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.

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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.

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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.

On Violence and Truth and Jon Holtzman’s Killing Your Neighbors

I recently read Jon D. Holtzman’s Killing Your Neighbors: Friendship and Violence in Northern Kenya and Beyond and found it really engaging, especially for my current and recent research projects. I added it to my reading list because I thought the title referenced the electoral violence in Kenya in 2007-2008 (I read it alongside other mass atrocity literature), but it’s actually about local (though perhaps just as violent) wars in northern Kenya and asks how community ties break down such that these wars are possible (and enduring). But it’s also about many other processes that are involved in violent conflict.

Holtzman’s ethnography is principally about the Samburu people, with whom he has done fieldwork in the past and has deep personal and scholarly ties, and in this book he studies the various incidents of violence between Samburu and their neighbors. By looking at wars, attacks, or massacres between the Samburu and nearby Pokot, Kikuyu, Somali, and Turkana groups, Holtzman also tries to map these incidents from “both sides” — attempting a sort of multi-sited (but never claiming “holistic”) approach to the study of violence. The central argument of the book is that there is a process through which neighbors are transformed from unkillable to killable people, and that “this transformation is a cultural and historical process rather than simply a material or political event” (4). Viewing violence as part of a cultural system, Holtzman spends much of the book analyzing how different groups and individuals talk about violence, situating such narratives and representations (including his own as the author) within the same contexts in which violence occurs. The ways people talk about, represent, interpret, and make sense of violence matter.

Most interesting, to me, is this last point, which runs throughout the ethnography. Looking at Samburu and Pokot narratives about the war between these two groups, for example, Holtzman admits ethnographic uncertainty (he doesn’t, and thus we can’t, ever know the “real” reason some of these incidents occurred, or what “really” happened) but also the uncertainty of war itself as combatants’ reasons for fighting don’t add up, or their timelines are off, or potential ulterior motives are revealed. In fact, in many of these incidents, his interlocutors agree on the basic facts of what happened, but they bring forth completely different interpretations of what these facts mean.

This is also seen in other examples: sometimes one group would read an incident through a particular historical lens while others did not: Samburu often saw violence with Kikuyu embedded in histories of Mau Mau killings of Samburu on settler farms, Samburu support for British counterinsurgency, and the subsequent marginalization of Samburu by the postcolonial government, while many Kikuyu interpreted the same current violence ahistorically to be about contemporary land issues, political inequities, and cultural “backwardness.” These incidents and divergences demonstrate the role of memory as a lens through which violence is understood. Meanwhile, Samburu saw a massacre committed by nearby Somalis as an unprovoked and major incident whereas many Somalis situated the event as part of a broader struggle against the British and then Kenyan governments. These different analyses demonstrate how interpretations of conflict occur at different scales – of time, space, population, etc. – depending on different subject positions and who you’re talking to (and, arguably, when and where and how).

One conceptual tool that emerges from these different narratives is that of “collective irresponsibility.” Holtzman inverts Evans-Pritchard’s notion of collective responsibility (a mode of solidarity) by noting that “one may assert that things done by members of our group do not reflect collective actions (although what is done by members of other ethnic groups can be subject to collective blame)” (62) and that “just as victims are prone to apply… ‘collective responsibility,’ perpetrators frequently adopt a stance of ‘collective irresponsibility’: the killers are people like us but not actually us” (100).

Collective (ir)responsibility is always situational, always a matter of who your audience is, always a matter of what the consequences or benefits of association might be. And in instances of violence — especially civil war or ethnic violence — these stakes can be rather high. If “violent acts not only do something but also say something” (165), then how people talk about or interpret violent acts is always in relation to whom that audience is. One thing I’ve been preoccupied with in my own research is how different groups – in different times and in different places – make sense of the same or similar acts of violence. This is something Holtzman reflects upon time and time again.

Given that I’ve been particularly interested in ways of writing about violence (and spent much of the spring thinking through the subject with some colleagues here at GW), I found Holtzman’s extended reflection on the ethnographic project to be useful and engaging. Take, for example, his conclusion to a chapter on different Samburu and Somali interpretations of what happened the day that a Samburu counterattack—a reprisal for the massacre of dozens of Samburu—resulted in the killing of a shiekh:

There is no resolution, nor perhaps should there be. At our best, anthropologists translate something meaningful about a world that we have grasped deeply, but subjectively and imperfectly, to an audience who will rarely fully grasp even that translation. There are no complete answers: there are incorrect versions and even offensive ones, but we, like our subjects, always see and portray worlds through gazes that are incomplete, if also in some senses true, though in stark contradiction to other “true” versions.

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I am not simply trying to present an array of voices to demonstrate that different people are always going to disagree, nor to present a multitude of disagreeing voices that I as the anthropologist can resolve with monolithic conclusions about “what really happened” and “what it means.” Rather, I am aiming to explore what ethnography looks like when we embrace multivocality as an intrinsic aspect of our subject matter, an intrinsic aspect of the worlds our informants inhabit and live through, and thus necessarily an aspect of how we interpret the data. This is different from rehearsing a postmodern cliché of multiple truths; rather, it explores how our subjects act in accordance with a knowledge that these multiple truths shape their worlds (even if they do not acknowledge all of them as “truths”).

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We [anthropologists] understand that the lives of human beings are a messy business, more so when, as in cases of violence, so much is at stake… rather than simplifying this messiness for the sake of analytical or theoretical clarity, we as anthropologists [should] embrace the ambiguities and contradictions within ethnographies that mirror, and thus more truly capture, the uncertainties in the world that our subjects (and ourselves) inhabit. (123-125).

And lastly, in the conclusion Holtzman reflects on the role of truth in war, reading Rigoberta Mechú, Tim O’Brien, and other narratives of war in light of the question of “true” representations of violence. But one reflection stuck with me as I grapple with my own research:

People have died in this book, a lot of people, and it doesn’t do them justice for me to slither off to my university job and get paid decent money to say that I don’t really know who is to blame, that maybe it is everyone or no one. Because someone killed those people, so to them, to their loved ones, or maybe to our sense of humanity, who did it and how it happened matters.

Or maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t… Sometimes blame isn’t really the point. A major issue here is the way the stories people tell about their wars contain understandings and misunderstandings of other groups that sow the seeds for future violence (197-198).

An ethnography of violence (or intervention or reconciliation or peace or–) might have multiple purposes, but if one is to tell what “really” happened, I’m not sure that will always be possible. War is messy; everyday life is uncertain. I think Holtzman’s book does a good job of showing us that uncertainty and sharing the stories that people tell. I don’t know what the best way to grapple with such uncertainty is – but I know I’ll be coming back to this book soon as I work through that question.

Connected by Radio

I spent a lot of this summer sitting in a small room in an NGO office, listening to a high frequency radio as people from across Haut Uele, one of the northeasternmost districts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, would check in with one another about the security in the region. News would come in every day – sometimes everything was fine; sometimes there were concerns related to health, weather, or other hazards; sometimes there were security incidents involving rebels – and the network of radios posted across the region kept everyone informed.

As I transition from my previous work on FM radios to focus on the HF radio network, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the radio fits within the media ecology – the range of media options that people can choose from. When I described my research to one Congo scholar, he expressed confusion as to why the phonie system still exists since cell phones have largely replaced it. But then I remember watching a driver for an NGO wandering up and down the street trying to get a signal to call the office and ask if the road was clear for the last leg of my trip to my field site. He would call, the call wouldn’t do through, so he would take a few paces over to try again. Vodacom only reaches so far.

I then also remember being in a small rural town where a HF radio was being fixed. We stopped by to greet the chief and the NGO staff explained that they were fixing the radio; the chief seemed grateful and said it was important to keep the town connected to the rest of the region. Almost to emphasize this, as we left someone handed a letter to our driver, asking that he take it back to town. There are few reliable ways to send messages even to the next town. When I was studying FM radio, I found out that one of the radio stations I was studying had asked listeners to respond to a sort of questionnaire. While some responses came via SMS, many came via motorcycle taxi or a chain of family and friends.

In a place where getting news from the next town over can be difficult or can take time, the HF radio does a lot of work. I’m still thinking about what all of this looks like, and what it means to be connected amidst violence (see also). As I continue to fumble through a year of courses, grants, readings, and exams, I just thought I’d take a moment to think aloud on here. More soon.

Bombing as Speech Act

There’s an interesting article up at Sapiens by William M. Cotter on military leaflets dropped over civilians during war in the Middle East, specifically Israeli messaging in Gaza as well as U.S. and allied leafleting over ISIS-held Raqqa. As a linguistic anthropologist, Cotter looks particularly at the language used in such leaflets, analyzing them for their strategic use in war. Looking, for example, at the vague language in messages informing Gazans to “stay away from Hamas elements,” Cotter asks, “What does the lack of specificity mean? Why are civilians only being provided with part of the story and given only a portion of the information that they need in order to avoid becoming victims of military strikes?”

The answer is of course because war – even with precision bombing and high tech missiles – doesn’t actually care about civilians or even the distinction between civilians and combatants. Especially in a place like Syria, where total war consumes lives regardless of this distinction, or in places like Gaza, perpetually stuck in interwar1 as civilians never know if violence is near. Actors such as ISIS fighters, the U.S. military and its drones, or the IDF often don’t care about this distinction either. Cotter provides some good analysis of what the messages are actually doing: they provide cover for militaries by technically “warning” civilians of impending violence but without adequately shielding them. In such instances of asymmetrical warfare, such leaflets or other messaging can act as an actual warning for civilians, but also also act as a free pass for military aggression or as a form of psychological warfare to intimidate the opponent.

While my own ongoing work on radio messages and leaflets in Uganda and the Congo resonates with this is somewhat tangential ways (and that will maybe be a forthcoming post), I want to flip the message of Cotter’s piece. The subtitle for his Sapiens article says: “Modern warfare isn’t only conducted with bombs, tanks, and guns—language also plays a central role.” But what if we think of bombs, tanks, and guns as linguistic tools?

If we conceive of bombing as a speech act, a tank as a performative, or a gun as medium, we begin to see all of warfare as communicative practice. War and violence say something, after all. Leaflets and propaganda say something about war, of course, but the politics of war-making and actual acts of war also have a lot to say. We should be attuned to violence as speech. Continue reading

GWU Anthropology Symposium this Friday

For those in the DC area, my department at GWU will be hosting our annual Anthropology Symposium this Friday all day. Please come check out some of the cool stuff going on in my little corner of the world. I am one of the organizers this year, and we’ve brought together a solid slate of presenters.

I’m particularly excited about our keynote speaker, Adrienne Pine of American University, who will be giving a lecture (at 4:30pm) titled “Preparing for an Anthropology of Fascism” and uses ethnographic data from the DC area as well as Honduras to ask what anthropological possibilities and responsibilities are emerging right now.

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A full program is available symposium-schedule (pdf). Hope to see you there!

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.

Conflict after Peace? News from South Sudan

One of the paradoxes of studying insecurity and conflict is that, when your topic of research happens too much, you can’t actually do the research. Five days before my flight to Yambio, South Sudan, I just had to cancel the whole trip as news comes out about increased tension near Nzara (a nearby town and my other field sight) and the potential spread of violence. I’m unhappy about my research prospects, for sure, but really the news of renewed violence in this region is bad news for everyone there, especially as South Sudan stumbles towards what was supposed to be a peaceful resolution of its civil war. This and other news from South Sudan seems to also fit right into an increasingly frequent pattern of violence that comes after peace treaties are signed and disarmament begins.

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In the late 1980s, when unrest first began in northern Uganda, the government signed the Pece Agreement with the rebel UPDA forces (see Caroline Lamwaka’s report here [pdf]). Overtures had been made to include the Holy Spirit Movement groups (including what would eventually become Kony’s LRA), but in the end government forces attacked HSM before talks could begin, and the they were excluded from the Pece Agreement. As Lamwaka says, “the failure of these initiatives was to have lasting consequences. Fighters loyal to Kony resumed their raids on civilian and NRA targets” (31). While many of the UPDA soldiers were either disarmed or integrated into the national army, the LRA remained in the bush and at war. As Adam Branch notes [pdf], “Kony stepped up attacks in reaction to his exclusion from the agreement. Setting a precedent that it has followed since, the Ugandan government had begun negotiations with Kony in early 1988, only to sabotage the talks at the key moment, provoking a outbreak of violence from Kony” (15). This cycle has repeated itself often, most recently in the 2008 Christmas Massacres that the LRA carried out in the Congo after failed peace talks and a government attack.

The LRA’s increased violence after being excluded from a peace process is not unique. Just in this region alone, rebels who have felt slighted by peace agreements, or armed groups who did not get an adequate share of the spoils after war, have turned to more war as the solution in Congo, CAR, and South Sudan. Several anthropologists and others have looked at how peace processes actually lead some actors directly to taking up arms again or reconstituting themselves as an armed group to gain legitimacy at the table.

Even after the peace treaty is signed and demobilization programs get implemented, things aren’t guaranteed to work. Danny Hoffman has described the labor that goes into being or seeming violent in order to claim participation in DDR (Demobilization, Disarmament, and Reintegration) schemes in Sierra Leone and Liberia. In the conclusion to their edited volume on Central African Republic, Louisa Lombard and Tatiana Carayannis briefly describe the failures of DDR programs in a place where the state has never had a monopoly on violence and self-defense groups, while predatory, can also at times be a line of protection. Lombard’s forthcoming book promises to delve even further into these processes.

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The peace agreement signed recently between the SPLA and the rebel SPLA-IO in South Sudan has given many some hope for some semblance of a way forward to peace, but it’s a rough road, and not everyone’s on it. Last week, news came of large-scale violence in Wau, where an alleged new rebel group killed 43 people, mostly civilians. Apparently, the peace agreement did not address the grievances of these groups – or perhaps even exacerbated them. If reports are to be believed, the new group includes a motley combination of former government soldiers, LRA, and Janjaweed militia fighters – all of whom likely have unique, localized reasons for taking up arms, but have perhaps consolidated or collaborated in order to effectively threaten the state. Sometimes peace deals bring some people together, but not all, and those left out turn to violence, or those who see the spoils of a peace agreement want to take a share as well.

The southwestern part of South Sudan that I am trying to do research in largely kept out of the civil war that wreaked so much destruction and tragedy in the country for the last two years. But, since the initial peace agreement was reached in August, violence has flared up in Western Equatoria State in a manner that runs tangential, but connected, to the national civil war. This International Crisis Group report highlights the predicament that fighters in the area find themselves in:

Though they were not then a battleground, South Sudan’s civil war created the conditions for new conflicts in the Equatorias. After fighting broke out in December 2013, old suspicions about Western Equatorians’ commitment to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) seemed vindicated, as the region struggled to meet a government recruitment quota, and many sought to keep out of what they saw as a “Dinka-Nuer war”…. Determinations over whether Equatorian armed groups are eligible to join the ARCSS cantonment process [part of the peace agreement DDR program] as “forces previously in combat” at the time of signing have been complicated by the warring parties. The SPLM/A-IO has claimed the Equatorian rebel groups and operations as their own, though they sometimes have not been. The government denies the SPLA-IO is active in the region, which would make Equatorian combatants ineligible for the cantonment, but some still allege SPLA-IO ceasefire violations in the Equatorias. Mutual obfuscation is compounded by the failure of ceasefire mechanisms to investigate peace agreement breaches in a timely fashion and identify armed groups’ relationships to the SPLA-IO. Failure to find a solution for forces which joined the fighting after the agreement was signed in August 2015 could lead to continued combat, a rift within the SPLA-IO and decisions by forces not deemed eligible to continue to fight in response.

After several months of fighting, this spring I got word that I might be able to do fieldwork in this region as things had calmed down. But, as the fighting had occurred largely after the August peace agreement was signed, many of the armed actors in the region have now been excluded from the benefits of peace. In turn, some of them seem to have taken up arms again, with additional grievances.

While unrelated, the potential uptick in violence near Nzara and the killings in Wau may be derived from the same peace process which failed to account for violence at the margins of the war. In an effort to stake their claim that they are to be reckoned with, some of these actors have continued war. Here, Louisa Lombard’s other work, on threat economies and armed conservation efforts, provides a useful analytic. “Threats and confrontations can be a useful means to position oneself,” she says (221), and this applies to armed anti-poaching efforts as well as rebellion. “The rebels who emerged in CAR over the last decade have mostly sought not to unseat the president but to threaten him or her enough to force concessions and be included in largesse in new ways. Rebellion violence is more visible than that of armed conservation, but it relies on the same threat and hiding encounters, and the same claim to entitlements and an income” (224).

As South Sudan attempts to navigate its way out of civil war, it has left behind a string of armed actors that were excluded or otherwise marginalized from the path to peace. This has already had negative consequences in different parts of the country, but only time will tell just how far these consequences will reach.

Research to-go

Exploratory research is supposed to be just that. It can involve chasing multiple leads, pursuing vague hunches, and barking up the wrong tree. In the end, you rummage through your experiences to figure out what your real research will be and then return with a better plan. But it’s also a total mess.

I’ve been in Uganda for two weeks, and will be here and in South Sudan for the next five weeks as well. I’m here with two projects in mind. Firstly, I’m hoping to add to my 2013 research trip here on radio programs, adding some data to that project and reshaping my old thesis into something more publishable. But I’m also (almost) ready to move from radios to a second project which will eventually be my dissertation. Time will tell what this will actually look like, but it will likely be about the presence of armed groups and how they change communities. But who knows, I’m juggling lots of other ideas – barking up trees, as it were.

The thing is, my exploratory work has led me to move around a lot. I haven’t been in any one place for more than maybe five days, and I don’t think that will change by the end of my seven-week trip. Part of this is the logistics of my research – trying to conduct interviews in at least six different towns – as well as the vagaries of bureaucracy – I’m currently in Kampala trying (for a second time) to get some visa documents approved. Luckily, the radio project has a foundation – I’ve got a slew of interviews and notes from three years ago that I can build on. But at the same time, moving so quickly through these places has made it really difficult to do the actual work. As usual, interviews get pushed, new contacts get cultivated, chance encounters change plans. But often I find myself cramming these experiences into a few days. For an anthropologist – someone dedicated to the long-term engagement – I’m still figuring out what it means to move around so much.

I keep reminding myself that this is exploratory – and that’s a huge part of it. Next summer, I’ll likely move around a bit again. The year after that I’ll be much more situated in one or two places that will become the focus of my work. But at the same time, anthropology-in-motion is increasingly a thing. It’s not what I’m doing, per se, and it might not be in the end. But many aspects of my research – the aid workers, the AFRICOM soldiers, the radio recording files, the rebel returnees – move from place to place as well. The debate over how to do ethnography, how to do fieldwork, is one I’m refraining for engaging with just quite yet. (reminder: this is exploratory). But trying to figure out how to be engaged and embedded in the research, while potentially moving around, is a struggle.

As I line up more interviews and ride a five hour bus ride (again), I’ll get a better sense of what this summer is about. In the meantime, this is exploratory.

Demobilization as Defection, and Other Thoughts on Blurring Categories in Conflict

A big chunk of my MA thesis was on radio demobilization projects in the LRA conflict (shameless self-promotion: new [gated] article about it in ASR!), and I’m hoping to do some more work on it this summer as I sort out my next project (The Dissertation). A common theme that came up throughout my research – both in the field and in looking over documents and videos from groups working in the region – was the frequent blurring of different categories. I’ll illustrate by thinking my way through and around this recent article in the Daily Beast, “Joseph Kony’s Former Bodyguards Are Now Helping US Troops Hunt Him” by Kevin Maurer.

The article is centered around a recent incident in which LRA leader Joseph Kony’s guards fired on his house before escaping to a distant U.S. base where they surrendered, and since then they have been assisting the U.S. in counter-LRA efforts. This incident is definitely worth talking about – as several interviewees note in the article, this is an incredibly bold move by the abductees, and it only reinforces the continuing story that the LRA is shrinking and its command structure collapsing – but beyond just this incident and even beyond this article, I want to tease out some of the blurring that’s happening in the conflict and in how it gets represented.

Blurring Demobilization with Defection

The first thing worth lingering on is something frequent in how several people talk about the conflict – the conflation of demobilization with “defection.” The radio program is, at its heart, a demobilization campaign. Messages encourage rebels to surrender, to go home, to reintegrate into their communities, to receive amnesty, to give up on war. It is different from most DDR programs in that it is not post-conflict, nor is it en masse, but it is a demobilization campaign nonetheless. But, starting in 2011, some began to call this program and this process “defection.” In my thesis I tied this to a broader shift in linguistic and programmatic practices that signaled the militarization of humanitarianism:

LRA who escaped and turned themselves over to be reintegrated were no longer just “returnees,” but also became known as “defectors.” The leaflets that MONUSCO had been dropping became “defection fliers,” and come home messaging also gained the moniker “defection messaging.” This more militaristic jargon seems to serve little purpose except to align Invisible Children closer with its narrative as forming an “army of peace.” By 2013, there was even a department within Invisible Children called “Counter LRA Initiatives.”

[…]

This latest shift in discourse, paired by a shift in programming on the ground in the region, puts Invisible Children on new terrain. Where most NGOs operate in a place of aid and development, they rarely endorse military action or engage in collaborations with military forces. Even in Uganda, where humanitarian organizations were complicit in the government’s violent displacement policy (Branch 2008 [pdf]), NGOs did not endorse military action nearly as explicitly as Invisible Children has. By using an early warning network that relies on FARDC, assisting the UPDF and U.S. army advisers in establishing a military presence in the region, and using come home messaging as an effort to disrupt LRA activity, Invisible Children has moved into uncharted territory in its contribution to the militarization of humanitarianism. Quoted in a recent news article, the organization’s Program Manager for Counter-LRA Initiatives Sean Poole stated that “Invisible Children does not claim to be neutral. You know, we are not in this conflict saying we are not going to take sides” (Gonzales 2014).

I think an aspect of this linguistic shift is creeping militarism in humanitarianism, writ large – a problem bigger than Invisible Children or the LRA conflict, but rather a part of the post-9/11 securitization of (Western?) society. But, linguistic analysis and militarization critique aside, the fact of the matter is that some of the former LRA fighters who come out of the bush do actually help counter-LRA forces, effectively defecting to the other side in this conflict. Defection is happening. I don’t think that negates my argument, which has to do more broadly with humanitarianism, militarization, and ways of speaking and thinking.

Still, the linguistic practices are still doing a lot of work in Maurer’s article. When Maurer refer to these former child soldiers who have demobilized as “defectors,” the logical point of progression is that they will assist the U.S. in helping track Kony – that’s what a defector would do. If we started by calling them returnees or formerly abducted child soldiers, we might have a different perspective; maybe we would stop and wonder whether they should still be engaged in warfare at all, regardless of which side.

Blurring Child Soldiers with Soldiers

I do think that the presence of actual defectors is worth staying with for a bit, because it raises a lot of questions. In Maurer’s article, he focuses on the “Kony 7” – seven bodyguards who turned on Kony, tried to kill him, and fled to escape LRA captivity. They have since joined up with counter-LRA operations and are helping the U.S. Special Forces pursue Kony. In the article, Maurer notes that “Roland [one of the returnees] is now over 18 years old, as are his fellow Kony 7 members, Alex and Simon… The former bodyguards already completed reintegration training in Gulu, a town in Northern Uganda, and were looking forward to starting a new life. But first they wanted to help the Americans free their comrades.”

If they’re going to help the U.S. fight, it’s good that they’re over 18 (child soldier laws, after all!) – but it’s not like the second you turn 18, years of abuse and trauma go away. Should these former child soldiers really be continuing to carry out war? (Again, if we start with calling them “defectors,” the answer is a more quick yes than if we start with “former abductee.”) In an article on military humanitarianism, Sverker Finnström explains that:

The American military intervention, promoted by Invisible Children as essential to any solution, has itself been described by a US army officer on the ground this way: “These ex-LRA guys don’t have many skills, and it’s going to be hard for them to reintegrate,” he said to the New York Times. “But one thing they are very good at is hunting human beings in the woods” (10 April 2010). With a statement like this in mind, we ought to be more uncomfortable than ever with President Obama’s waiving of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act for some of the very countries where the LRA is active.

The use of former child soldiers to help track Kony has been happening for a long time now, but should it? Does completing reintegration training do anything if you immediately head back into the bush with a gun, just under a different flag? Is that really reintegration? What does it mean to demobilize if you stay in a state of war? Is that really demobilization? Will these child-soldiers-turned-soldiers ever truly disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate?

The use of former LRA to go back into the bush where they spent recent years might have negative consequences for the returnees themselves, but it also feeds into other forces at play. How do victims of LRA violence feel, knowing that former LRA fighters are now coming back as counter-LRA fighters? When I was taking a break from interviews in northeastern Congo, one of the men I was with accused the UN of helping the LRA. Another interviewee told me that one of the issues the radio demobilization programming ran into was that locals that it was actually a coded message the Ugandan military used to coordinate with the LRA to attack civilians. Does actually using former LRA fighters do anything but exacerbate such beliefs?

Blurring Forms of Accountability

In the same instance, it’s worth noting that employing (deploying?) former child soldiers as soldiers pulls us away from the question of accountability. There’s a lot of ongoing debate over whether child soldiers – particularly ones that grow up to become adults and therefore legally responsible for their actions – should be held accountable. Much ink has been spilled on the place of child soldiers in justice after atrocities, and the issue continues to be debated (most recently in this symposium and my article on ICC-indicted LRA returnee Dominic Ongwen). Even from the perspective of LRA victims, it is often debated [pdf].

Child soldiers can (and should) be seen as victims too. Sometimes that leads to sympathy or solidarity between different victims, sometimes that leads to a perceived hierarchy of victimhood, sometimes it gets rejected completely and people see child soldiers as perpetrators instead. Often this depends on how the individual is portrayed – some get more sympathy than others.

When child soldiers grow into adult rebels, this gets murky enough. When the now-adult abductee rebels surrender and then take up arms as former abductee, former child soldier, now state soldier, things get even messier. How should local civilians interpret their change of uniform? Part of the reason even adult abductees and former child soldiers can be seen as victims rather than perpetrators is that every decision they make is shaped by the environment they find themselves in, and therefore the level of accountability or responsibility might change. For returnees who may not be able to imagine life after war, is choosing to switch sides rather than disarm still a decision in a wartime environment and a wartime mentality?

Blurring Returnee Experiences

And on the subject of accountability, there’s a lot of justice, accountability, and amnesty discussion absent from this article (either for space or because it didn’t really fit the narrative). In heralding the successes of radio demobilization programs, Maurer notes that:

One of [the] highest profile defectors was LRA commander Dominic Ongwen. He surrendered in January 2015. He was one of five high-ranking LRA officers indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. After Ongwen’s defection, military officials had him record a message urging his fighters to defect. The U.S. soldiers said many of the defectors said hearing Ongwen or other defectors on the radio convinced them it was safe to leave Kony.

“We try and let them know what is available to them,” the soldier said.

[Brownyn] Bruton [of the Atlantic Council] said there is some indication that LRA fighters listen to the radio and get the leaflets. The promise of amnesty is tempting.

“The people who go get amnesty, that is not a small thing,” she said. “To be able to wipe the slate clean, that is a very tempting offer.”

But Ongwen wasn’t able to wipe the slate clean. He received no amnesty. He demobilized and then was arrested and is now on trial. Ongwen might be an example of the success of the radio come home messaging, but to say that he defected – and then to equate that with amnesty – glosses over a lot of detail. It makes demobilization programming explicitly counter-LRA and a tool for fighting rather than a tool for not-fighting, a tool for demobilization. It also obscures the fact that Ongwen was sent to The Hague and has now been charged with more war crimes than anyone in history, surprising for a child soldier (again, see the JiC symposium or my Warscapes piece for more).

On the ground in the LRA conflict, returnee experiences are in the plural. Some returnees were never abducted, though most were. Some returnees received amnesty, while many enjoy freedom (or impunity, depending on how you look at it) but without official documentation. Two men are actually in jail cells, one in The Hague and the other in Uganda, both pending controversial trials. Many reintegrate into their old homes, some reintegrate into the army, some don’t reintegrate at all and move away to escape ostracism. Much of the literature on the LRA sees one process, but there are many, many ways that demobilization and reintegration occur. Blurring these together obscures that, and blurring them into defection obscures even more.

Blurring Agency

But, in this very blog post I’m also blurring some representations of the actors involved. Child soldiers, inherently through the act of abduction and conscription, lack a certain level of agency in the legal sense, but also in scholarly and journalistic and humanitarian discourse. A lot of the back and forth in discussing the actions of abductees (and, me above, returnees) is shaped by this refusal to grant/recognize agency. But former child soldiers (or even active child soldiers) can be said to make their own decisions – decisions structured by the violent circumstances they find themselves in, of course, but decisions nonetheless.

The question remains whether, upon demobilization, taking up arms against the LRA is a decision shaped by structures of conflict or structures of post-conflict. Some post-conflict agreements include not necessarily demobilization but reintegration into the national army, after all. Is that what’s happening for these fighters? It’s not clear how long they will continue to act as soldiers, or if they’re role in helping Uganda and the U.S. in counter-LRA efforts may end up taking them as AMISOM soldiers in Somalia or as riot police to Kampala or contractors in Baghdad.

So, my own hesitation against turning demobilization into defection and turning former child soldiers into soldiers also steals away a certain agency for these individuals. Child soldiers could become soldiers, and they could defect. Who is to say they can’t take up arms? Can former LRA returnees still desire regime change in Uganda at the barrel of a gun? Can they desire to end the LRA once and for all, even if it means staying in the bush a little longer to help the U.S.?

Questions of agency in wartime are hard ones to answer, but they are questions worth asking again and again. But, in asking them, I’m trying to avoid blurring different categories together. As this erasure keeps happening, language and representation obfuscate what’s happening on the ground. In doing so, we may be closing off possibilities and asking the wrong questions.