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.

20170120_074156crop

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.

Advertisements

Intersections, on encountering police

When I lived in New Haven, a young man on a motor scooter crashed into my parked car at an intersection in the Wooster Square neighborhood. I was walking home at the time, and turned the corner as a police officer was writing up some notes. The officer asked if I knew the owner of the car, I said it was me, he told me that the “kid” was going up a one-way street in the wrong direction and, when he saw the officer, tried to speed away and lost control, crashing into my car. The officer told me that he had found drugs on the young man.

newhaven

An intersection in New Haven. (Google Maps)

I fidgeted a lot, worried about the man in the back of the police car. I tried to look at him from where I was standing, to see who he was, but I didn’t want him to feel like I was gawking. New Haven doesn’t have a history of good race relations or of good police conduct. I wanted him to feel my worry and my solidarity, but I wasn’t sure how to convey it. I wanted to ask the officer if I could not press charges, but I knew that neither possessing drugs nor driving the wrong way were crimes “against” me, but against the state. I wanted to ask the young man if there was anyone I could call for him, anybody I could tell about what happened. I was nervous around the officer; I did none of these things. I stood by as he continued talking.

As we were standing there, a middle-aged white woman driving by slowed down and rolled down her window. “THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!” she shouted at the officer. He waved at her. They might have talked for a moment. She drove away.

I was not thankful for the arrest of another one of New Haven’s black youth. The young man in the backseat of that squad car certainly wasn’t thankful either. But her grateful outpouring for the policing presence was probably enough for the three of us. This experience – the blind appreciation for policing the neighborhood – is ingrained in my memory.

The lived experiences of policing are so, so different depending on where you live or what you look like. The intersections of state and society are not the same for everyone. In every place I’ve lived in, I’ve seen this. SB 1070 in Arizona. Stop and frisk in New York. A one-way street in New Haven. The intersections at which police and everyday people meet, depending on the city, the neighborhood, the block, can be polar opposites.

*  *

gilbert

A street in Arizona. (Google Maps)

When I was a teenager, I was driving home from somewhere. A police car drove past me, and I saw it flip a dramatic U-turn in my rear view mirror. I drove slowly, trying to let him pass to whatever demanded his attention. He didn’t pass. I turned into my neighborhood, and he followed. I decided I would stay on a road with more traffic, and pulled over by the neighborhood mailbox instead of going to my house. The officer pulled over behind me. His lights weren’t on.

I hesitated. My parents – like many parents of sixteen-year-olds – had taught me what to do when pulled over by a police car, but parents don’t usually teach you what to do when an officer follows you for half a mile without turning the lights on and then pulls over behind you when you stop.

Trying to act casual, I got out of my car and I picked up the mail. I stood by my car. I think a few people drove by, but I don’t remember. I do remember wishing that my parents or one of my friends would just happen to be passing. Someone who knew me. I remember standing on the sidewalk, feeling vulnerable, immediately regretting that I was not still in my car. The police officer rolled down his window and looked at me like I might have something to say, but he remained silent.

“Is there a problem, officer?” I asked. I remember asking it like that because I think that’s what they say in movies. He gestured towards his laptop and told me he was checking to see if my car was stolen. He didn’t mention it matching a description or a recent call or similar plates or anything. After a pause, he said everything checked out, and he drove off. I lingered for a while before getting back in my car and driving home, unnerved.

That was before SB 1070, but police have been profiling long before it was law. (I grew up half-white, half-brown in a more-than-half-white town, county, state). This was before I had really come to realize how easily a man in a car with lights on top of it – even if the lights weren’t on – could make you feel like you had done something wrong, like you were in trouble, like you might not make it home. I learned quickly. I learned around the corner from my house. (And that was in a middle class, white neighborhood in which I wasn’t stopped, nor arrested, and no weapon was drawn on me – a huge sign of privilege in and of itself).

*  *

I often think about the guy with the scooter. I wish I had done more, not knowing exactly what more I could have done. Once I think about him, I begin to think about my own encounters with police, as a brown-skinned driver in Arizona, or as a protester in New York (another story, another time), and think about how they compare to my experiences with police when I was in a car accident, or when I needed directions downtown somewhere. I often think about how these situations shift, how much depends on so little. Every encounter depended on what intersection it happened at (and who was involved). Most of my encounters with police have involved no confrontation, they’ve been professional, and no harm was caused. But it’s the moments of unease that remain with me, and even my encounters have been remarkably unremarkable. I was followed once, and I saw someone get arrested. I was wrestled to the ground in a protest once, but I got away scared but relatively unscathed. But these moments are what I think of when I think of police. People remember their vulnerability more than any run-of-the-mill interaction.

I’m not a victim of police violence, that’s for sure. I’ve only ever been inconvenienced and a little unnerved. I’ve never been in the real danger that whole segments of our society know all too well. Policing happens everywhere, but it looks different. I’ve often thought about writing about these anecdotes, but I never know what to say about it all. I’m typing this now because I read about what happened to Steve Locke a month ago.

Locke is a professor in Boston, and he was stopped by police while getting lunch on his way to class because he fit the description of someone who broke into a nearby house. The description was essentially black-person-in-winter. The whole account is worth reading, but this excerpt is what got to me:

Something weird happens when you are on the street being detained by the police.  People look at you like you are a criminal.  The police are detaining you so clearly you must have done something, otherwise they wouldn’t have you.  No one made eye contact with me... An older white woman walked behind me and up to the second cop.  She turned and looked at me and then back at him.  “You guys sure are busy today.” I noticed a black woman further down the block.  She was small and concerned.  She was watching what was going on.  I focused on her red coat.  I slowed my breathing.  I looked at her from time to time. I thought: Don’t leave, sister. Please don’t leave.

The difference between the two passersby is a crucial gap in society. Those who feel protected and those who feel vulnerable. Those who admire police officers (and want to thank them blindly and profusely) and those who fear them. Those who are thankful that they can live their lives in safety because of those who serve and those who just want to live their lives, but can’t, for the same reason.

Experiences with law enforcement are different depending on the people and places involved. But the moments that stick – to me and to others – are those encounters tense with vulnerability and fear. Some, like me, know these moments from a rare experience thanks to our privilege. Many don’t know them at all. But a number of people also know these moments all too well.

This fundamental difference in how we live our lives is an obstacle to real change that can improve the lives of those on the other side of the law’s enforcement. I was nervous for the person in the backseat that day in New Haven, but what I was feeling was probably nothing compared to what he was dealing with. The woman who drove by knew nothing about the situation, but she blindly expressed gratefulness to the uniform standing next to me. These different perspectives, on Centre Street in Boston, on Hughes Place in New Haven, on every street in the country, are something that I can’t get out of my head. If we are going to be able to create a society where there is less police oppression of minority communities, we need to make an attempt to understand how those communities experience the police presence.

What are elections for, anyways?

There are several countries in Africa that are holding elections amidst some pretty tense circumstances. In Burkina Faso, after a popular revolt ousted long-time President Blaise Campaoré and then an attempted military coup put a brief hiccup in elections, voters went to the polls just a couple of weeks ago. Burundi has descended into violence amidst efforts by President Pierre Nkurunziza to overstay his welcome and run for a third term, with similar “constitutional coups” being attempted in Rwanda, the D.R. Congo, and other states, and similar efforts are practically routine in Uganda (where Yoweri Museveni will be moving into the 30+ Years of Rule Club with elections in April) and still others.

In many parts of the world, elections become perennial points from which both popular organizing and protest as well as intense violence and repression emerge. The Burkinabè were able to use Campaoré’s attempts to change the constitution to instead be the cause of his downfall. Burundians tried this but have since been caught in a prolonged struggle over the future of their country. Elections can be points of radical change, but they can also  be events that put the official seal on the status quo or sites of intense state violence.

Amidst this kaleidoscope of possibilities, the electoral landscape also includes the Central African Republic, where elections are scheduled to move the country from a transitional government to a newer, more “legitimate” one. Though the actual reasons for holding elections in the middle of what can only be described as a heap of turmoil raises the question: why?

In a recent post at the Monkey Cage, Haley Swedlund tackles the question of “Why donors demand immediate elections after unrest in developing countries.” She highlights a number of theories pointing out that quickly pushing through elections actually stymies the democratization process, but she argues that donors need some semblance of stability in order to carry out basic aid projects. She points out that “decision-making is often driven by the functional needs of particular agencies, rather than a sound assessment of the political situation in the recipient country. With only limited funding available, this pattern of behavior means that more fundamental democratic reforms are often sidelined in favor of the ballot box.” In other words, donors want elections not to encourage democratization or because elections could show a peaceful transition, but to serve their self-interests.

A few weeks ago I attended a panel at the United States Institute of Peace about the ongoing instability in Central African Republic. The event centered around a new book edited by Louisa Lombard and Tatiana Carayannis about CAR (which I’m reading now!), and the role of elections was a hot topic during the conversation (a full video of the panel is available here).

CAR has seen shocking episodes of violence over the last few years as rebellion led to a cycle of reprisal attacks that immersed both the countryside and Bangui in violence. During the panel, Roland Marchal argued that we need to reflect more on the types of solutions we offer to the current conflict. He listed several core issues facing the Central African people, including abuse by the state, arbitrary enforcement of the law based on religion, and said that “these are the questions that have to be discussed and it is not organizing elections that is going to provide answers.”

Faouzi Kilembe pointed out three key problems: the question of identity in CAR (and who can vote), the question of logistics and how to prepare to hold elections, and the question of security and how to hold elections in the current situation of insecurity. Two very important points he raised are that no matter the outcome, the results will be contested (likely violently) by one party or another, and he asks what miracles the newly elected government will be able to achieve that the transitional government cannot. Similar questions arise in William Clowes’ piece at the African Arguments blog about whether elections will make things worse rather than better.

When asked to respond to Kilembe’s statements at the panel, Laurence Wohlers argued for holding elections because logistics aren’t going to improve, the question of legitimacy won’t be solved by waiting, and the transition needs to end in order to place power in a government entity beyond international community, which leads him to say that “we have to have an election that is admittedly not going to be a good one.” He focused most of his response on what to do after, including a long list of post-conflict reforms. Marchal disagreed, stating that questions of accountability, religious discrimination, demobilization, go unanswered even though the international community has money for such interventions, because “the international community doesn’t do it, not because it’s bad, not because it’s ignorant, but because it’s busy on the election.” Later, Marchal pointed out that the urgency for elections by the international community don’t necessarily resonate for people who haven’t participated in a free and fair election in decades. Carayannis notes at the end that the timing of elections is tied to France’s desire for an exit strategy, stating that “we need elections tied to what’s actually happening in CAR, not what’s happening in Paris.”

The international community wants elections, partially because elections are what signal “post-conflict” status and, thus, act as a sunset provision on the French intervention there, regardless of actual improvement of the situation on the ground. As Lombard mentions in a different panel on elections in CAR, the international community “tend[s] to think in terms of ‘well, these are the Central Africans’ elections, they’re elections for the Central African Republic… and we’re just helping” but at the same time “there would be no elections if it weren’t for all of these different kinds of international players who were involved in all of this. These are our elections too.” Circling back to Haley Swedlund’s point – elections are demanded due to international community’s interests no matter what is going on in the actual country of concern.

The first round of elections occurred on December 30th amid relatively little violence, and the results will be announced soon. The voting was lauded as an “undeniable success,” but that won’t actually be known until the results are announced, the run-off is held, and whether the new government can successfully move the country forwards through the present insecurity.

Hierarchies of Mourning: Notes on Paris, Beirut, and Beyond

When I first heard news of the shootings and bombings in Paris, my heart sank. Terrorism continues to be a fear in the corner of many of our minds (and much more than that for many others), and the recent expansion of the Islamic State’s reach is definitely troubling. But I also felt so many other things that will go into this otherwise perhaps haphazard post. In mourning for victims to terror around the world, here are a few reflections on the state of things, and a call for solidarity with victims of violence.

In writing this post, ostensibly about expanding solidarity and mourning, I run the risk of trying to “score points” or “politicize” a tragedy. I aim not to earn credit of any sort, but I do aim to bring politics into an already political situation. This post is as much for readers as it is for me – to jot down what my mind keeps circling back to, to reflect, to hope for a better future.

That said, I think it’s prudent to remember the context in which so much violence continues to occur. It is not coincidence that this attack happened in the heart of France, a country where Islamophobia and xenophobia are very real, visible, tangible forces in everyday society, and a country which has committed itself to stopping Islamic extremists across North and West Africa in addition to contributing to the fight against the Islamic State, just as it is not random that the United States was the target of multiple attacks in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Acknowledging this does not excuse the violence that follows. Neither does it necessarily lead us to a solution or a recommended action. Nonetheless, I mention it because it should frame our understanding of events and frame the discussion of what comes next.

Terrorists are not irrational madmen – though we want to think of them as such – but are actually incredibly logical and methodical in where and how they carry out their brand of violence. Just as 9/11 targeted sites of America’s financial and military global might, the attacks in Paris targeted the most cosmopolitan parts of Parisian life: music, sports, cafés. The goal was to make a statement, and also to provoke a response. This is worth keeping in mind as our countries’ leaders weigh their options. As Vijay Prashad notes, Raqqa is still a city of hundreds of thousands of civilians, even as France drops bombs on it in response to Friday’s attacks. Sophia Azeb writes that “Daesh wants refugees to have no refuge. They want a global war. They want to expand the global war that the United States and other Western nations have been waging for over a decade. A lot of our heads of state want to give it to them.” If the reaction to attacking civilians is a retaliation that also takes civilian lives, we’d be hard-pressed to explain why we expect things to change for the better. As Sam Kriss notes, on politicizing such events:

There will be more war, more death, and more tragedy. The TV stations are bringing in experts to insist that this is all the fault of the migrants and the foreigners, as if refugees were carrying the violence they fled along with them. More repression, more cruelty, more pogroms. Terrorist attacks, as we all know, are carried out with the intent of setting the people against each other and sparking an intensification of the violence of the State, and so the people are duly set against each other, and the State announces its determination to do violence. This is already a politicisation of the tragedy, and to loudly speak out against it is yet another.

Looking at the history of the world, it is absolutely possible to argue that “the hellish world we live in today is the result of deliberate policies and actions undertaken by the United States and its allies over the past decades” and still mourn for the innocent lives lost. After all, those who walk the streets of Paris or work in the offices of New York or shop on the streets of Beirut are not the ones leading the world into further violence – they are the victims of it, as are students in Gaza and doctors and patients in Afghanistan.

“Their wars, our dead,” one headline says rather succinctly (“leurs guerres, nos morts”), declaring that “the only response to wars and terrorism is the unity of workers and peoples, beyond their origins, their skin color, their religions, beyond the borders.” We can condemn terrorism and recognize that state violence brings it about, all while mourning the victims of both. This is the way to speak out against the more-violence argument and still condemn terror.

Indeed, the only thing we can do is stand together against terrorism and tyranny. As Iyad El-Baghdadi notes, the objective of the Islamic State is to drive a wedge through humanity. To create a world of us versus them is to deny us all a chance at coexistence. But resisting radical terrorism and resisting imperialist wars can and should be part of the same struggle for a more peaceful and better world. If flattening the Islamic State’s territory isn’t an option (and it shouldn’t be, as it only reinforces their objective), and doing nothing isn’t an option either (and it hardly is in the face of such violence), then solidarity is at least a path forwards.

* *

But shared humanity has to move beyond just linking arms between New Yorkers and Parisians. In the aftermath of the massacres in Paris, there was a chorus calling for attention to the other victims of the Islamic State’s violence, not only in Syria and Iraq every day but especially in Beirut, where a suicide bomber had killed over forty people just a day before the attacks in Paris. “The problem lies in our unwillingness to confront the conditioning which has allowed us to only view certain people as victims when terror strikes,” one writer states:

We pray for those in the west, those that personify our western exceptionalism and ideals rooted in what whiteness designates as worthy of attention. We are taught to mourn with Paris, but not with Beirut or even Newark or Chicago. Social media outlets implement ways to honor certain victims, but not others. Parisians are cloaked in martyrdom while Lebanese are met with silence and blame as they await the coming of our mourning. That in itself is terrorism, for it teaches people that they aren’t valued. It places a hierarchy on who is to be grieved and is contradictory to any assertions that all lives matter.

This sort of statement is common on the left today. Sometimes likened to victim oneupsmanship or lecturing people on how to mourn, I prefer instead to see it as an urging for expanding empathy – a global #BlackLivesMatter. Beyond this, though, it’s also a strategic rejection of the Islamic State’s values. It’s not difficult to imagine that the Islamic State intended not only to strike fear into the Western world by shattering the illusion of safety, but also to “highlight our selective outrage” in the face of brown lives suffering the same fate. If the so-called “gray-zone” is endangered, our rallying behind the French flag while Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi, and Turkish lives are forgotten helps endanger it further. (Indeed, the ubiquity of the French tricolore over profile pictures is especially important – it may intend to stand as metonym for the French victims of violence, but to many it is also a symbol that colonized Syria and Lebanon and so many others). In response to terrorism anywhere, we have to stand with victims everywhere.

I’ve referenced inequalities of war and hierarchies of humanity before. As long as there is a hierarchy of mourning for victims of terror, we’ll continue to feed into the cycles that lead directly to that terror. If we recognize those who suffer at the hands of our militaries and those who fall victim to terrorism “over there” alongside the victims “here,” in that shared humanity we can find some semblance of a future without all these types of violence.

French flags cover social media newsfeeds. Companies are flocking to express solidarité with Paris. World leaders give speeches pledging to stand with France.  President Obama said that “this is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.” None of this is wrong – it is vital to stand together with the French people, but it is also important to stand with the rest of the people who are victim to this kind of violence. Beirut’s bombing – an attack on civilians – has been framed as an attack on Hezbollah (which also pledged to fight the Islamic State before the attacks) and has not been equated as “an attack on all of humanity” by the leader of the free world. Instead, countries rush to close their gates to refugees who are the frontline victims to the same perpetrators (even though most of those involved in the Paris attacks were French and Belgian nationals).

When I visited the French Embassy and the Lebanese Embassy yesterday, both had flowers and other mementos left by those mourning for victims of violence, but the scenes were very different. Only one had four news crews outside filming segments. Only one massacre has captured the passions of so many. This should give us pause.

IMG_20151116_124521

IMG_20151116_124725

* *

In the days immediately after the attacks in Paris, I saw something peculiar on Twitter. People were tweeting about the Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria in January as if they had just happened (they did occur the same week as the Charlie Hebdo killings, prompting posts at the time not unlike this and others about Beirut now). I also saw a large number of tweets about the massacre at Garissa University in Kenya (seven million people clicked through to this BBC story, 3/4 of them from social media), similarly ahistorical. Tweeted headlines stated things like “Kenya attack: 147 dead in Garissa University assault” or “Kenya attack: 147 dead in Garissa University assault unbelievable what is this world becoming” without any hint that the messenger was comparing events from seven months apart. Indeed, some of the confusion may have come from posts making a historically conscious comparison, but many lifted the news without any context. Tweets containing the words “Kenya attack” numbered relatively low all month before peaking this weekend.

I joked that the reason these stories were re-emerging was that “everything that happens in Africa is timeless,” but this is also a serious effort to make sense of these types of occurrences. For people who had forgotten (or never knew) that Al Shabaab and Boko Haram have been carrying out violence in east and west Africa, these tweets seemed like news. People don’t forget about events that happen in Europe or America very easily, but events that happen in the Global South don’t always register in our news feeds or our minds. And if we didn’t notice it happen before, it can happen again in the context of Paris. It can be news in November because it wasn’t news in April or January.

Whenever a terrorist attack happens now, many of us in the West are reminded of 9/11, or of the bombings in London and Madrid, or of countless school shootings. I also think often of the Kampala World Cup bombings, not only because I was in Uganda at the time (way upcountry and far from the attacks, but still) and when I talk about it people seem to have no idea what I’m referencing, but also because it reminds me that these attacks happen in other parts of the world too. The Islamic State’s reach into Parisian streets and Russian airliners is definitely a troubling thing to come to terms with – one’s vulnerability always is – but we have to remember that this is a fear shared by those living within the Islamic State’s reach, often exponentially.

This doesn’t lessen our mourning for the victims of Paris at all. Rather, it should expand our mourning to all those who suffer, to put us back into the realm of empathy and coexistence and solidarity. This is a fundamentally important point that I am trying to make: I am not arguing that it is wrong to mourn for or stand with the victims of the attack in Paris, only that we can do even more, and stand with humanity in the face of bombs and guns. So when Sophia Azeb asks of the articles and thinkpieces that emerge after incidents like these, “Do we want to be a little more human, or a little less, as this rock we live on hurtles around the sun?” I hope that, in calling for solidarity in mourning, I lean to a world a little more human.

Inequalities of War

When I first heard that a recent U.S. airstrike hit an MSF hospital, I was appalled. MSF does critical work to help those in need, regardless of who they are, in especially dangerous situations. They often provide care when nobody else will, and their neutrality is critical to their ability to do that. This work treats people based on their humanity alone. Hearing that their work suffered such a tragedy is awful news.

But I’m also not surprised. The way that the U.S. has been conducting warfare, it was bound to happen. Things like this have already happened. Jails have been bombed. Funerals, too. In the first year of coalition fighting against ISIS, they have reportedly killed more than 500 civilians in Syria and Iraq [pdf].

This is what comes from bombing everything that moves. The New York Times reported that “the joke was that when the C.I.A. sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official.” And this line of thinking leads to things like classifying the dead – after killing them already – in a manner that “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

This may seem like a tangent, but the inequality of lives on the ground versus American lives is one that leads to a lack of oversight or a trigger-happy order that leaves a long trail of fatalities.

Dider Fassin writes about the “inequality of lives” in the context of MSF in a very different, but enlightening, way. In an essay titled “Inequalities of Lives, Hierarchies of Humanity” in the edited collection In the Name of Humanity, Fassin highlights flaws in humanitarianism’s attempt to treat all lives as equal in light of the fact that some are more privileged than others.

Fassin’s chapter highlights the perceived differences between those who assist and those who are assisted; those who are sacred and those who are sacrificed. He also cites the death of MSF workers in Iraq – and the organization’s subsequent handling of that incident – as emblematic of this hierarchy. It’s an analysis that may very well prove relevant as more information comes out about the recent US bombing and as the media and state narratives about it continue to take shape. But for now, I think the framing of hierarchies and inequalities also applies to the bombing itself.

MSF released a statement charging that the US knew the hospital was there before and during the sustained bombing campaign:

As it does in all conflict contexts, MSF communicated the precise locations of its facilities to all parties on multiple occasions over the past months, including most recently on September 29.

The bombing in Kunduz continued for more than 30 minutes after American and Afghan military officials in Kabul and Washington were first informed by MSF that its hospital was struck.

The decision to knowingly bomb an area close to a hospital (or, even worse, bomb a hospital directly and intentionally) is a decision made on a calculation. Whose bodies are worth protecting, and whose are worth sacrificing? Time and again, civilian lives in the Middle East are not worth as much as others’. Even doctors treating patients cannot be exempt from the warfare going on around them. As Fassin writes: “under the moral economy of Western armies, the sacrifice of civilians is the undesired but necessary burden of, at best, establishing human rights or exporting democracy or at worst, of protecting private and national interests.”

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.

20141125_203151-1

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.

White Supremacist Terrorism in Charleston, and in Our History

I’ve been closely following the news from Charleston, where a white supremacist shot and killed nine people at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last night. As I write this, it appears that the shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, has been arrested in North Carolina.

The church that was the target of the shooting is a historic landmark and site of black resistance, and has been for centuries. Yesterday was the 193rd anniversary of Denmark Vesey’s aborted slave revolt. Vesey was an early member of the church (I’ve heard even a founding member, but am unsure), which was burned down as the revolt’s organizers were hanged.

When the shooter was first identified, a Facebook profile picture was circulated that showed him wearing a jacket with the flags of apartheid South Africa and white-rule Rhodesia on it. The state of South Carolina flies the Confederate flag over the capitol.

There is a deep history to white supremacy and black resistance to it. It’s a violent history. It’s one we need to reckon with, and that we haven’t. I’ll paraphrase Angus Johnston by saying that we need to do more to teach the long history of racial violence, as part of an effort to raise anti-racists (do read the linked tweets, please).

Just as important is the history of the struggle. Teaching about resistance against hate, against oppression, is an imperative if we are to continue resisting these things. Just today, several pieces were published about the role of the AME church in the history of both white supremacist violence and black resistance.

Jamelle Bouie calls Emanuel AME Church “a historical symbol of black resistance to slavery and racism,” and Dave Zirin wrote a short piece detailing the long history of its place in 300 years of anti-racist, abolitionist history. This article on the place of black churches as symbols in American history is worth reading, in full. Here’s an excerpt on this AME church in particular:

while black churches have long been seen as a powerful symbol of African American community, they have also served as a flashpoint for hatred from those who fear black solidarity, and as a result these edifices have been the location for many of our nation’s most egregious racial terrorist acts.

Further, the very spot of land on which the Emanuel Church is built has witnessed much of this sobering history. In the summer of 1822, white residents of Charleston, South Carolina, discovered that one of their worst fears had come true: a slave conspiracy to rise against their masters and slaughter all white residents was afoot in the city. The accused ringleader, Denmark Vesey, was a former slave who had been a free carpenter in Charleston for two decades. His insurrection was supposedly planned to take place on July 14—Bastille Day. Once the plot was uncovered, however, authorities were swift with retaliation: 131 men were charged with conspiracy, 67 were convicted, and 35, including Vesey, were hanged. While historians today debate the extent of the conceived rebellion, the event proved formidable in confirming southern angst over an “internal enemy” and white supremacists knew they had to respond quickly and violently.

That Vesey was one of the founders of the Emanuel Methodist Episcopal Church was no mere coincidence. To those that pushed prosecution, the church was central to the conspiracy. The year prior, city officials had closed the church because they feared it was breaking slave codes concerning unsupervised black gatherings after sunset and the law against teaching slaves to read. Charleston authorities depicted Vesey’s frustrations over their suppression of church activities as one of his three primary motivations. (The other two being the Haitian Revolution and the debates over the Missouri Compromise.) The punishment for these sins was the noose.

There’s a lot of history behind this act of violence. There’s a lot of history behind all of them. This country – this world – is marked by white supremacy. Its an idea that forms the foundations of our country, and its an idea that is tearing it apart. This is all part of our history.

Edit to add: The twitter hashtag #CharlestonSyllabus is a growing collection of suggested readings and other resources for any educator (or person eager to learn), focused on race and violence in South Carolina – and the South more broadly – as well as critical readings of race in America, the Confederacy, and white supremacy in general. Also, remember that this hashtag follows in the footsteps of #FergusonSyllabus, which continues to be a resource on the same issues.

Readings on Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech, and Violence

In the days after the shooting at the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo‘s offices and the anti-Muslim violence that has followed (and anti-Muslim sentiment that preceded it), many people have had a lot of things to say. Despite being broadly against violence and in support of free speech, I’ve been uncomfortable with what a lot of people are saying and presses are printing. I’ve struggled to articulate it all, and so I’ll rely on the following.

In an early and succinct response to “#JeSuisCharle, Angus Johnston stated that:

An odious piece of writing doesn’t become not-odious because it offends someone odious. A pointlessly crappy cartoon remains a pointlessly crappy cartoon even if the cartoonist is targeted for murder.

It’s true (and important) that the murder of people who express stupid ideas stupidly is a threat to free expression more generally. Violence against bad speech can chill good speech, and even bad speech should not be greeted with lethal violence.

But the cure for violence against bad speech isn’t more bad speech.

Adam Shatz questions the “Je suis Charlie” line in a smart critique of George Packer and other liberals who have identified extremist ideology as the only culprit, explaining that:

We have been here before: the 11 September attacks led many liberal intellectuals to become laptop bombardiers, and to smear those, such as Susan Sontag, who reminded readers that American policies in the Middle East had not won us many friends. The slogan ‘je suis Charlie’ expresses a peculiar nostalgia for 11 September, for the moment before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, before Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition, before all the things that did so much to tarnish America’s image and to muddy the battle lines. In saying ‘je suis Charlie’, we can feel innocent again. Thanks to the massacre in Paris, we can forget the Senate torture report, and rally in defence of the West in good conscience.

Packer’s article isn’t surprising, but it’s also symptomatic. He reacted to 9/11 by supporting the invasion of Iraq. He later became a critic of the war, or at least of its execution. Yet he responded to the Paris massacre by resorting to the same rhetoric about Islamic ‘totalitarianism’ that he invoked after 9/11. He even hints at a civilisational war between Us and Them – or, at least, some of Them, the ‘substantial minority of believers who countenance… a degree of violence in the application of their convictions that is currently unique’. That such rhetoric helped countenance the disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq seems not to occur to him, bathed as he is in what liberal hawks like to call ‘moral clarity’. To demonstrate ‘moral clarity’ is to be on the right side, and to show the courage of a fighting faith, rather than the timorous, context-seeking analysis of those soft on what Christopher Hitchens called ‘Islamofascism’. Packer’s New Yorker article is a declaration of this faith, a faith he confuses with liberalism.

In laying exclusive blame for the Paris massacres on the ‘totalitarian’ ideology of radical Islam, liberal intellectuals like Packer explicitly disavow one of liberalism’s great strengths. Modern liberalism has always insisted that ideology can go only so far in explaining behaviour. Social causes matter. The Kouachi brothers were products of the West – and of the traumatic collision between Western power and an Islamic world that has been torn apart by both internal conflict and Western military intervention. They were, above all, beurs, French citizens from the banlieue: Parisians of North African descent.

Regarding how to feel about the attacks and the cartoons, Richard Seymour identified the main problem, stating that: “there’s a critical difference between solidarity with the journalists who were attacked, refusing to concede anything to the idea that journalists are somehow ‘legitimate targets,’ and solidarity with what is frankly a racist publication.”

The collapsing of these two ideas is what has made me so uncomfortable with the response to the attack.

And here’s Jacob Canfield on the role of satire and its targets:

[T]hese cartoons make it very clear who the white editorial staff was interested in provoking: France’s incredibly marginalized, often attacked, Muslim immigrant community.

[…]

White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out. People getting upset does not prove that the satire was good. And, this is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good. Their satire was bad, and remains bad. Their satire was racist, and remains racist.

The conversation around these cartoons maintains the status quo, glorifying white men who put down vulnerable populations while also labeling all Muslims as extremists. The conversation about the attacks also does this. Some have stated that this is the worst terrorist attack in Europe since 2005, conveniently forgetting right-wing nationalist and Islamophobe Anders Breivik’s murder of 77 people, mostly children, in 2011.

And I’ll close with Teju Cole, speaking truths on which bodies are mourned and remembered and which ones are left and forgotten:

Rather than posit that the Paris attacks are the moment of crisis in free speech—as so many commentators have done—it is necessary to understand that free speech and other expressions of liberté are already in crisis in Western societies; the crisis was not precipitated by three deranged gunmen.

[…]

The killings in Paris were an appalling offense to human life and dignity. The enormity of these crimes will shock us all for a long time. But the suggestion that violence by self-proclaimed Jihadists is the only threat to liberty in Western societies ignores other, often more immediate and intimate, dangers. The U.S., the U.K., and France approach statecraft in different ways, but they are allies in a certain vision of the world, and one important thing they share is an expectation of proper respect for Western secular religion. Heresies against state power are monitored and punished. People have been arrested for making anti-military or anti-police comments on social media in the U.K. Mass surveillance has had a chilling effect on journalism and on the practice of the law in the U.S. Meanwhile, the armed forces and intelligence agencies in these countries demand, and generally receive, unwavering support from their citizens. When they commit torture or war crimes, no matter how illegal or depraved, there is little expectation of a full accounting or of the prosecution of the parties responsible.

The scale, intensity, and manner of the solidarity that we are seeing for the victims of the Paris killings, encouraging as it may be, indicates how easy it is in Western societies to focus on radical Islamism as the real, or the only, enemy. This focus is part of the consensus about mournable bodies, and it often keeps us from paying proper attention to other, ongoing, instances of horrific carnage around the world: abductions and killings in Mexico, hundreds of children (and more than a dozen journalists) killed in Gaza by Israel last year, internecine massacres in the Central African Republic, and so on. And even when we rightly condemn criminals who claim to act in the name of Islam, little of our grief is extended to the numerous Muslim victims of their attacks, whether in Yemen or Nigeria—in both of which there were deadly massacres this week—or in Saudi Arabia, where, among many violations of human rights, the punishment for journalists who “insult Islam” is flogging. We may not be able to attend to each outrage in every corner of the world, but we should at least pause to consider how it is that mainstream opinion so quickly decides that certain violent deaths are more meaningful, and more worthy of commemoration, than others.

Edit to add: Another thing I’ve seen making its way around the internet is Mahmood Mamdani’s speech given at the University of Johannesburg a few years ago, on the subject of depictions of Mohammed in European newspapers. Mamdani speaks about the line between blasphemy and bigotry, stating that both “belong to the larger tradition of free speech, but after a century of ethnic cleansing and genocide, we surely need to distinguish between the two strands of the same tradition. The language of contemporary politics makes that distinction by referring to bigotry as hate speech.”

He identifies the “dark side of free speech, its underbelly: how power can instrumentalize free speech to frame a minority and present it for target practice” before delving into what kinds of speech are identified as acceptable and which are not. He defines them thus:

Blasphemy is the practice of questioning a tradition from within. In contrast, bigotry is an assault on that tradition from the outside. If blasphemy is an attempt to speak truth to power, bigotry is the reverse: an attempt by power to instrumentalize truth. A defining feature of the cartoon debate is that bigotry is being mistaken for blasphemy.

This distinction, I think, can be helpful in identifying the problem with these instances of “free expression” – and further explains why we shouldn’t be amplifying offensive speech in the name of defending free speech.

Ferguson, Missouri

If you don’t know what’s happened in Ferguson, Missouri, this overview is a really good place to start. In sum: on Saturday, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot multiple times and killed by a police officer.

There are numerous investigations being launched. According to the police, Brown had reached for the officer’s gun. They said that a scuffle broke out, leading to a gun being fired (in the passive tense). But there is little confusion when looking at witness’ reports on the matter. Dorian Johnson was walking with Brown when the incident began, and saw the whole thing. Here is one video of Johnson’s account, and MSNBC interviewed him later – his testimony there is as extensive as it is unsettling:

The officer demanded that the two “get the f—k on the sidewalk,” Johnson says. “His exact words were get the f—k on the sidewalk.”

After telling the officer that they were almost at their destination, Johnson’s house, the two continued walking. But as they did, Johnson says the officer slammed his brakes and threw his truck in reverse, nearly hitting them.

Now, in line with the officer’s driver’s side door, they could see the officer’s face. They heard him say something to the effect of, “what’d you say?” At the same time, Johnson says the officer attempted to thrust his door open but the door slammed into Brown and bounced closed. Johnson says the officer, with his left hand, grabbed Brown by the neck.

[…]

“I seen the barrel of the gun pointed at my friend,” he said. “He had it pointed at him and said ‘I’ll shoot,’ one more time.”

A second later Johnson said he heard the first shot go off.

[…]

Brown and Johnson took off running together. There were three cars lined up along the side of the street. Johnson says he ducked behind the first car, whose two passengers were screaming. Crouching down a bit, he watched Brown run past.

“Keep running, bro!,” he said Brown yelled. Then Brown yelled it a second time. Those would be the last words Johnson’s friend, “Big Mike,” would ever say to him.

Brown made it past the third car. Then, “blam!” the officer took his second shot, striking Brown in the back. At that point, Johnson says Brown stopped, turned with his hands up and said “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!”

[…]

By that point, Johnson says the officer and Brown were face-to-face. The officer then fired several more shots. Johnson described watching Brown go from standing with his hands up to crumbling to the ground and curling into a fetal position.

While MSNBC and other news organizations have interviewed Johnson, the police still haven’t, despite his attorney offering to set up an interview.

The current state of the world and the violence meted out is exhausting for me to read about and think about (and fatally dangerous for people like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, and many more to exist in). I feel helpless as my government continues to make war on black and brown bodies. There are bigger things that need doing, but I thought I’d put this blog to use if at all possible. If there’s one thing that this blog does, it’s link people to other thing they should read. With that in mind, read on:

  •  This NYT photo is emblematic of the lopsided police oppression going on in Ferguon (and elsewhere). But this one (of the same instant) gives the viewer a sense of Ferguson’s anger.
  • That anger seeks an outlet, and the two protesters in this video said as much perfectly:

“I believe that it needed to happen. I believe that they’re too much worried about what’s going on to their stores and their commerce, and everything. They’re not worried about the murder. They’re not worried about the senseless death; and that’s what I’m worried about.”

“I just think what happened was necessary, to show the police that – you know – they don’t run everything.”

Spectators

Four years ago today, a bomb hit the ex-pat-frequented restaurant, Ethiopian Village, in the Kabalagala district of Kampala, Uganda, killing and wounding several people who had gathered to watch the World Cup final. Moments later, two bombs ripped through the Kyodondo Rugby Pitch, killing dozens of spectators and wounding dozens more. The bombings were carried out by al Shabaab, who had threatened Uganda ever since its intervention in their war in Somalia. Pretty much everyone called it an act of terror.

A month ago, gunmen blasted their way through hotels and a police station in Mpeketoni, Kenya, while some guests were watching the World Cup. They proceeded to split up the residents and killed the men.  The U.S. State Department said that “there can be no place for horrific acts of violence such as this in any society.”

Yesterday, a cafe in Gaza was completely destroyed in the early morning by Israeli rockets, killing those who had gathered to break their fast and watch the World Cup match. Israel has been launching a huge operation into Gaza in response to rockets fired by Hamas. There’s less unanimity on the terrorism of blowing up spectators here, as Washington is pretty firm in its support of Israel.

If you’re an insurgent or you’re Muslim, bombs are condemned, but if you’re a state and a U.S. ally, it somehow becomes much murkier.