Disrupt J20: Solidarity Six Months Later

Six months ago today, a diverse collection of autonomous direct actions occurred in downtown Washington, DC, disrupting the Inauguration. Despite he fact that January 20th signified the arrival of the Trump presidency, the massive turnout across the city and country made it a beautiful day of collective struggle against hate, white supremacy, misogyny, and xenophobia. From across the country, leftists of all stripes came together to resist Donald Trump’s presidency in defense of women’s rights, indigenous sovereignty, black lives, peace, bodily autonomy, trans/queer lives, the climate, health care, reproductive rights, labor rights, and other causes. Thousands of people came to DC from near and far. There were dance parties and blockades and marches all day. We set the tone for resistance from day one.

While I was holding the line at 10th and E with a growing crew of radical feminists, I also got news that riot police had kettled the anti-capitalist antifascist march just a few blocks north of us. Several friends had been up there, and I had planned to join them if our blockade at the gate had been dispersed. Busy with our own aggressive cops and Trump supporters, I didn’t see video of cops indiscriminately pepper spraying crowds – including the elderly, disabled, and children – and using less lethal crowd control on penned protesters until I got home. It wasn’t until the next day that I heard that they had been denied food, water, or access to a bathroom for hours. It wasn’t until months later that news came out that several were stripped down and subjected to invasive searches, and have since sued MPD for using “rape as punishment.”

The two hundred individuals caught up in the kettle that day now face about 70 years in prison for protesting. There is little evidence of individual wrongdoing; and some lawyers have argued that the case has “fatal defects” since many are simply charged for associating with those who destroyed property. The case is a prime example of the type of unconstitutional mass arrests that MPD used to be known for, but have since abandoned thanks for community organizing, legal support, and expensive settlements – that is, until J20. In both their use of pepper spray, stingball grenades, allegedly tear gas and flashbangs too, and in their decision to mass arrest a city block of protesters – and anyone else who happened to be in the area – MPD violated its own policies and broke the last decade of crowd control precedent in the District. DC’s Office of Police Complaints issued a report  [pdf] in February citing concerns that MPD may have violated Standard Operating Procedure, and the City Council already appropriated funds to investigate MPD misconduct and abuses that will cost the city more than all damages from the protest itself, not to mention pending civil cases that could cost the city millions like past police misconduct settlements. Despite all of this, interim police chief Peter Newsham, who oversaw crowd control that day and has been implicated in the illegal kettling of proteters in 2002 at Pershing Park, was approved as police chief by DC City Council a few months later over the wishes of many in the DC community.

Beyond the police repression that day, the prosecutorial strategy has also been one that seeks to punish people for engaging in protest. Superseding indictments brought the total list of charges for most defendants to eight felonies including rioting, incitement, and conspiracy charges. These charges effectively argue that people can be held responsible for the actions of those around them, positing guilt by association just for being there. “Evidence” listed include the fact that people wore black clothing, covered their faces, chanted, and marched. Even journalists and legal observers have been charged (some, but not all, had their charges dropped). Such actions aren’t illegal, but the prosecution is trying to leverage them as evidence anyways, arguing that there exists a form of criminal protest rather than specific illegal acts. This is not new: Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock protesters have faced state repression, and the J20 case is just the most recent. There will be more: lawmakers in numerous states have proposed laws ratcheting up the punishment for nonviolent direct action, specifically targeting forms of protest that seek to disrupt the norm.

In the face of all of this, those involved in J20, and a growing network of support, are working to show the true meaning of solidarity. In conversations leading up to the day of action, organizers promised to provide legal support for those who got arrested. When the scale of arrests and felony charges became apparent, this legal support structure didn’t back down, it was amped up. Solidarity and mutual aid are at the core of what makes direct action possible, and in DC teams of people are attending status hearings at the courthouse, paying for transport and providing housing options for those who have to make multiple trips to DC. While the state tries to isolate individuals and intimidate them with decades in prison, people have got each other’s backs. You should have their backs too.

Ways that you can help:

  • Donate to the DC Legal Posse to help provide legal support and defray costs
  • Donate to local legal support funds
  • Keep the pressure on MPD by calling for investigations into police misconduct and abuse
  • If you’re in DC, provide housing for defendants or show up for court support
  • Support anti-fascist work in your community
  • Spread the word that protesting isn’t illegal, mass arrests are

Things that you should read, watch, or listen to:

Why Protest Pride?

Activism is nothing if it isn’t intersectional. If feminism is principally about challenging oppression, resisting patriarchy, and ending inequality, then what is the point of a feminism that is exclusionary? Why struggle for gender equity if it only applies to the wealthy? What is class consciousness that isn’t aware of race and gender and other differences? Why fight for gay rights if you’re going to abandon trans allies? How can you see liberation realized if you don’t stand up for queer rights? A truly intersectional politics should be about ending all forms of oppression and inequality, which means centering those most marginalized.

I’m not in DC right now. I’m on a plane. But today a group of radical queer activists and their allies – a group that I’m a part of – is protesting the Capital Pride parade, demanding that DC’s Pride celebration – ostensibly in commemoration of Stonewall – remember that queer and transgender people were at the center of that riot in 1969 and should not be left behind.

There is a long history of queer people protesting Pride, most recently in my hometown when the group Trans Queer Pueblo interrupted the Phoenix Pride Parade, wedging themselves between the police contingent of the parade and the sheriff, demanding that Pride not include police that racially profile and facilitate deportations and that it reject funding from Bank of America, which is invested in private immigration detention centers that hold LGBTQ immigrants (video of that protest here).

 The event that Pride commemorates was the Stonewall Riot, a riot of queer, trans, and gay people, led in part by trans women of color, against a police raid on a gay bar and homophobic and transphobic state violence in general. That doesn’t necessarily mean Pride has to be a riot, and celebration is certainly a form of protest, but this history does mean that those celebrating the movement that started at Stonewall should not leave queer and trans folks behind, and it should be a reminder that state violence is not a friend of the LGBTQ movement. A truly intersectional gay rights movement is not only inclusive of queer and trans communities, but also acknowledges that some LGBTQ people are also people of color, immigrants, indigenous, disabled, or members of other communities (If you watch the video from Phoenix, at one point a parade-goer shouts “this is not your day,” as if undocumented immigrants can’t be gay.) If it’s not intersectional, it’s not real liberation.

It’s clear that Capital Pride needs the reminder.

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Today, No Justice No Pride will be holding Capital Pride accountable for disregarding the concerns of queer and trans people in DC. There will be a rally at 3 at McPherson Square to celebrate the LGBTQ community’s radical roots. There will be an alternative Pride march which is family-friendly and just as celebratory as Pride but without all the egregious problems I list below. People will also be protesting at Pride itself. Tonight there will also be a QT Night of Healing and Resistance centering queer and trans experiences and promoting the work of organizations and artists in the community instead of corporations and celebrities that aren’t local or LGBTQ. These alternative events are rooted in DC’s queer communities and are committed to the radical foundations of the LGBTQ movement.

No Justice No Pride already pointed out that an executive producer of Capital Pride, Bryan Pruitt, had penned a transphobic column in 2016 that said activism centered on trans access to public facilities such as restrooms was based on a lie, arguing that “there is not an epidemic of trans people being denied access to public facilities” because “if they are truly trans, other folks don’t even notice.” Pruitt was fired after No Justice No Pride brought this to light.

That is a step in the right direction. But Capital Pride offers only small concessions and has refused No Justice No Pride’s broader critiques of how the parade is run. While Pride should center the diverse gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and queer communities that are a part of this movement and this city, the event seems more focused on giving platforms to sponsoring corporations, many of which benefit from the status quo and even contribute to the oppression of queer and trans people rather than work towards a more equal future. Here are just some of the reasons that Capital Pride is not something to be proud of.

The Metropolitan Police Department is included in the parade despite the fact that policing as an institution has always preyed on the LGBTQ community. The modern gay rights movement began after a police raid at Stonewall, and policing of queer spaces, trans bodies, and gay rights in general continues across this country. MPD in particular has been accused of disproportionately targeting and harassing trans women [pdf] through its implementation of “Prostitution Free Zones” in the past (the zones were repealed in 2014) and a 2015 report noted that the violence that the trans community in DC suffers includes “inhumane treatment of trans persons by members of the police” (49).

That same 2015 report, from the DC Trans Coalition, notes that “certain segments of the trans community are not only at a much higher risk of violence but are also at a significantly higher risk of violence at the hands of police and other agents of the state” and that “over a third of respondents who had interacted with the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) as a trans person reported experiencing disrespect” (76). Crucially, “among all respondents, and not exclusively those who had interacted with MPD as a trans person, the majority (56%) reported not feeling comfortable approaching the police” (76). A review of MPD’s Hate Crimes Assessment Task Force found that, with the exception of the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, “most transgender people do not trust the police” and that “the reported treatment of transgender people by MPD officers is a matter of serious concern” (4). These same police will be participating in Capital Pride, meaning that Capital Pride is not welcoming to the trans community. Capital Pride would rather help pinkwash the police than listen to trans concerns.

But, while it is not a safe or welcoming place for people who are trans, Capital Pride is very welcoming to corporations. Pride in many cities has become less about celebrating the progress of gay rights and more about celebrating capitalism. This led one writer in The Advocate to denounce that “the only audacity in modern pride now is its naked devotion to the almighty dollar. No better examples of this is Washington, D.C.’s Pride celebration and parade, Capital Pride.”

Several corporate sponsors of Capital Pride include banks such as Wells Fargo, which is not only well-known for a history of redlining, illegal foreclosures, and preying on poor communities, but is also a direct investor in private prisons. The criminalization of trans people is an ongoing problem that has resulted in the mass incarceration of the trans community, especially trans people of color. The National Center for Trans Equality reported [pdf] in 2015 that 1 in 6 transgender people have spent at least some time in jail, including nearly half of all black trans people. If LGBTQ liberation means a world without police and prisons, then Pride should model that vision, not promote those who invest in and benefit from oppression. Wells Fargo is also an investor in the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatens the land, livelihood, and sovereignty of indigenous communities, including people who identify as LGBTQ or two-spirit.

As one critic of the corporatization of Pride argued in 2015, “As queers become ever more accepted into mainstream society, we should use our newfound political and economic clout to demand equity for the least privileged among us, not abandon those still marginalized in our quest for a bigger, badder party. If Bank of America wants a Capital Pride sponsorship slot, let it fund a shelter for homeless trans youth first.” As one No Justice No Pride organizer put it, queer and trans people should be able to attend and participate in their local pride march “without funding our own oppression.”

In 2012 and 2013, protesters interrupted the Wells Fargo float in Capital Pride for these exact reasons, cutting off the float in the middle of the parade and dancing in front of it. Last year GetEQUAL submitted a petition demanding that Capital Pride drop Wells Fargo to “get prisons out of pride.” These critiques are not new, but nothing has changed. When Capital Pride says that No Justice No Pride’s critiques are being received too late to make changes this year, this dismisses years of organizing in the DC community that have been saying the same thing over and over again.

Defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Gruman are also sponsoring Capital Pride, despite the fact that they have proudly done business with countries where homosexuality is punishable by death, such as Saudi Arabia, for decades. Some of the money they give to Capital Pride comes from these governments, states that kill people for being gay or gender-non-conforming. On top of all of this, the pinkwashing of military contractors tries to convince us that bombs made by a gay-friendly corporation are okay, when we should be fighting to end all wars.

Another prominent sponsor of Capital Pride is Maryland Live! Casino, owned by real estate developer The Cordish Companies and the vision of Reed Cordish, who is now an adviser to the Trump White House. Trump is, of course, no friend to the LGBTQ community, having recently rescinded federal protections for trans students through the Departments of Education and Justice. Just as people boycotted Uber over its CEO’s involvement in Trump’s transition team, people should not shy away from telling Cordish that cozying up with an administration that hurts trans people comes at a cost.

In response to requests from No Justice No Pride that such toxic sponsors be replaced with local, community-centered groups working directly with the LGBTQ community, Capital Pride has said that it would not be able to function without big money corporate sponsors. But saying that Pride would not be possible without the money of banks and corporations assumes a particular type of Pride – one that is not rooted in the community. Pride can be a protest and a celebration of the LGBTQ community without being sanitized and corporate. All you need is the community.

Capital Pride has also justified its refusal to change by insisting that it is an apolitical event, ignoring the history of the LGBTQ movement’s politics. But this assumes that striving for an “apolitical” parade isn’t itself a political decision. It assumes that shunning queer and trans voices is not political; it assumes that giving platforms to corporations and police is not political. But every decision involves taking sides. The problem is not whether Capital Pride is or isn’t political – the problem is its bad politics.

The truth is, Pride would not be possible without the radical gay, queer, and trans activists who have built the LGBTQ movement into what it is over decades of intersectional work that was often explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-police. The truth is, Pride is and has always been political, and should be committed to ending oppression. Today, protesters are calling for a truly revolutionary Pride and a return to the LGBTQ movement’s radical roots. Today, protesters are trying to imagine a more equal, safe, and just Pride for this city. The theme for this year’s parade is “Unapologetically Proud.” No Justice No Pride is unapologetically siding with the marginalized. It is unapologetically political and unapologetically radical.

Activism Forum at Anthropology News

In continuing my trend of working on anything but what I should be working on, I have a small update for you all. You might remember that I participated in a dialogue at American University in the fall discussing the role of anthropology in activism and activism in anthropology. I’m very pleased to announce that, in the intervening months, that dialogue has turned into a very nice little edited collection over at Anthropology News. The facilitators of the dialogue edited the collection and it just went up about a week ago.

My own article, titled “Writing and Research in a Conflict Zone,” touches on the ways that anthropologists might find themselves using similar tools as activists (gathering data, telling stories, etc.) either in the same, parallel, or opposing ways. I then give some short reflections based on my own interactions with, along side, and against popular non-profits working on ending the LRA conflict. Here’s a brief snippet:

The conflict between the LRA and the Ugandan government was the focus of numerous academic monographs and NGO reports for 20 years before I heard about it. Little of this coverage mattered when the film Invisible Children: Rough Cut toured the United States with the tagline “discover the unseen.” While anthropologists, political scientists, humanitarians, and northern Ugandans were certainly aware of the conflict with the LRA, the film’s primary audience of upper-middle-class millennials was not. And so the film and the grassroots activist movement it sparked caught fire over the course of the 2000s, culminating in the Kony 2012 campaign.

The idea that raising awareness about an issue will lead to it being addressed is a common narrative in social and political activism. From the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to Kony 2012, awareness (and fundraising) is central to activism, especially in the digital age. And a crucial part of raising awareness through activism is storytelling: activists must tell a digestible and actionable narrative that tugs at the proper emotions to galvanize a response. For Invisible Children videos, the formula was one that shed light on the effects of the conflict on Ugandan children, with a request for funds to address these negative impacts (building schools) and a call to take action (lobby the government). This strategy isn’t unique. The Save Darfur Coalition created a similar narrative (Hamilton 2011) and the campaign against “conflict minerals” in your cell phone does similar work (Seay 2015).

Storytelling has, of course, long been the domain of anthropologists. We are trained (or at least learn by doing) to write stories about people and places, shedding light on the lived experiences of others. While sometimes criticized as neither digestible nor actionable, ethnographies broadly do work that is similar to many activist and advocacy narratives. Anthropologists interested in either doing activism or speaking to activists must navigate the different publics and different modes of storytelling involved in such acts. The type of activism I saw emerging around the LRA conflict is part of how I came to find myself an anthropologist trying to write within and between these spaces.

The article centers on how we write about what we write, and for whom. Part of this emerges from the long debates around non-profit messaging about Africa, and part of this comes from a longer academic reflection on how we write about violence. It is also another example of me navigating through how to write about my own progression from one place to another in regards to the conflict that I study. Have a look, I hope you get something out of it.

But more importantly, you should read the other pieces in the collection. The introduction by Haley Bryant and Emily Cain sketches out what the dialogue was all about, and the important questions highlighted by the conversation. Each of the individual pieces resonates with something either implicit or explicit to my article, and the different parts of the collection speak to each other in interesting ways. Chloe Ahmann’s piece looks at the politics, ethics, and methodology of being (in)visible when studying activists in Baltimore. Hugh Gusterson discusses the different audiences an anthropologist has, and the responsibilities one might feel toward particular groups and not others in the course of research. Emma Louise Backe looks at the importance of care and self-care involved in ethnography through her experience studying a rape crisis hotline. Each of these pieces is well worth reading, and I learned a lot from speaking with everyone involved (including Shweta Krishnan, who was a part of our PAC panel but did not write a piece for AN) both during the dialogue and in the writing process after. A big thank you to everyone involved in the event and the publication.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing recently, and a lot of activism. These sometimes overlap, but don’t always. I strongly believe that scholarship can and should be a form of activism, but it is certainly not the only one. This collection is just one small part of an ongoing conversation and reflection about what anthropology and activism can offer each other, where they converge and diverge, and how to use both to imagine and enact a better world.

Society Must Be Defended #readin

When I saw Paige West and J.C. Salyer’s call to mark January 20th with a read-in of lecture eleven of Michel Foucault’s Society Must Be Defended, I was excited to re-read the lecture in light of the right-wing ascendancy in U.S. politics. As West and Salyer note, this lecture in particular is a useful text now because “it demands we simultaneously consider the interplay of sovereign power, discipline, biopolitics, and concepts of security, and race.” I did my reading a little bit early, because I knew that I’d be busy on Friday, as a series of direct actions were being planned to disrupt the inaugural proceedings (and we were largely successful). This post is partially about Foucault and the read-in, and partially an initial foray into thinking through Friday’s events. More to come, I’m sure.

Foucault’s lecture is critical because of its close attention to biopolitics and sovereignty, something crucial to a number of the issues represented at the direct actions on Friday. As West and Salyer noted, this is a time when “the reaction to activism against persistent racism has been to more overtly perpetuate racism as political discourse, [and] we need to remember and re-think the role of racism as central to, rather than incidental to, the political and economic activities of the state.” Same with sexism, same with xenophobia, same with homophobia, same with Islamophobia. Many of these ideologies are part of the American state in general, of course, but they are all crucial and central building blocks of the current administration’s claim to power. Losing the popular vote by millions, Trump has no real mandate to govern. The only mandate he can lay claim to is a voting bloc built around white supremacists, misogynists, and nativists.

“Sexuality,” Foucault states, “exists at the point where body and population meet. And so it is a matter for discipline, but also a matter for regularization” (251-252). The rise of biopolitics and biopower brought about a new set of technologies that measured and quantified the population that needed to be regulated, in addition to marking the body that needed to be disciplined. Efforts to measure, maintain, and control reproduction and fertility were at the center of this in the late eighteenth century, and continue today as the struggle over the bodily autonomy of women is unfinished.

An important point that Foucault highlights, though, is how “the emergence of this biopower… inscribes [race] in the mechanism of the State. It is at this moment that racism is inscribed as the basic mechanism of power, as it is exercised in modern States” (254). This has roots in settler colonialism and the slave trade, and racism continues to be tied to the state now. The racial logic of biopower leads the state to wage war not against a political enemy but against a racial Other. “From this point on, war is about two things: it is not simply a matter of destroying a political adversary, but of destroying the enemy race, of destroying that [sort] of biological threat that those people over there represent to our race” (257), i.e. for white supremacists, not a war on terrorist organizations in specific locales but a war against Muslims everywhere, not an effort to reform immigration policies but a war to prevent particular races from entering this country, not a war on crime but a criminalizing of black life.

Reading this lecture before #j20, it became readily apparent that the commonalities between the various groups offended, affected, targeted, and attacked by Trump and his supporters lie in the biopolitical. In the first days of Trump’s administration, it is clear just how right those fears are. He has appointed white supremacists to senior government posts, including Customs and Border Protection. He has signed an executive order restricting abortion access that has serious impacts for women’s reproductive rights and health globally, and which promises to actually increase the number of unsafe abortions, in an effort to exert control over women’s bodies. He approved both the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines (which he has stock in), while simultaneously instituting a blackout at the EPA and other agencies. His senior appointments promise to destroy our planet, eviscerate labor, and punish the press for holding his government accountable.

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These four people were at the center of a blockade of one of the entrances to the Trump inaugural parade. The Future is Feminist blockade lasted six and a half hours and was just one of over a dozen actions on Friday, January 20th.

On the day of his inauguration, we saw a coalition of activists stand in the way of Trump’s rule. Every single issue-based group involved had good reason to resist a Trump presidency. Women’s rights, black rights, indigenous rights, Muslim rights, and labor rights have been under attack from before the beginning. Climate, anti-war, and anti-police activists have been under attack as well. Certain forms of protest are being made illegal, meaning mobilization against the government will become more difficult. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about Friday, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say as we move into (and push against) this new government. But for now, the key takeaway is that all of these groups and more came together Friday to ensure that there is no smooth transition to an authoritarian regime, to show a refusal to acquiesce, to be ungovernable, to defend society with their bodies and their voices.

Transnational Advocacy and the Single Story Problem

In 2013, a group of students at the Fletcher School at Tufts organized a research seminar on the topic of Western advocacy campaigns and their shortcomings. Several short pieces were posted online (here’s an overview of the seminar [also as a pdf]), which I followed from afar, and I was happy to hear that the organizers decided to turn it into an edited volume. When I was asked to review it, I excitedly agreed:

Transnational advocacy is an increasingly apparent part of activism in a world that is more and more interconnected. As Twitter and other social media sites allow people to forge relations with like-minded individuals, many have chosen to stand with or for others in their activism. Some of this has taken the form of solidarity movements like BDS while others can more easily be categorized as part of the “white savior industrial complex,” like Save Darfur.

While the book covers much more, the problems of Western advocacy campaigns are at the heart of Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism, a new collection of articles edited by Alex de Waal with Jennifer Ambrose, Casey Hogle, Trisha Taneja, and Keren Yohannes. In an age when there are more and more edited volumes that fail to achieve much, this is one example that is more than the sum of its parts. The chapters in Advocacy in Conflict strike at the heart of what activism looks like and does, and what it ought to do.

Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism, edited by Alex de Waal

One crucial theme throughout the book is the role of single narratives. While we’ve all seen Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk on the dangers of a single story by now, not everyone was aware of this danger when planning advocacy campaigns for causes around the world. Mareike Schomerus shows this in her chapter on the most (in)famous attempt to craft a single narrative: Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video and campaign. The dangers of a narrowed narrative are also present in Burma, where Maung Zarni points out the limitations of a narrative centered on an individual such as Aung San Suu Kyi rather than Burma as a nation, which has left the country with a facade of democratization; it is present in the D.R. Congo, where Laura Seay explores the unintended consequences of Enough’s conflict minerals narrative, including a de facto boycott of (and loss of livelihood for) legitimate Congolese miners; it is in South Sudan, where U.S. support of the SPLA helped create a new country out of Sudan, but also bolstered a corrupt and murderous structure that led to the ongoing civil war in South Sudan; and in disability rights, where Tsitsi Chataika et al. show that the complexities of identity and representation get molded into a narrowed discourse as Western donors get involved, a discourse which carries out its own oppression.

The pitfalls of a single narrative are just one thing that the book questions in its attempt to “reclaim international advocacy movements to make them more self-reflective and accountable to the people and the evolving situations they represent” (1). Other key questions that the organizers of the volume set out to answer include critiques of the legitimacy of advocacy on behalf of others, the question of inclusiveness, how to bring academic knowledge and public activism together, and the hierarchies of local and global contexts. The book does not necessarily offer explicit answers to each of these topics, but throughout the pages one can find explorations and ruminations that get us closer to building a better form of activism that is aware of its vulnerabilities and the importance of a more robust activism rooted in solidarity.

The book as a whole does a good job of turning success stories on their head. De Waal’s chapter on South Sudan shows that the success story of South Sudanese independence is anything but, and in so doing he renders the current civil war not a sudden crisis but a long-expected emergence rooted in the SPLA’s history as “a regressive resistance army masquerading as a liberation movement” (165). Citing Rebecca Hamilton’s brilliant reporting on South Sudan’s leading supporters in the U.S., de Waal also shows how these activists provided pressure that made U.S. policy inflexible, something I remember seeing in my own brief encounters with Save Darfur activists. This critique of past policies and advocacy helps place the current conflict in a new context, which can guide activists working to end this most recent crisis.

Critiquing movements that are commonly seen as success stories is more than just a buzzkill exercise. By doing this over and over, the book as a whole attempts to forge a new way forwards. Roddy Brett’s chapter on Guatemala shows that international efforts helped open space for indigenous activists to demand rights and gain a voice, but simultaneously made the realization of those rights impossible. Schomerus’ chapter on Invisible Children emphasizes that even radio programs that seek to inform people about LRA activities can inadvertently feed fear of rebels and empower armed militias that should otherwise be disbanded. Research like this, and others in the volume, show us what to be wary of as we engage in activism regardless of where and for what cause.

It’s crucial to ensure that global activism links all parties, giving local voices a global audience and ensuring the buy-in of those directly affected. Otherwise, we wind up with what de Waal refers to as policy that “can be progressive at home and regressive abroad” (19). Whether it’s central Africa, Burma, Guatemala, or Gaza, transnational activism is susceptible to being co-opted by those in power, and the best way to resist this is to ground our activism with those involved. It is harder for Uganda to entrench its militarization of the region if more Ugandan voices are included in advocacy decision-making. Congolese miners are more likely to stay employed and maybe even benefit if efforts to crack down on rebel supply chains were instead diverted to more fundamental concerns like security, justice, and governance at the heart of rebellion. The lesson in each of the cases featured in the book point to similar takeaways: be inclusive of those involved, be aware of the effects of involvement, and engage with complexity in order to address underlying causes.

The book itself is laid out in four parts – a one-chapter history of activism, followed by three case studies of Western advocacy movements linking with local campaigns (in Burma, Guatemala, and Gaza), then three case studies where Western activism diverged sharply from events on the ground (Congo, the LRA, and South Sudan), and three cases of issues-based activism (disability rights, the arms trade, and land grabs). All four sections offer different perspectives on a common problem: how to do advocacy across societies.

De Waal’s historical chapter is a useful look at how transnational advocacy has changed from decolonization through the human rights regime to today (though whether “today” is defined by post-Cold War, post-9/11, neoliberal, etc. is up for debate). The next section is useful for seeing how movements can merge – but the key is to see how this occurs. Sometimes foreign activists can integrate their message with local campaigns, but other times grassroots work gets derailed by intervention. The third section is most relevant to me, perhaps because it’s on Western advocacy in armed conflict in central Africa, but also because it demonstrates how outside activists can advocate for a cause regardless of what those affected actually feel about it. This power relation is an issue that is fundamental to any activist to be aware of, be it mansplaining, the white savior industrial complex, or some other form of the superiority-via-helping tendency. The last section, on issues-based activism, was to me the least interesting (chalk it up to subjects I’m less familiar with, or a different argument structure), and yet there are still key lessons to pull from disability rights activism being co-opted by big international NGOs, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines’ rapid success which actually heralded its failure, and the ability of actors with very different understandings of land rights to come together to resist it despite their differences.

Regardless of where you’re coming from (academic, development, activists or otherwise), this is a book worth reading. Taken individually, each chapter offers different perspectives and lessons on the particular topic at hand. Taken as a whole, the book coalesces around key concepts and lessons that every activist (and scholar of activism) should commit to her agenda.

In their conclusion to the book, Hogle et al. find four common goals in order to help “reclaim activism.” These are 1) empower local actors, 2) recognize complexity, 3) be inclusive of a range of those concerned, 4) reject single narratives. This call to action, and the volume as a whole, is a salvo in an ongoing debate over how to carry out activism, and it’s packed with important evidence and relevant cases for all aspects of transnational activism.

Book Review – Africa Uprising

In the capital of Uganda, the police can go places where the public cannot – even when that place is a public square or park. When I tried to walk through Constitution Square in 2013, police vehicles and armed officers blocked the entrance to the only public park in downtown Kampala. One police officer told me that the park was closed.  Over his shoulder, I could see a couple dozen officers from the nearby police station lounging on the grass. The public park named Constitution Square was cordoned off to the public, unconstitutionally.

When an Associated Press reporter asked a police commander about the closure of Constitution Square, the commander responded by posing his own question: “Why should they go there as a group in the first place? The place must be controlled.” It was unclear whether “they” meant protesters, or the broader public. Distinctions such as that did not seem to matter much.

The control the police commander sought was a response to a short-lived popular uprising that rocked Kampala in 2011, one in which the people took to the streets and walked to work in protest against a hail of rubber bullets, tear gas, and dyed water cannons, but even two years later the security presence persisted. As far as I know, it continues to persist today.

The police repression has not let up since. In the weeks prior to my stroll past the square in 2013, police had seized the files of the leading independent newspaper in response to an investigative piece critical of the government and then suppressed the ensuing protests. During my visit to the country, they tear-gassed a crowded market because an opposition politician waved at people from his car. A couple of months later, the Ugandan Parliament passed a law severely restricting public assembly, curtailing the right to protest.

The popular uprising of Walk to Work, however short-lived, had been stifled. More recent protests in Uganda have been of a different nature. Many have a more narrow focus, such as protests against socially conservative legislation such as anti-LGBT laws or the so-called miniskirt ban. Others have continued to criticize the regime, but lack the popular mobilization and have resorted to spectacle instead: last year two students smuggled yellow-painted pigs into parliament to criticize corruption and youth unemployment. Protest lives on, but it has reshaped and retooled itself.

2011’s popular protest, which brought people together in Uganda regardless of ethnicity, class, or geography, uniting them against the state, was just one in a string of protests that have shaken the African continent. The ongoing protests against Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza’s attempt to run for an unconstitutional third term are another. There, too, after a failed coup attempt and the resumption of demonstrations, state repression reached new and higher levels.

In the past decade, demonstrations in Africa have challenged the status quo countless times, though these moments of mass political action seldom make Western headlines. From the popular revolutions that ousted Tunisia and Egypt’s autocrats to the more narrow-focused wildcat strikes at Marikana in South Africa, from the Red Wednesday protests in Benin in West Africa to anti-corruption demonstrations in Kenya in the east, people are taking to the streets seeking change. Amidst this ongoing wave of political upheaval, popular protest is the subject of Africa Uprising, a new book by Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly. (I helped organize a panel discussing this book with the authors two years ago).

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Straight to Court: The Case for Private Prosecutions

If there is one issue that has marked American society in the last year, it has been a lack of accountability for violence against people of color – especially by law enforcement. Men like Michael Brown, John Crawford III, and Eric Garner all died at the hands of police officers who were never even indicted, let alone tried and found guilty in a court of law. The rampant impunity that negligent police officers enjoy has been the rallying point for many protests and demonstrations since last summer.

The process from investigation to indictment to trial is usually not one that favors the alleged perpetrator, but mounting evidence shows that the system protects its own as multiple police officers escape accountability for actions both minor and egregious. In the United States, if anyone commits a crime, it is up to the state to hold them accountable – even if agents of the state are the ones who stand accused. This is part of a long tradition in which crimes are seen not only as crimes against a particular victim, but against the state and society itself. State prosecutors punish suspected criminals by defending the rule of law that binds our society together, not by merely seeking justice on behalf of victims.

This is one of the ideals on which our justice system rests, but in practice this turns out to be a legal version of “#AllLivesMatter” as the victim all but disappears in cases labeled “State v. Defendant,” leaving the quest for justice in the hands of a state attorney. These public prosecutors don’t always dole out justice evenly, however, and throughout history minority victims have faced huge obstacles in gaining any modicum of justice. Recently, in police killing after controversial police killing, news cameras have awaited announcements from county prosecutors and state attorneys who have decided not to file charges. More often than not, the state has failed to hold itself accountable.

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Black Lives Matter demonstrators in NYC last November.

This is not surprising. On top of the racial disparities of the Unites States criminal justice system, the fact is that prosecutors work alongside police departments on a regular basis, and as such we should not expect them to suddenly be willing to crack down on police violence. Prosecutors have tremendous power at the early stages of an investigation if they want an indictment, but recent history shows that this isn’t always the goal. St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCullough showed as much when he shepherded Darren Wilson’s case into non-existence and then reprimanded the media and demonstrators rather than make any attempt to discipline a police force responsible for preying on the residents of Ferguson.

Even in the rare instance that prosecutors do indict police officers, they face incredible obstacles and costs. When District Attorney Kari Brandenburg first began considering handing down indictments for two police officers for shooting and killing a homeless man in Albuquerque, police began investigating her for allegedly bribing witnesses related to an incident involving her son in an attempt to “destroy [her] career.” Later, when Brandenburg finally did issue the indictments, she immediately paid for it. The next day, when a prosecutor from her office went to investigate a different, unrelated murder, police denied her entry to the scene, citing a “conflict of interest.” Such blatant intimidation and brazen attempts to deny victims justice is only possible because police have so much power in American society and the U.S. criminal justice system.

In the face of such obstacles, we should expect most prosecutors to default to supporting police departments, regardless of the evidence or public opinion. Mass demonstrations, civil disobedience, petitions, speeches, and even a direct line to City Hall have failed to change the course of police impunity in New York as well as Ferguson. Very rarely are indictments handed down for police officers who kill people in the line of duty, and even more rarely are they found guilty.

In the absence of criminal indictments, the families of victims have tried to seek some semblance of justice in civil court.  Just in the last year, the relatives of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, John Crawford III, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, and many others have filed or considered filing civil suits or wrongful death claims against those responsible for their loved ones’ murders. However, while these lawsuits may win the families of victims some compensation for their loss, there is little done to actually hold their killers to account.

Protesters in Union Square this April.

Protesters in Union Square this April.

When civil suits are filed against police officers for excessive force or other forms of misconduct, the police officers themselves seldom pay. The penalty often doesn’t even come from the police department at all, but rather from the city’s municipal coffers. The Baltimore Sun released an investigative piece last September – spread widely in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s murder in Baltimore this spring – that found that over one hundred people have won court settlements against the city’s police department in the last four years alone (this represents only one third of the 317 lawsuits filed against Baltimore police in the same time period). The city spent $5.7 million in pay outs in addition to $5.8 million in legal costs defending officers.

Little to none of this money comes from the police officers in question, however. According to the Baltimore Sun investigation, “an agreement between the city and police union guarantees that taxpayers will pay court damages” in cases in which officers were following department guidelines on the use of force, and “in such settlements, the city and the officers involved do not acknowledge any wrongdoing.” There is some degree of restitution, but no accountability and no incentive for police officers to change their behavior. From the police officers’ standpoint, even when found guilty, nothing changes.

Most recently, the City of New York reached a $5.9 million settlement with the family of Eric Garner in order to avoid a civil lawsuit. However, this money won’t come from the police department, and as a result will not give any disincentive to the NYPD – even though the officer who killed Garner, Daniel Pantaleo, did so using a chokehold maneuver banned by the department. Pantaleo remains unindicted and at his desk job, and other officers are well aware that there is no punishment for breaking the rules and killing unarmed civilians.

In a study [pdf] of such lawsuits across the country, legal scholar Joanna C. Schwartz found that “between 2006 and 2011, in forty-four of the seventy largest law enforcement agencies across the country, officers paid just .02% of the dollars awarded to plaintiffs in police misconduct suits. In thirty-seven small and mid-sized law enforcement agencies, officers never contributed to settlements or judgments.” In a summary of her findings, Schwartz states that during this five year time span:

Governments paid approximately 99.98% of the dollars that plaintiffs recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement. Law enforcement officers in my study never satisfied a punitive damages award entered against them and almost never contributed anything to settlements or judgments— even when indemnification was prohibited by law or policy, and even when officers were disciplined, terminated, or prosecuted for their conduct.

With such protections in place, filing civil suits against police officers only hurts the cities that employ them. While there is hope that such actions would encourage cities to discipline such officers and do more due diligence in police training, hiring, and other responsibilities, this isn’t always the case. In Baltimore, while some officers were forced to resign, many kept their jobs even after being found liable in court because the department’s internal investigation cleared them. Even the state judicial system was secondary to the police departments’ own institutions – this reinforces the idea that police are above the law in nearly every possible way.

If public prosecutors won’t indict officers, and city governments shield them from the costs of civil suits, how can they be held accountable?

In the case of Tamir Rice, the twelve-year-old boy shot in Cleveland for carrying a toy gun in a park, there may be an answer.  In early June, more than six months after Rice was killed by Officer Tim Loehmann, the Cuyahoga County Sherrif’s Department concluded its investigation and handed over its findings to county prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty, who will present the findings to a grand jury to determine whether or not to proceed with indictments.

While everyone else is awaiting the grand jury’s decision, community leaders and activists in Cleveland have taken the initiative and asked a judge to issue an arrest warrant. By doing this, these community leaders are trying to circumvent the process that we have all seen unravel in the cases of other victims of police violence, from Staten Island to Ferguson. According to the New York Times, “Ohio law allows anyone with ‘knowledge of the facts’ to file a court affidavit and ask a judge to issue an arrest warrant. If approved, the arrest would be followed by a public hearing, and community members said that was preferable to allowing prosecutors to make the decision in secret.”

This attempt to secure a private prosecution rather than one through the state prosecutor’s offices may allow Rice’s family to have more control over the indictment, and may force Officer Loehmann to actually face accountability – or at least public scrutiny. If the tactic yields any success at all, it will be an important step towards attaining justice and give hope to those struggling to end police impunity.

* *

Such private prosecutions are incredibly rare in the United States, but they can be found in other parts of the world. In fact, private prosecutions have played a critical role in modern history as the foundations on which the emerging international justice movement has been built. In her book The Justice Cascade, political scientist Kathryn Sikkink points to human rights prosecutions in Greece, Portugal, and Argentina as beginning the shift towards individual accountability for serious state crimes like torture – a shift we continue to see today on the international stage.

In Greece, the first human rights prosecutions were held after the right-wing government was replaced in 1974. Just a month after the transition, Alexandros Lykourezos, a Greek lawyer who had returned from exile, initiated private prosecutions against military government leaders for treason for overthrowing the democratic government seven years prior. He was followed by others who filed charges against officials for torture and for the murder of students in the Athens Polytechnic uprising. According to Sikkink, “the private prosecutions both forced the government’s hand and relieved it of the burden of having to initiate prosecutions itself.” This brought about justice even in the face of government officials who did not want to focus on accountability for their predecessors.

Soon after, Argentina tried the leaders of the right-wing government that had tortured, murdered, and disappeared thousands of leftists and alleged communists in its Dirty War. Just two years after the junta stepped down in 1983, President Raúl Alfonsín’s government prosecuted several junta leaders. But it was everyday citizens and their use of private prosecutions that charged almost three hundred military officers for their actions during the authoritarian years.

When the expansion of accountability led to the attempted Easter Coup in 1987, Alfonsín issued amnesties for members of the junta to satisfy powerful criminals and prevent a return to the dark years of military rule. The strength of the military had forced the government to step back through its use of force and intimidation. Years later, however, the citizens of Argentina grew tired of impunity and once again used private prosecutions to find ways to hold torturers and murderers accountable.

Photos of those disappeared by the military junta commemorate the Dirty War in Argentina. (Photo by Pablo Flores, via Flickr)

Photos of those disappeared by the military junta commemorate the Dirty War in Argentina. (Photo by Pablo Flores, via Flickr)

Led by the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, an association of mothers and grandmothers whose children had been kidnapped and disappeared by the military junta, civilians began to push for true accountability in Argentina. In addition to torture and murder, there were many cases in which murdered communists lost their children, who were given away to military families to be raised away from “subversive” influence. The mothers’ association argued that the guilty military officials had never been charged with abducting children, and as a result had never been granted amnesty for such acts. After a decade of state-sanctioned impunity, the authoritarian leaders were back in the dock thanks not to the government’s prosecutors but to citizens determined to see justice carried out.

In these countries, as in Cleveland, private prosecutions served as a channel through which victims can seek not only compensation for their loss but true justice in the courtroom. As Sikkink states, “in a judicial system with strong private prosecution provisions, like that in Argentina, victims can insist that a prosecution continue, even when the state prosecutor would like it dropped.” In Cleveland, the Reverend Jawanza K. Colvin, a pastor and one of the community leaders bringing forth the charges, stated that “as citizens we are taking this matter and the matter of justice into our hands.” Walter Madison, a lawyer for Tamir Rice’s family, explained that “here we are taking some control of the process as citizens.” This is a democratic effort to do what democratically elected governments cannot – rein in police violence by ending impunity.

Just as private prosecutions helped victims find justice for torture and murder under right-wing authoritarian governments in southern Europe and South America, private prosecutions offer a new avenue to accountability for victims of police violence, among other prevalent crimes – especially for the more vulnerable in our society. While perhaps different than a state campaign of torture and murder, police violence in America is an issue with a long history and tragic consequences for America’s minorities. To many people of color, the difference between the two issues is probably not very big. For this reason, the actions of activists in Greece and Argentina are more than a sufficient parallel to efforts to hold police accountable for their actions. Private prosecutions are the link that ties them together.

* *

This method of bypassing the state is not new, but it is novel. As Noah Feldman explains, an Ohio state appellate court ruled that private prosecutions were legal in 1957, and in 1960 a state law was passed codifying the practice.

Feldman begins his analysis feeling uneasy about whether we should applaud such actions or not. “The law… would tend in the long run to give an advantage to families with greater means to greater political clout. They, after all, would have the resources to collect affidavits and go to court,” he says. “Tamir Rice’s family has that capacity because this case attracted national attention and the help of clergy and civil-rights leaders. But the families of other, less heralded victims might not be so fortunate.”

Feldman is right that our society is unequal, and that we shouldn’t expect a provision such as private prosecutions to be any different. As much as private prosecutions would give the victims of police violence, rape, and illegal foreclosures a chance to put cops, rapists, and bankers in jail, those in power would also have yet another tool which they could use to discipline the vulnerable. But we shouldn’t convince ourselves that they don’t already do this. The nation’s rich and powerful already have all the tools – one of which is the state – on their side. That’s why police impunity, rape culture, and unregulated capitalism are the norm and accountability for their perpetrators is the exception.

If we can bypass the state in these early stages, however, we could at least remove one part of the system that protects the powerful and ignores the downtrodden. Sure, those with the backing of executive boards and police unions would still have the best lawyers, but a public that was committed to accountability could rally behind victims of our society’s major ailments – inequality, racism, sexism. Private prosecutions could address issues of structural violence by indicting those responsible for carrying out direct violence and forcing the issue to be discussed in the open.

Despite this worry, Feldman closes his editorial by saying that “prosecutors’ offices are always going to be tempted to go easy on the police with whom they must work. Ohio’s law deserves to be copied – not just by a few jurisdictions, but by all.” Indeed, private prosecutions should be an option for the most underprivileged in our society to seek justice.

In the weeks and months that follow, Cuyahoga County’s justice system will be the next battleground for the struggle to hold police accountable. But whether County Prosecutor McGinty’s grand jury finds reason to indict officer Loehmann or not, the people have spoken, and they have asked a judge to issue indictments regardless. Just like in other countries plagued by state violence of one form or another in history, Cleveland now has a chance to move past impunity and towards real accountability.

Black Lives Matter, Direct Action, and the Sanders Campaign

The Left was rankled when Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted an event at Netroots Nation last month, putting Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders on the spot about racial inequality and police violence. The tension has continued since, with several protesters recently cutting a Sanders event short in Seattle. The actions have prompted a lot of anger and confusion from Sanders supporters that haven’t thrown their full support behind the movement for racial justice. The conversation is one worth having, but let’s try to avoid using this tone and maybe re-center the conversation on what black people in this country face, rather than the plight of liberal politicians. Instead, I’ll highlight what others have written about the issue, because they all put it more eloquently than I.

Speaking about radical left ontology, Nikhil Pal Singh addresses the potential – and necessary – roots of a truly anti-racist, radical leftism at Social Text:

In the US historical experience, black freedom struggles offer key insights into how radicalizing opposition to racial domination is a route to a universalist politics of human emancipation grounded in political economy. In the era before WWII, elite consensus viewed capitalist civilization as a racial and colonial project. Despite post-racial and post-colonial transition, it is not clear that capitalism suddenly stopped being what Cedric Robinson termed “racial capitalism.” From structural adjustment to subprime mortgages, the naturalization of the unequal worth of peoples has been retained as one of the surest ways to justify and profit from collectively enforced misery.

Activists shutting down a highway in New York City last November.

Activists shutting down a highway in New York City last November.

If Sanders is serious about pulling the Democratic Party to the left, it should require embracing anti-racism as the heart of the movement. As Malcolm Harris argues in his review of Mary Helen Washington’s The Other Blacklist, the conflict between an anti-racist political movement on one side and a liberal political campaign on the other is “between one theory of universal liberation and another, between a race-blind reformism and a shard from a shattered revolutionary tradition.”

One issue is that many liberals who aren’t on board with Black Lives Matter don’t understand this tactic. Even though a quick google search will define ‘direct action’ as “the use of strikes, demonstrations, or other public forms of protest rather than negotiation to achieve one’s demands,” many observers continue to believe that protesters should appeal to the Sanders campaign rather than interrupt it, that they should ask for a platform on racial justice rather than demand it. Never mind the fact that Black Lives Matter has, from the get-go, been about stopping the status quo and disrupting a system – and a society – that doesn’t bat an eye after ending black lives. That’s why highways, malls, and everything have been frequently shut down. That’s why campaign events are being shut down.

Activists marching through Penn Station last month, on the one year anniversary of Eric Garner's death.

Activists marching through Penn Station last month, on the one year anniversary of Eric Garner’s death.

Now, tactic and strategy are different, so it’s also worth addressing the strategy behind who gets interrupted. As Elie Mystal points out, this tried and true strategy of “[g]oing after your friends is effective when your enemies have already tuned you out and your friends have relegated your concerns to fringe issues inappropriate to talk about in front of independents. The Democratic party has pushed racial justice to the sidelines for a generation now. They nod and wink to the African-American community with the smug assurance of ‘what are you gonna do, vote for the Republican?'” The strategy has been used by the LGBT movement, the Tea Party, Occupy, etc. And, in light of the fact that Clinton’s events were notoriously controlled and closed to the public up until recently, it makes sense for activists to target Sanders. In fact, as Mystal points out, these actions have a really easy-to-follow logic:

White progressives are like, “Oh, but why don’t you go after Hillary Clinton instead of Bernie Sanders?” Fools. THIS IS HOW WE GO AFTER HILLARY CLINTON. The minute Sanders figures out that to defend himself he has to take the attack to Clinton on racial justice is the minute you’ll understand what is going on here. Bernie Sanders isn’t going to win. But he’s the only one who can pull Clinton to the left. If he wants to “be a friend” to the black people, then he needs to ACT like it.

And, Clinton aside, these actions have directly changed how the Sanders campaign conducts itself. Racial issues have been featured in messaging that used to be centered solely on economic inequality, and Sanders has begun to put together a platform on the issue (albeit still nascent), as Jamil Smith notes.

Smith is also smart to point out that problem is not so much Bernie Sanders himself as it is his supporters who quickly denounce activists for interrupting events, some even calling for activists to be arrested, apparently missing out on the whole year of left activism against police violence. As Malcolm Harris tweeted yesterday (pardon me while I paste them together):

People are taught to be really embarrassed and shamed and uncomfortable when someone disrupts a speaker. Seeing that language a lot. Public vulnerability in others is hella embarrassing. It’s scary when someone grabs a microphone, we’re all the sudden asked to pick sides. And the first instinct is to shame them for making this demand, for asking more of us than we expected. Easiest to boo and demand a return.

At the same time, Trump goes up there and talks about buying politicians in both parties. That system is obviously worth disrupting. At this point in the cycle it makes total sense to me to attack the electoral system’s ability to incorporate left dissent through the Dems.

I’ll give Jamil Smith the last word:

Sanders acolytes insist upon nominating their candidate first as an ally for black people. They act insulted that they are not trusted to recommend their candidate as the top advocate for black liberation in the presidential race. Yet, they and the campaign spend time devising tone-deaf chants (“We Stand Together”) to drown out any future protesters, as [campaign press secretary Symone] Sanders announced during a Sunday night event in Portland. I’m not against criticizing activist tactics, but the idea that #BlackLivesMatter protesters are hurting their cause by challenging candidates, even those considered allies, is based in the notion that the burden of making change is on them. It isn’t. Too many Sanders supporters appear to be caught up in their feelings when a protester rubs them the wrong way. They ask, why are the protesters so rude, or annoying, or targeting the “wrong guy”?

In response, I ask simply: Since when are protest tactics designed to make the people whom they are targeting feel more comfortable and less annoyed? And since when is Sanders, or Carson, or any candidate exempt from being pushed? Just since Friday, we’ve passed the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, having seen both another young man killed by a cop and more violence in Ferguson. Yet we still have black conservatives like Carson letting the world believe that black activists trying to fix this are the true racial problem, and some white liberals telling them to ask for help more politely.

Whose Violence Matters?

There is unrest in Baltimore, and police violence is the root of it. After Freddie Gray’s spine was inexplicably severed while in the back of a police van, protests in Baltimore – which began peacefully – have boiled over. As police deployed themselves out to Gray’s funeral and armed themselves in riot gear in the face of a student walk-out protest, things have escalated rapidly. You all know where I stand on this, and after dozens of dead black bodies and dozens of free police officers, I don’t know what else to say. Read these instead.

In September of last year the Baltimore Sun published “Undue Force,” the product of a long investigation into the Baltimore Police Department’s misuse of force and the consequent fallout as the city was forced to pay out millions of dollars and the relationship between residents and their city was further frayed. The investigation found that:

Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson.

Those cases detail a frightful human toll. Officers have battered dozens of residents who suffered broken bones — jaws, noses, arms, legs, ankles — head trauma, organ failure, and even death, coming during questionable arrests. Some residents were beaten while handcuffed; others were thrown to the pavement.

The department didn’t track the lawsuits leveled against officers – leading to one officer still having his job despite being the target of five different lawsuits. The list of violent abuse of power goes on and on. The Violent Crimes Impact Unit alone has been subject to numerous charges, in addition to such horrific anecdotes as “Three other members were charged in 2010 with kidnapping two city teens and leaving one in a Howard County state park without shoes, socks or his cellphone,” and “a detective threw Anthony Anderson, 46, to the ground during a drug arrest. Anderson’s spleen ruptured, and he died a short time later.” The article is filled with in-depth, personal accounts of victims of police violence. As Conor Friedersdorf said of the report, in an article that includes numerous other instances of BPD abuse: “There are so many good reasons for locals to be outraged.”

If that is who the BPD is, then what about Freddie Gray and the other people of color in his community? If we can hypothesize that the answer to “why did the police arrest and murder him?” is that they are part of a militarized force bent on abuse and built on state violence, then we can also guess as to why Freddie Gray ran from them in the first place. Because he had nothing to gain by staying put. People run from cops because they are scared of them.

In a Baltimore Sun editorial, Gray’s predicament in Baltimore is described as “all too typical in a neighborhood where generations of crushing poverty and the war on drugs combine to rob countless young people like him of meaningful opportunities.” The neighborhood that he lived in is emblematic of the type of circumstances many are finding themselves in. Even just compared to the rest of Baltimore, Freddie Gray’s neighborhood had twice the unemployment and poverty and higher levels of crime. The neighborhood is home to more inmates than any other part of the state, and 1 in 4 juveniles was arrested between 2005 and 2009. This level of mass incarceration and poverty has eviscerated the livelihoods of people like Gray. With no money and no jobs, facing police bent on abusing and arresting you and a system in which the odds are forever stacked against you, how should one respond when the police claim yet another youth?

And so they protested. And those protests achieved little. And there was property damage. And suddenly everyone came to denounce protesters for lashing out in rage. But, as said in a poignant post in defense of Baltimore protester’s actions:

As a nation, we fail to comprehend Black political strategy in much the same way we fail to recognize the value of Black life.

We see ghettos and crime and absent parents where we should see communities actively struggling against mental health crises and premeditated economic exploitation. And when we see police cars being smashed and corporate property being destroyed, we should see reasonable responses to generations of extreme state violence, and logical decisions about what kind of actions yield the desired political results.

And on the narrative of non-violence as the only acceptable form of protest belies the fact that the forces many face are far beyond “respectable” protest, and instead demand resistance against such forces:

When the free market, real estate, the elected government, the legal system have all shown you they are not going to protect you—in fact, that they are the sources of the greatest violence you face—then political action becomes about stopping the machine that is trying to kill you, even if only for a moment, getting the boot off your neck, even if it only allows you a second of air. This is exactly what blocking off streets, disrupting white consumerism, and destroying state property are designed to do.

And on the subject of property damage and looting, a reminder to read Ta-Nehisi Coates back when liberals decried looting in Ferguson. At that time, Coates noted that “property damage and looting have been the most effective tools of social progress for white people in America. They describe everything from enslavement to Jim Crow laws to lynching to red-lining. ‘Property damage and looting’—perhaps more than nonviolence—has also been a significant tool in black ‘social progress.'”

In the shadow of more property damage and looting in Baltimore, Coates doubled down against those who demand non-violence from protesters but make no such demand of an inherently violent state:

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.

Today the police deployed in riot gear to face off with demonstrators at Freddie Gray’s funeral and a student walk-out. And violence erupted as those who have been under the thumb of a broken system tried to fight back. In light of these actions, and looking back and past confrontations:

Tuesday update: As Baltimore continues to struggle and parts of the city smolder, it’s becoming more clear that – regardless of how long it lasts – there’s an uprising in Baltimore. Why?

Partially because of rampant inequality.

Partially because property is seen as more valuable than black bodies:

At the corner of Pratt and Light Street a few dozen people held up traffic and staged a spontaneous die-in, sprawling themselves on the asphalt in poses straight from crime-scene photos. There was a comparatively light police presence along the route, but dozens of officers in riot gear blocked the crowd from getting near the stadium, which seemed to confirm the protesters’ most damning suspicions. A man near the front shouted, “They only care about the Orioles!”

The scene seemed like a neat summation of much that animated the protests in Baltimore and beyond. In Ferguson, on the night that the grand-jury decision declining to charge the officer who shot Brown was released, police were deployed largely on the main commercial strips. In the triage logic of municipal governance, it makes perfect sense to protect valuable real estate and businesses. But to people already infuriated by the self-protecting reflexes of bureaucracy, this was an additional insult—not because businesses don’t warrant police protection but because they could scarcely imagine the police deeming their own communities as worthy of protecting that way.

Partially because capital has eaten away at Baltimore’s people:

But of the entire scene [in Baltimore yesterday], the most salient thing wasn’t the destruction wrought by protestors — the cop car demolished, the payday loan store smashed up — but by capital: the decrepit, boarded-up row houses, hovels, and vacants in a city full of them.

These are the streets in which Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has now declared a state of emergency, the same streets that would suffer fromhis austerity. They are the streets that have endured astronomic unemployment rates for decades, even as Democrats have run the city unrivaled. And they are the streets where police folded up Freddie Gray’s body “like origami,” then restrained him with leg irons in the back of a police van and delayed calling for an ambulance.

Partially because of desperation and resistance. Riots are a grasp for control under a state that leaves you impoverished and incarcerated:

If the sustained psychological terror of being reared in an economically disenfranchised neighborhood, babysat by a failing school, and abused by aggressive police didn’t leave you with the tools to effectively organize against state sanctioned terrorism in a way that society finds “respectable”—in other words, voting and being polite enough to say, “Please, suh, don’t kill us no mo’!”—then far be it from me to mourn the loss of Nike socks and Remy bundles and exaggerated reports of violence against police that leave out this week’s violence at the hands of police, and of White counter-protestors who attacked and berated people for the past three days on the city’s streets.

[…]

Continuing to perpetuate the myth of “act good, get treated that way” does nothing to protect us from the reality of police terror and mass incarceration, which work hand-in-hand. This is not a case for riots, but acknowledgment that they aren’t the work of thugs and ne’er-do-wells, but an SOS call. The question is, are we willing to listen? We should, because our people have finally changed their mind.

Partially its that they must be tired of non-violence’s failure to convince the state to back up.

The Right Kind of Victim

Earlier today a friend and colleague argued that, although police violence and race were important issues that deserved a public conversation a la Ferguson, Mike Brown wasn’t the “right” kind of person to be the locus of this conversation. This person cited some stuff about Darren Wilson’s innocence – stuff I disagreed with, but which is not what I want to talk about here. Instead, he referenced the case of Tamir Rice – the boy who was shot for carrying a toy gun literally the moment that police arrived on the scene, and was subsequently refused care by the officers and was later pronounced dead. There is video of the police misconduct. The victim clearly wasn’t charging the officers. This is where to organize protests.

Hours later, I saw news that Eric Garner’s murderer was also cleared by a grand jury. There is video of Officer Daniel Pantaleo putting Garner in an illegal chokehold. There is proof of police misconduct. The coroner ruled it a homicide. And the police officer won’t even stand trial.

Earlier today, I argued that – regardless of what one thought about Mike Brown’s death – the organizing and protests should continue. If you believe that police violence is a problem and black lives matter, you should be in the streets no matter what. Because the problem of police violence is a national crisis.

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When protesters tried to shut down New York City two weeks ago, it was as much about the injustice of the Ferguson grand jury as it was about the impending Staten Island one. It was also about Tamir Rice. And Akai Gurley. And numerous other men of color killed by police who are sworn to protect.

When we look for the right kind of victim, we will always be waiting. The anger at racist police violence has reached its breaking point, and there shouldn’t be any discussion about the right kind of victim. Victims are victims, and we need to organize now – before there are more.

When Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting on a bus, she galvanized a movement against segregated buses. But Claudette Colvin should have galvanized the same movement, but she wasn’t the “right kind of victim.”

When the bus driver told Rosa Parks that he would have to call the police if she didn’t get up, Parks replied, with extraordinary self-possession, “You may do that.” When the police arrived, she went without resistance. When the cops came for Claudette Colvin, she yelled at them that they were violating her rights, and refused to move. They dragged her from the bus. When they kicked her, she kicked them back.

Ever since I was first made aware of Colvin’s story and others like it, I’ve been adamant that these stories are worth remembering – these lives are worth remembering. We shouldn’t only rally around the perfect symbols of resistance and victims of injustice. We should rally around every victim of injustice. Every time there’s injustice.

Waiting for the right kind of victim means ignoring the actual victimization of black bodies across this country. Waiting for Tamir Rice means that Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Kimani Gray, Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, Oscar Grant, and other victims of police violence.

We shouldn’t wait any longer.

Protesters staged a die-in at Grand Central tonight immediately after the announcement of Eric Garner’s grand jury. There is a demonstration planned at Foley Square tomorrow afternoon. If you’re against police violence, find a demonstration near you – or start one.