when, why, and how Tshisekedi’s bid may have played out.

Regardless, the situation—expertly played by Kabila—hands power over to a constrained opposition candidate (especially with the legislative elections apparently going to the ruling party) while also pitting the opposition against itself as Fayulu tries to organize supporters against Tshisekedi’s ascendance to the presidency. As Stearns put it in a recent op-ed for the New York Times: “If Mr. Tshisekedi is reduced to a figurehead president, the current system of governance will most likely continue. Millions will be displaced, thousands will be killed, and the international community will be left to deal with the wreckage.”

Many have taken this moment, rightly, to call attention to how contingent political processes, and the control that ruling leaders have, can be in the face of popular resistance. Two and a half years ago, Kabila was plotting how to stay in power for a third term. Instead, he not only didn’t run, but his hand-picked candidate lost, even in elections marred by irregularities and implausible results. While this cannot and should not be called democracy, this outcome a symbol of Kabila’s frustrated attempts to remain president, and that was achieved on the backs of (and with many sacrifices among) youth, civil society, the Catholic Church, human rights activists, and civil rights groups.

What comes next, however, is yet to be determined. Fayulu may try to contest the results, but it’s not clear if he has any leverage. The Church has decried the results as rigged, but won’t commit to releasing its numbers. Tshisekedi may become president in a relatively peaceful transition, but it is an open question if he will be able to do anything or if Kabila and his elite circle will be able to continue to run the country from behind closed doors. The official results are due in coming days, and the new president is supposed to take power by the end of the week. What this mean for Congo is unclear – we’re still in the midst of a critical juncture for the future of the country.


Every morning, a radio operator sits at the table in a dimly lit room at the NGO that I study. As the day begins and the morning fog clears, the operator begins the morning round by calling out to different communities over the high frequency radio. In turn, between the static and beeps so often heard on the radio, radio operators in rural communities respond with quick updates. Through this daily round, the network of radio sets are able to keep these distant communities in touch with one another, in a region where there is little in terms of communications or transportation infrastructure.

Almost exactly a decade ago, the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group originating in northern Uganda, was in the middle of a stand-off with the Ugandan government. The two sides had been negotiating in Juba, South Sudan, but were at an impasse. During this time, LRA forces were gathered in a couple of positions in South Sudan, as well as a contingent camped in and around Garamba National Park in the Congo, where they had been since 2005. After months of stalled talks, the Ugandan military launched an incursion into Garamba in an effort to rout the rebels in December of 2008, exactly ten years before my arrival to my fieldsite last month (to the day, in an unplanned twist).

Several have written about why the operation failed. Much has also been written about what happened next: in retaliation for the failed UPDF attacks, the LRA launched a series of coordinated attacks across Haut Uele district on and around Christmas Day, clustered around the communities of Faradje, Duru, and Doruma. After the initial massacres on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the rebel campaign continued into the new year. Human Rights Watch’s report details the atrocities, in which 865 people were killed and 160 abducted in a span of two weeks. Almost exactly a year later, the LRA carried out another large massacre in mid-December 2009.

It was in response to these attacks that a number of local civil society organizations and international NGOs embarked on an effort together to establish the early warning network. The idea was that installing radio stations in rural communities could help provide warning to people who could get to safety or alert authorities who could respond more quickly. The network is posited as a lifeline for these communities in an area that is difficult to traverse, is home to a number of armed actors, and sits at the edge of the country on the frontier of warring states.

I’m interested in this specific origin story of the network, because it highlights the humanitarian characteristics of the network. Humanitarian intervention is intended to response to moments of crisis and need, providing relief amidst political violence (or epidemic, or weather-related disasters, etc.). But the radio network, in practice, is much more. While the impetus behind it was a response to violence, it is also a development project in that the radio has the potential to change the community by connecting it to others, with potential effects on sociality, belonging, and communication in the region. And while this iteration of the network is a humanitarian project, it is modeled after an ecclesiastical network that linked parishes in the region. And beyond these factors, there is the way that the network brings in a range of actors such as the military and park rangers, and a range of assumptions about its potential, that makes it an interesting point of entry for research on humanitarian infrastructures.

A decade after the LRA’s most destructive attacks in this country, the radio network continues to report incidents every day. Not only LRA attacks, which continue to occur, albeit on a smaller scale. But news comes over the radio waves about accidents, elephant poaching, abuses by the state, news concerning Central African refugees, and other types of security incidents. A couple of weeks ago a father used the network to see if his child would be coming home for Christmas. The humanitarian network provides an infrastruture for all of this information, some of it critical, some of it mundane, to be shared.

If this is the rosy picture post, a future post will point to some of the ways that the radio doesn’t meet expectations, or has unintended consequences. But even these are structured by the network itself and the promise of humanitarian intervention and technology.

Starting Fieldwork

Greetings from the Democratic Republic of the Congo! I’ve recently arrived to begin my dissertation research in Haut Uele province, in the northeastern corner of the country. I wanted to write up a short introductory post here as I settle in, and will follow up with a few slightly more in-depth posts outlining the research I hope to carry out over the next year.

For those not familiar, my past work has focused on various radio media interventions in the conflict between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Government of Uganda. My dissertation research builds on three previous trips to northern Uganda and northeastern Congo (in 2013, 2016, and 2017)—on those trips my focus was split between FM radio programming which encouraged rebel demobilization on the one hand, and high-frequency radio transmissions that were used as an early warning system on the other. Through both, I traced the use of media in counterinsurgency, the convergence of militarism and humanitarianism, and the ethical dimensions of humanitarian intervention amidst conflict, among other things. (Still working on getting those things written up—bear with me!) My dissertation has been narrowed insofar as I will set aside the FM work to focus on the early warning network, but widening a bit as I explore other facets of intervention in my field site’s past, present, and future. I’ll sketch out bits and pieces of this in upcoming posts as well as, you know, my dissertation.


Photo of Haut Uele province from above.

Because academics tend to weave numerous objects, concepts, and arguments into single, winding sentences, I’m going to give that a go here and outline the underlying questions that are driving my research now, at the outset. I imagine some of this will shift as I spend time here, meandering my way towards findings, arguments, and answers, and some of it will harden as my research deepens. Recently, I’ve been conceiving of this project as having a sort of four-pronged approach to understanding how the radio network works. I’m interested in how the network and those who use it a) define security and insecurity, threats and risks; b) shape and are shaped by other relations of responsibility (especially governmental and international); c) operate within the affordances and limits of high frequency radio as a technology; and d) have histories of their own, both in terms of technological histories and histories of intervention.

As a neighbor just said to me this weekend, it is easy to waste time in Dungu. I hope to avoid that trap, partially by rededicating some of my time to this here blog. Without getting in the way of the actual research, life, and other obligations, I do hope to write more about my research here, as a sort of Field Notes Lite. No promises as to frequency or content, but I’ll try to start with some orienting posts over the next few weeks. Cheers.

Reviews at AQ and JMAS

Earlier this year I had two different reviews published in journals. Just wanted to drop them here for folks who study violence in Africa.

In the winter issue of Anthropological Quarterly, I have a book review essay titled “Violence, Intervention, and the State in Central Africa,” reviewing two great recent works. Louisa Lombard’s State of Rebellion: Violence and Intervention in Central African Republic helps us understand the humanitarian intervention in CAR as well as roots of violence there, inequities in the global state system, and problems of peacekeeping and peacebuilding. A translation of Marielle Debos’ Living by the Gun in Chad: Combatants, Impunity, and State Formation gives insight into the politics of armed labor in Chad as men of arms navigate the violent margins of the state there. Both are useful reads that I’d recommend to folks studying similar processes, in Africa or elsewhere.

In the latest issue of the Journal of Modern African Studies, I wrote a short review of Holly Porter’s After Rape: Violence, Justice, and Social Harmony in Ugandawhich is rooted in Acholi custom, lore, and language, and situates sexual violence—both in and out of war—in local understandings of consent, sex, and marriage; the realities of impunity and justice in Uganda’s political and legal system; and the Acholi conception of social harmony. An ethnography that is locally rooted to an extensive amount, Porter’s book is a useful read for those working on gender-based violence and justice after violence.

Laboring in Academe

Amidst the discussion of both the alleged mismanagement and abuses of Hau‘s editor-in-chief in particular and the power dynamics of the discipline of anthropology more broadly, currently ongoing under the hashtag #hautalk, a central topic of concern is the exploitation of workers. The allegations against Giovanni da Col stem directly from two open letters penned by former or current Hau staff, which confirmed what an amorphous whisper network had already known and others had suspected. Many of the allegations are about workplace management, either of finances or of staff, and it begs the question of what it might look like to work in academia in a manner that is not exploitative.

This question is one that many precarious and early career academics grapple with constantly, and one which senior academics seem to consider not at all. From the vantage point of graduate students, our role model faculty and the structures and positions they inhabit often seem out of touch on issues of precarity and the job market, inclusivity and access, and questions of gender, race, indigeneity, sexuality, ability, and other factors that affect us.

As I was explaining Emily Yates-Doerr’s experience with Hau—something which can only be described as a shakedown—to my partner, I had to remind myself that only in academia is it totally normal for authors and editors to not be paid for their labor. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the solution is always paying people for their work. As Marcel LaFlamme notes (in a Twitter conversation that is really useful but hard to organize – but glimpse here, here, and here), transforming academic publishing into another gig economy is hardly a solution at all. Rather, we should think more seriously about how to make the academic training process (i.e. graduate school) and the everyday work of academics (i.e. research, writing, teaching, and university administration) less exploitative and hierarchical, more egalitarian and emancipatory. Part of that involves paying marginalized people for their labor (that goes for in teaching and publishing, but also in the field in our interactions with interlocutors and research assistants), but it involves much more than that also.

The above-linked Twitter threads are all worth a read. This whole conversation reminded me of a similarly broad conversation a few years back when Yasmin Nair stated that academics who write for free are scabs. I don’t want to rehash that whole thing, but it’s worth asking just what conditions we expect and tolerate in academia. Unfortunately, I think too often the answer is far more than we should.

I say this as someone who always is very excited to be involved in the community of scholars, whatever that means. I’ve been publishing writing outside of this blog for five years and only ever been paid once. I’ve done an assortment of guest lectures, social media posting, book reviewing, and event organizing, mostly without remuneration. This was not because I was compelled to, rather I was excited to. I sought these things out. That doesn’t mean it is, or isn’t, exploitative. The fact is that some tasks seem like good networking or practical opportunities (whether or not they are in reality) and others seem like chances to be part of something we care about and something that, maybe, can change the discipline for the better.

I, like many, did not go into academia for the money, even while we yearn for and deeply need a living wage. Rather, I and presumably others chose academia because I wanted a career of teaching and learning, a life pursuing and producing knowledge and understanding. It’s an ideal to chase, to be sure. The problem is that these ideals are easily exploitable by those who would rather look the other way, especially as they benefit from the status quo, feed these ideals, and turn them into demands. This is precisely the case with Hau – both open letters elaborate that the staff were deeply committed to the “radical” open-access project that reinvigorated ethnographic theory. It is this commitment, this passion for the possibilities of anthropology, of scholarship, and of doing things otherwise that was in the end used to justify abuse and wage theft. (See Anand Pandian on what “open access” should really mean)

It is ethical and just to do political work – work that contributes to a project you believe in – with or without compensation. If we can earn something to make that work more sustainable, we should, but such work should not be reduced to a transaction. This goes for efforts to open up the academy to others, a burden often placed on the shoulders of marginalized faculty in the form of emotional labor, diversity appointments, and other service work that is all but invisible to privileged scholars and administrations. This also goes for efforts to do anthropology differently, no doubt part of the appeal of public anthropology, decolonizing anthropology, and open access scholarship. Contributions to these types of projects become unethical if you are convinced to do this work under the pretense of some benefit that might never materialize, or when you are told you will be rewarded but there’s actually no guarantee of that. All too often, this happens in academia, and far beyond. (The number of students I have juggling multiple internship a semester can attest to that).

Many in the world of academia continue to pretend it is somehow separate from the processes under which the rest of the world works. As Hugh Gusterson notes, “anthropologists have not been doing enough homework” – by which he means they haven’t been paying attention to how universities function. Journals and professional societies and conferences and departments are all a part of this.

“It is as if there is an avoidance relationship preventing us from systematically studying the institutions we inhabit,” Gusterson writes. I can only assume this avoidance relationship is because actually noticing the power dynamics of our departments and journals and associations would mean acknowledging that they need to be changed. That’s the only explanation for why the most elite universities would rather wage a scorched earth campaign against their own graduate students than acknowledge that they are workers with the right to unionize. It must also explain why we train students plenty about the theoretical and analytical politics of our discipline, but very little about its labor politics.

My adviser recently told me that I will need to work on saying “no” to professional opportunities. I’ve always been eager to get involved in projects, and graduate school inculcates in us the propensity to see everything as an opportunity. Opportunities were how I’ve wound up doing a lot of extra work throughout grad school, and a “missed opportunity” was precisely what I was presented with when I failed to meet someone’s expectations. Everything is a chance to improve, network, publish, or get a line on the CV. But it’s also a chance to be a part of the discipline in a more involved way. In a position plagued with impostor syndrome, taking on extra work is one way to feel like you actually belong. And with a job market so precarious, you just have to suck it up and do the extra work if you really want that postdoc. There’s a critique of the neoliberal university in here, to be sure. But there’s also a clarion call to do things differently.

What can we do differently? The tl;dr of this is to smash hierarchies and build solidarity everywhere you turn. If there’s one thing I learned from organizing here in DC, it’s that hierarchical organizing is a choice. So is collective work. Our departments, journals, and associations should be as egalitarian as possible, and should work to tear down hierarchies elsewhere. Our research, citation, and hiring practices should recognize the labor of others, especially those most marginalized. Collaboration over exploitation, autonomy over coercion, accountability over impunity. There are editorial collectives and labor unions and other anthropological affinity groups out there doing the work. We need more. If anthropology is a way of being or understanding, than let us make it one worth fighting for or create something new that is.

Unsettling Anthropology

The last week has seen a tumult online in the world of anthropology. A run-down can be found in this IHE article and Hilary Agro’s cliffnotes twitter thread. The conversation centers on the formerly open-access anthropology journal Hau and the abuses of its editor, Giovanni Da Col, as nodded at by David Graeber’s statement and as described in two separate open letters by current or former Hau staff. But the abuses alleged and the culture of the Hau project are about more than just a single person or journal. Several commentators have pointed out that this phenomena is part of a broader problem within anthropology as a discipline (as well as academia more broadly and society at large).

Two important contributions to this aspect of the conversation, pushing beyond Hau and to the discipline itself, are worth sitting with. First is Zoe Todd’s thoughtful post on decolonizing anthropology (again). Todd points to the way we think about theory and anthropology – a way which presumes only certain types of thinkers as theorists while others are merely interlocutors or informants. The fact that this mode of thinking remains embedded in our discipline – the way it pervades course syllabi and seminar discussions and reviewer comments and journal publications – indicates that the effort to decolonize the discipline is far from finished. Todd’s whole piece is well worth a read, as is Anand Pandian’s reflection on open access anthropology. In it, and in the context of what has happened at Hau, Pandian notes that the open access movement is not merely about taking down paywalls, but creating a more open scholarship that breaks down other barriers too. As he puts it so eloquently:

The paywall is invidious, yes. But there are other walls that have also come into focus in recent days. Walls that shield those securely employed and exalted in anthropology from the acute concerns of those in more precarious positions. Walls that credit the field’s white forefathers with its most essential lessons, while relegating others to the status of native informants, loyal wives, helpful assistants, or grateful descendants. Walls that distinguish properly deferential and manifestly scholarly writing from forms of expression deemed too intimate, too vulnerable, too personal, too conversational, too passionate to count as serious scholarship. Walls that celebrate the glories of the master’s house. Walls that extol good theories at the expense of good stories. The moment in fact is long overdue, the reckoning with all these walls built beside and on top of each other.

Tearing down all of these walls is exactly what we should be doing when we decolonize anthropology. I hope that this moment is not an ephemeral one, but one that continues forwards unrelentingly. Anthropologists should be working together to dismantle all manner of systems of oppression in their work – not only by studying such forms of oppression in “the field” but in our professional lives on campus and in journals and in presses and at conferences and in the job market and in the streets.

We should openly be working to reorganize our discipline along new axes, not to seize power but to dismantle it. Collective work – in research and writing, in teaching and learning – is central to creating a more emancipated, unsettled, and free anthropology. Some of this work is happening in unionization efforts, some of it in open access and public anthropology spaces, some of it in classrooms and conferences. But it requires everyone committed to a new future for scholarship in order to create new ways of being, together. We can’t be free while others have power over us. Anthropology can’t be decolonized while a colonial mindset still governs much of its structures. Universities can’t be liberated while trapped in old power structures. We need to imagine something better, something otherwise.

Imagining Danger and Safety (and Conference Talks!)

Quick note that I’ll be giving the same talk twice this month. First, this weekend in Philly I’ll be at the American Ethnological Society’s annual meeting. I’ll be part of panel 3.1.5 “Technologies of Disaster, Power, Ethics, and Politics,” Saturday morning at 8:00am. Then, on March 30th, I’ll be presenting at my department’s annual symposium here in DC. Reach out if you want the details for the latter – promo material forthcoming.

My talk is titled “The Promise of Early Warning: Radio, Protection, and Political Demands in Northeastern Congo.” I look at the different ways in which humanitarianism and infrastructure offer certain promises (of care, of life, of progress, of modernity) and what happens when those promises are not borne out as imagined. It’s one step in thinking through my research from this past summer as I prepare for fieldwork, and also thinking with recent scholarship on these issues. I’ll be continuing to think with, on, around, and about this, I’m sure.

As I both prepare for the upcoming AES conference and continue to read for my comprehensive exams (ack!), I wanted to drop some thoughts here. This weekend one of my readings was Juliana Ochs’ Security & Suspicion: An Ethnography of Everyday Life in Israel. Part of Ochs’ argument centers on how discourses about security get reproduced at the level of bodily practice and ways that fantasies of threats and protection get embodied. I’m still sitting with the book a bit, but I found it really generative to think about processes of everyday securitization. In the context of the second intifada, Israel’s itinerant, moving checkpoints and ever-changing security measures shaped people’s perceptions of security, not unlike what other scholars of security in Israel have shown. But Ochs demonstrates how these practices get filtered at the individual level as people’s personal imaginations of the city (Jerusalem) are shaped by their own experiences of the city, of Palestinians, of trauma, etc. – she shows this through, among other things, people’s commutes in the city and how they explain what parts of the city are safe or dangerous, when it’s okay to travel, and what modes of transportation are safest.

This is just one slice of the book, but it’s been useful to think with as I put the final touches on my conference paper, and I’m sure it will continue to be in the back of my mind as I study securitization, humanitarian infrastructure, and technologies of intervention. I’m interested in how the communication networks that I study might shape people’s understandings and interpretations of insecurity, and how the promise of technology and intervention might be changing these processes. Thinking with Ochs, then, I’m interested in how the threat posed by the LRA, but also the discourse and daily communicative practices around this threat, play out at the local level. How are the threat, discourse, and practice interpreted, embodied, lived, and felt?

And so, by way of conference paper snippet, here’s a glimpse of what I was thinking about last summer when I was doing exploratory fieldwork in Haut Uele, DR Congo, and a snippet of what I’ll be talking about on Saturday:

Let me first describe an instance in which the radio allowed humanitarians and civilians to trace LRA movements. Last summer, while I was awaiting my Congolese visa, alerts were sent out about a series of small roadside attacks which included three incidents of looting and one killing of a soldier south of Garamba National Park, near the village of Sambia. Once I got my visa, I was able to travel by road to Dungu, and upon arrival heard that there had been more looting or sightings of LRA fighters south of the park and, more recently, west of the park. Given both the history of LRA tactics and the daily incident reports, one can cobble together the most likely scenario: if all of these incidents involved the same group of LRA fighters, then they probably had been living south of Garamba, looted local communities to gather supplies in advance of a journey, then traveled through Garamba to poach elephants, and headed west on their way up to Central African Republic, to take the ivory either to other LRA groups or to LRA commander Joseph Kony, who is rumored to be in hiding in Sudan and using illicit trade to continue his rebellion from afar. In June, while I was preparing to cross into the Congo, communities on the early warning network were hearing daily reports of LRA activity, which hopefully allowed parents to keep children close to home rather than tilling distant fields, allowed travelers to be on alert on remote roads and pathways where the danger of looting was heightened, and mobilized peacekeeping forces to patrol the areas most affected or most vulnerable.

Once I was settled into my routine listening in to daily rounds with the radio staff in Dungu, however, a problem arose, or rather, erupted. In late July, news came from near the town of Bangadi of a particularly bold attack in which an FARDC camp was raided and a small town was looted of food, medical goods, a power generator, and radio equipment. Days later a series of roadside looting occurred, including several deaths and the kidnapping of a local government official. Given the location of these incidents northwest of the park and on the route to Central African Republic, this is likely the same group which had been actively moving, looting, and attacking communities throughout those months. But despite the weeks of information-gathering, the fact that a government official had been abducted, and their mandate, the peacekeepers in Bangadi never deployed to the nearby communities to investigate or respond to the killings and abduction. Knowledge had been shared, but action wasn’t taken. People died, were looted, or abducted, and the assailants vanished with impunity.

What I explore more in the talk is what to make of such failed promise as when the early warning network provides information so that civilians know about the threat, but there’s little they can do about it. The promise of humanitarianism, and of technology, is premised on improving lives. What happens when these hopes are dashed? What do promises, even broken ones, generate? I gesture at political responses to abandonment and potentially new politics emerging in moments of such failure, but there are other places to train our eyes and ears. If we channel Ochs’ focus on everyday and embodied security, though, it’s worth asking how the radio produces particular imaginations of rebel movement, how the information that gets circulated shapes daily practices, and how knowledge about the LRA threat is felt. These are some of the things I’ll be tackling as I think through the promise and practice of early warning.

Anthropology at the Barricades

One year ago, dozens of direct actions took place across Washington, DC, to disrupt the Inauguration of Donald Trump. Today, celebrating and defending dissent and commemorating the first salvo in an ongoing struggle, there are numerous events all over the country. Many of these are part of a broad call to build out our movements for collective liberation. If you’re in DC, there are a few things going on today.

In the spirit of this solidarity, I’m sharing below a talk I gave in November as part of a panel on protest, theory, and practice at American University’s Public Anthropology Conference. It’s relatively unedited, I’m not a social movement scholar, etc. – but it’s some of my thinking on solidarity from the academy.


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By around dawn the morning of January 20th in Washington, DC, four individuals sat at the intersection of 10th and E, back to back, connected in a technical lockdown. A half dozen others—myself included—sat right where the police had dragged us, in between the concrete barricades that were supposed to form the security lines for entering Donald Trump’s inaugural parade route but instead became the nucleus for one of several direct actions occurring simultaneously across downtown DC. A few dozen others flanked us, chanting slogans and waving signs amidst the tumultuous opening salvo against the President’s Inauguration. The goal of The Future is Feminist, the non-hierarchical radical feminist collective that spearheaded the action at 10th and E, was to disrupt the checkpoint for as long as possible. Several other checkpoints saw similar direct action protests of varying size and tactics that day—each representing a community concerned about what a Trump presidency meant for it, from Black Lives Matter to Standing Rock, from radical labor to queer activists—and the city also saw a permitted march—a winding parade of protesters, artists, puppets, and families—and an unpermitted anticapitalist, antifascist march clad in black. All of this was organized autonomously under the label “Disrupt J20.” By the afternoon, the other blockades had disbanded and police had kettled part of the black bloc march. Six and a half hours after locking down, the four individuals declared victory, unchained themselves voluntarily, and led a march away from the intersection, which by that time was teeming with hundreds of protesters who had formed a human wall—arms locked and several rows deep—preventing parade-goers from entering the checkpoint. This was how the tone was set for radical resistance to the Trump presidency.

In the months since, direct action has seen a revitalization, from immigration activists blockading ICE vehicles to prevent deportations to waves of ADAPT activists and allies staging occupations of Congressional offices every time Republicans have attempted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Direct action has also been used by antifascists and anti-racists operating under the ethic of no-platforming, working to prevent white supremacists from organizing or speaking in public, from Berkeley to Charlottesville, Boston to Gainesville. The Trump presidency has inaugurated mass resistance of many types, and starting with the events of January 20th we can see a large number of people turning to direct action to effect change, protect their communities, and assert their rights.

I had participated in this action not as an anthropologist but as an activist. But, as usual, I approached that day with an anthropological sensibility in many ways. Many forms of community organizing, including the organizing that went into Disrupt J20, emulate the ethnographic work that anthropologists do as activists build relationships with others. And as a man involved in a feminist group that centers the most marginalized voices, I was and am concerned with my place and the politics of representation, something which anthropologists honed in on a generation ago and continue to grapple with today, and something I’m conscious about even as I give this talk. As part of an acephalous, egalitarian group that reached decisions by consensus, and which itself acted autonomously alongside numerous other non-hierarchical groups in Disrupt J20 that day and in the weeks leading up to it, I was excited to be a part of a community organized according to different principles than the hierarchies and individualism that dominate American public life. Describing other ways of doing things and studying alternative modes of organizing society have long been at the center of anthropology’s contribution to our understanding of the world. And as both a scholar interested in an empathetic, engaged anthropology and an activist interested in creating a more just society, I viewed that day with an eye towards making the world a better place and creating a new set of relations through praxis. Our decision-making and action-taking processes were our politics—for the activists at 10th and E, direct action was at once both theory and action. It was praxis. Here I situate my experience that day within an attempt at a radical methodology, a revolutionary praxis, and militant scholarship. I put direct action forward as but one way that anthropologists can engage with the world, and I would argue that such participation should be in our toolbox when considering how to respond to our current moment.

On the same day as the blockades and marches, anthropologists around the world gathered collectively for a virtual read-in of Lecture Eleven from Michel Foucault’s Society Must Be Defended. The 1979 lecture addresses the intersections of biopolitics and state racism and the state’s power to discipline and control populations. It is a fitting read for our time, and a lecture that was and continues to be generative for those of us thinking through such issues. Scholarship, research, and theory can be central to radical political action. Movements are driven by ideas, and intellectual communities—certainly not just those in academia—can be crucial to helping these ideas take root and grow. Radical political teaching, and radical scholarship, are critical parts of defending society. Direct action is another. When faced with a resurgent ideology of hate and contemplating how to take action, anthropologists should organize in their communities and fight where they stand.

The scholarship on protest is a broad field, and the topic of resistance has long been of interest to social scientists. Often, though certainly not always, resistance gets glossed either as the armed resistance of revolutionaries or as the types of “everyday resistance” that workers and peasants engage in when faced with hegemonic power. While these forms of resistance and subversion are integral to our understanding of how people engage with the sites of power around them, today I focus on a particular form of resistance, one that seeks not only to subvert power but disrupt it or move beyond it. In opposing or moving beyond the current state of things, direct action constitutes one form of resistance warranting further discussion.

Direct action does many things, of course. Sometimes it obstructs; sometimes it liberates. Sometimes it cripples state or corporate power; sometimes it communizes space for all. Across the city on January 20th, people engaged in direct action as a part of a collective struggle for a more equal and just society in the face of not just a man or a party but a system that seeks to isolate and oppress us. In the months since the Inauguration, many people have forged new relations through action, whether at airports in opposition to the Muslim ban or in their workplaces through collective action. New networks of resistance, many centered on direct action, have formed in response to white supremacy and misogyny—and not just that of Trump. Direct action is part of building community, which is central to opposing not just the latest form of fascism but also the neoliberalism that brought it about.

In the immediate aftermath of the election one year ago, there were many different responses to the “new” situation we found ourselves in as scholars residing in the United States. This newness was, of course, not new at all for scholars of color, women, and queer academics for whom state, society, and the academy rarely make space. Neither was it new for students of color, women, gender-nonconforming students, undocumented students, and the many other marginalized populations inside and outside of the university. Nonetheless, the ratcheted up white supremacy and retrenched misogyny that Trump represented and still represents rightfully gave many pause. What was a concerned scholar to do?

There were calls to speed up our response to the crisis by paving the way for a sort of faster, more responsive ethnography, a way to study current events and contribute an anthropological voice to the public discourse. There were calls for a more public anthropology, to open the gates of knowledge in the face of swelling anti-intellectualism. There were calls to research what gave rise to Trumpism by supporting more scholarship of the Right, including the oft-cited white working class, but also other groups that rallied to Trump’s cause. All of these are ways to engage as a discipline in a time when many feel drawn to change the way we’ve been doing things. The read-in was itself a response to such a feeling, digging into our wheelhouse of reading and theory to respond to our time. There are other ways, for those of us in the university, to use our classrooms and our role as educators to teach radical politics, to help decolonize the university, to democratize the classroom, to unlearn the white supremacy and misogyny latent in our society and our institutions. Like the rest of the United States, the American university was created for particular bodies, and we have work to do to continue reimagining these spaces and communities. My point is, there are many ways to take action as anthropologists. One way that anthropologists can respond to our contemporary politics that is both intuitive and has great potential is to participate.

At the heart of cultural anthropology, arguably, is the method of participant-observation, and we can and should hone in on this approach and join those struggling against ascendant fascism on the frontlines. Emphasizing the “participant” part of participant-observation, I’m calling for radical, militant participation as a means of scholarly resistance. We should practice a radical method, an engaged theory, an anthropological praxis. In her defense of ethnography, Alpa Shah states that “with the crisis of the left and the spread of the right across the world… there is a compelling need for participant observation as revolutionary praxis, to offer better theory and action in the world.” While Shah still finds a tension between scholarship and activism despite this need, I think that a commitment to radical praxis has the potential to bolster both. Bringing scholarship and resistance together can be a fruitful process in a number of ways.

Being actively involved and already engaged in defending society will make a faster turnaround for research more possible when it is most needed, after all, and public scholarship can only be more relevant if it emerges from popular struggle. Spending time working alongside those trying to secure communities and improve lives also opens up new venues for a more public anthropology. And while studying the right is certainly a necessary project, one from which we can learn a great deal in order to better respond to and curtail movements that seek to retrench various forms of inequality, we would also do well to further our work with marginalized communities and in so doing redouble our efforts to support them in the everyday work of their defense, survival, revitalization, and emergence. Working at the service of these movements can reaffirm our commitments to those bearing the brunt of neoliberal and fascist policies and white supremacist and xenophobic violence.

By dedicating ourselves to and contributing to the movements that are doing the work, anthropologists can put their bodies at the barricades, build relations through community organizing, and engage with a world outside of academia, all while contributing to a more engaged anthropology. There are times when research will be exactly what political action needs—mapping hidden power relations, for example, or tracing patterns of abuse to be resisted. In these scenarios, an informed and engaged scholarship can contribute to causes seeking to empower or protect communities through research, advocacy, and presence. But there will also be times when the concerns of activists may not lend themselves to a conventionally published ethnography as we know it. The livelihoods of our interlocutors is foremost, of course, and security culture exists for a reason, as the state persecution of activists across the country and around the world has reminded us. Audra Simpson’s invocation of ethnographic refusal is just one demonstration of how we can be more creative in what it means to produce scholarship amidst varying power differentials. Another is the by-now old idea of “studying up.”

In times when writing vignettes about an action centering on organizers and activists may not be the best way to talk about our interlocutors, it would make the most sense to turn our gaze and study “up” from the perspective of our comrades on the frontlines. When Shah argued that participant observation was “a potentially revolutionary praxis,” she meant that it encourages us to “question our fundamental assumptions and preexisting theories about the world” and better “understand the relationship between history, ideology, and action.” For Shah, ethnography is more than a method—it is our praxis. Through this praxis we can encounter theories of action and social change while living the solidarity with communities that many anthropologists propound. From the eyes of those on the ground, it is actually quite easy to see the links between settler colonial genocide and the destruction of the environment, between slave catchers and riot cops, between broken windows and for-profit prisons, between redlining and profiling. Training an investigative and critical eye on the structures that oppress and divide is critical both to revealing such processes and to helping allies, accomplices, and comrades find common cause against the next common enemy.

Viewing that January day from the barricades, after all, included seeing the beautiful work of activists, but also witnessing the resolute force of the state. I saw the inspiring convergence of a collective response to hate as well as the face of an emboldened far-right. One only need shift her gaze to enable different ways of seeing and representing the space of political action. And as anthropologists, there are always many ways of engaging with an experience, and being at the barricades does more than let you see. A multi-sensorial engagement shows that there are many ways to encounter that day, from feeling the closeness of linking arms with trusting strangers, tasting hard-earned food from a communal kitchen, and the uplifting sounds of an anti-racist brass band to the smell of pepper spray, the dull thud of flashbangs, and the feel of police hands on protesters’ bodies. Emotions were there as well: the exhilaration of collective action and the fear of police violence, the compassion of street medics, the panic of news from the kettle, the angry and euphoric urgency of active resistance. As Tara Joly recently wrote about the work being done at Standing Rock, resistance is “a feeling, not a theory.” Protest is a multisensory activity, and as any anthropologist knows, there is no better way to understand what it’s like on the ground except to be there. Depending on the needs of the situation, one can also reflect on these experiences in different ways, highlighting activists or the forces they confront.

With direct action comes solidarity and mutual aid. This is also a place where bodies and voices are needed. Working quietly behind the protests and actions, networks of actors work to sustain the movement. Eight blocks away that day, police used flash bangs, pepper spray, tear gas, and riot shields to illegally kettle the anti-capitalist, antifascist march, beginning what has already been a long and draining series of felony charges, superseding indictments, a police raid on an activists’ house, and status hearings for over two hundred individuals whose trials will begin in two weeks [edit: six were acquitted in December, 129 had all charges dropped this Thursday – 59 people, including numerous local organizers, still face 60+ years in prison]. Since the Inauguration, a vast network of legal support and other forms of mutual aid have kept the promise of solidarity by working hard to keep these people out of jail. At every action there are media teams and street medics, jail support and legal observers, marshals and scouts, a complex configuration of people committed to doing the work. We can and should be among them, participating in our communities.

In calling for scholarly resistance through radical participation, I hope this can be part of a response to the problems of this time. There are countless ways to contribute, to act, to participate. This city alone has seen mobilizations around numerous causes. In Charlottesville, a diverse community came together to plan their own self-defense when the state failed to do so. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy several years ago, Occupy Sandy outpaced both FEMA and the Red Cross in some communities, demonstrating what direct action and mutual aid can do. In response to ascendant fascism, runaway capitalism, and disastrous climate change, what we need now more than ever is a radical, political, ethnographic sensibility that puts us on the ground and taking direct action.

At the Smithsonian

Quick note that a two-part piece of mine has been published at the Smithsonian Museum’s Collections blog. It’s called “Southwest Archaeology and ‘The Time of Vietnam’” – here’s part two. The post is about an archaeologist studying pueblos in Arizona who got help from the US military to photograph some sites during U2 training flights in the desert. It’s an interesting story, and one that has echoes of both the ties between the military and research of indigenous peoples and the connections between war and photography. The photographs are part of the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Here’s a little excerpt:

[One] thing that each photo shares is the mark of a small accessory attached to the camera: in the bottom-right corner, each image has a clock and a counter marking the time and number of the snapshot. Some visual anthropologists have analyzed not just the photographic image itself, but also the “micro-event of the making of the photograph” (Pinney 2012). The counter and clock here are such a “micro-event,” but they are also more: they are part of a whole apparatus that took and collected photographs of much of the world.

While I spent several hours following the roads and mountain ranges of the Zubrow photos, I was drawn mostly to the clocks and counters. I tried to decipher the numbers jotted alongside the counter and across the face of the clock. I got lost in making a chart and reorganizing images by time and by number (the photos are not dated, only time-stamped, and the collection is arranged alphabetically by pueblo name). I found myself wondering what images filled the gaps, and where the planes traveled when they weren’t photographing the American Southwest.


Check out the whole thing at the links above. The post and the research that went into it were part of Josh Bell’s Visual Anthropology course, which I took last year and which included a couple of visits to the NAA. Big thanks to Josh and to Caitlyn Haynes and Gina Rappaport of the NAA for their help.