Disrupt J20: Solidarity Six Months Later

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

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

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

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

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

Ways that you can help:

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

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

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The Future of the ICC and Justice

It’s an interesting time to be watching the ICC. Last month, Gabon surprised many by referring a situation to the Court, potentially opening up another investigation on the continent. But in the last week South Africa, Burundi, and The Gambia have all officially withdrawn from the Court, throwing the entire institution into question as the collapse of African support for the ICC is manifested after years of erosion.

I don’t have too many hot takes right now, but do want to note both the obvious importance of such ongoing events, but also flag the long and thorough critiques of the ICC’s structure and capabilities. The ICC as an institution rests on state compliance and participation, and so the withdrawal of these three African countries – particularly the unexpected decision by South Africa – will have a big impact, especially if they herald a larger exodus. At the same time, the type of justice that the ICC offers is a narrow and specific one. If the ICC is indeed crumbling, it is not the end of justice. It may even be a new beginning. That said, the ICC continues to have its hand in many pots. The trial of Dominic Ongwen is set to begin in January, and will be a place to watch for what types of justice might be offered by the ICC.

For now, though, a brief link roundup.

Kate Cronin-Furman and Stephanie Schwartz have a good write-up on what Burundi and South Africa’s withdrawal means in light of the continent as a whole. Burundi’s withdrawal was almost expected, and the reasons for it are clear. The case of South Africa is a little harder to discern:

As anti-ICC sentiments have hardened within the A.U., South Africa has struggled to balance its role as a regional leader with its ambitions as an emerging global power. One read of the situation is that the withdrawal is less about South Africa’s relationship with the court than it is about its view of itself vis-à-vis the rest of the continent. If, in fact, a mass walkout is imminent, South Africa would prefer to lead the movement rather than follow others.

Mark Kersten agrees with this analysis, but doesn’t think a mass walkout is in order – though a few states may follow suit. In his post, Kersten also takes a hard look at the domestic political situation in South Africa, which is worth perusing. In the end, as always, we’ll have to watch this play out and see how the chips fall. The ICC is a robust institution, but its record is shaky and its reliance on state participation means every state that leaves weakens it little by little. But it’s never had the overt support of powerful states like the U.S., China, Russia, etc. – arguably a bigger obstacle to any effort at establishing global justice norms.

It’s this reliance on states that renders the ICC ineffective from the start. While many criticisms of the ICC are about bias, the power inequities of the global stage as well as who has signed the Rome Statute and who has not create an inherent bias – an inherent impunity. As Samar Al-Bulushi notes:

From the protection of victims and witnesses to the apprehension of suspects, the ICC’s operational reliance on powerful states ensures that individuals from those states will largely escape scrutiny, and that the Court’s decisions are often far removed from the very people it was designed to protect.

[…]

The ICC and its more prominent supporters, much like proponents of the “responsibility to protect,” generally lead us to believe that the Court is the answer to impunity, as though the law were divorced from politics, and as though “peace” and “justice” can simply be delivered at the push of a button.

Yet the ICC is an institution located within a larger architecture of power that endows some crimes and some victims with legitimacy, and not others. At the same time, its “responsibility to punish” is subject to political manipulation that allows for further exception and impunity.

This last point is why, regardless of what happens to the ICC, justice will have to be found elsewhere. The ICC will continue to receive referrals and investigate conflicts, it will even issue warrants and charges and try those it is able to get to The Hague. But even if these withdrawals didn’t happen, the ICC’s crippling reliance on member states – and the refusal of human rights-abusive states like Syria or Sudan, Israel or the U.S. to even join the Court – mean the ICC would still face be biased not only in where it chose to investigate, but where it even could investigate legally. What justice is there if some will never even be investigated?

So let’s not conflate justice with international criminal justice. As Kamari Clarke writes in Fictions of Justice, “it is limiting to assume that ‘the law’ – rule of law, criminal law, national law – is the only way that justice can be achieved, especially because justice itself is not a thing but a set of relations through which people establish norms of acceptability” (147). Western liberal legal norms at the international level are certainly not the only place where people can be held accountable, guilt can be attributed, responsibility meted out, and reconciliation fostered. The ICC is one place where some of this can happen, sometimes, for some people. What happens to the ICC matters, but we can and should imagine justice happening outside of The Hague. The withdrawal of these three countries should be taken seriously not only for its potential consequences for the ICC, but also as a signal to think beyond the ICC, as Al-Bulushi urges.

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.

Book Review – Africa Uprising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Straight to Court: The Case for Private Prosecutions

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

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

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

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Black Lives Matter demonstrators in NYC last November.

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

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

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

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

Protesters in Union Square this April.

Protesters in Union Square this April.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Lives Matter, Direct Action, and the Sanders Campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll give Jamil Smith the last word:

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

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

Watching The West Wing: Teachers and Courts

I am midway through a weeks-long marathon of watching The West Wing. When I was young, my parents watched the show, and I often watched it with them. Most evenings I watched whatever prime time drama my parents were into, and my wife and I recently began to run through the whole show on Netflix. Aaron Sorkin’s tendency to plant teachable moments throughout what is a fairly fast-paced and often context-riddled dialogue – notorious both in The West Wing and The Newsroom – does two things: teach the intricacies of American politics, both complex and simple, to an audience that may not yet know the details of a filibuster or censure or pardon, and allows those who do know feel a sense of being an “insider” as they follow the main characters down familiar hallways.

Coincidentally, Alyssa Rosenberg at The Washington Post is also watching the show this summer, and wrote a smart piece on the personal politics of the show, focusing on the fact that the main characters’ “positions on policy are — at least initially — determined by their personal attachments.” She argues that “it’s an ingenious way to make viewers feel attached to policy debates. But it also lets the Bartlet administration, which was never terribly liberal in the first place, be guided much more by emotion than any particular partisan theory of government.” I suggest reading her article, as it looks at the show’s focus on personal relationships and on its discussion of media and personal lives.

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But I have something else I’d like to focus on. In watching the senior staff of the Bartlet administration debate education, drug policy, war, and terrorism, I’m becoming more and more convinced that The West Wing obscures more than it reveals. While the script frequently teaches its audience about the inner workings of the White House and American politics in general, the descriptions and definitions it provides often preclude the viewer from making up her own mind about those very issues. The ideas proposed – recruiting more teachers, supporting international justice, decriminalizing marijuana, selling weapons to repressive regimes, etc. – are introduced not to educate but to show the viewer which one is right (or at least practical, for the latter two realpolitik situations).

The West Wing‘s take on the post-9/11 world is something I’ll have to set aside for another day (that subject will take much, much more time), but here I’m going to outline two specific scenes in seasons 2 and 3. I’m halfway through the show, so it’s very likely that more of these posts are coming. Without further ado, The West Wing, Teach for America, and the International Criminal Court.

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All Aboard for Public Infrastructure

Over the last nine months, I have spent about 275 hours on trains. I usually take the Metro-North, a state-operated railroad service whose trains have been involved in multiple crashes since I moved to the area. Sometimes trains hit cars. Sometimes trains hit each other. Sometimes there are seemingly preventable accidents, like when a train goes 82 miles per hour through a 30 mph turn and catapults towards the Hudson River.

I usually take the Metro-North, but last month I got to take the Northeast Regional, an Amtrak train that is notoriously late and inevitably tries to make up time however possible. That’s probably why an Amtrak train was going 106 mph through a 50 mph curve Tuesday night when it derailed and crashed, killing several passengers and wounding more.

While trains are safer than cars and are crashing less and less often generally, this isn’t true in the New York City area, where crash rates haven’t really declined at all.

At the New YorkerJohn Cassidy writes that “the United States has been allowing its public infrastructure to decay” for decades. The government spends half as much on infrastructure as it did in the 1950s-60s. Of course, the government spends less on a lot these days, as public service provision continues to shrivel and programs get cut more and more. Infrastructure – and safety – for people to move around the country should be a priority.

Instead, Congress slowly breaks off chunks of infrastructure one bill at a time. From International Business Times:

Seven years ago, in the face of growing evidence that the American rail system was dangerously vulnerable to derailments and collisions, Congress passed a law requiring that railroad companies add to their tracks new technology designed to limit such accidents. Absent such technology, federal transportation authorities said last year, “everybody on a train is one human error away from an accident.”

In the years that followed, some sections of the rails threading the crowded Northeast Corridor gained the so-called Positive Train Control (PTC) technology. But in late March, a Senate committee approved a bipartisan bill to delay by an additional five years the requirement for the new technology. Among the sections of the system that were then still without the safety gear: the tracks stretching between New York City and Washington.

And then, in the aftermath of Tuesday’s crash, Congress rejected a proposal to increase Amtrak’s funding.

Public infrastructure is supposed to be just that – public. It should serve the public good, and it should move the people safely and at a reasonable cost. It should help the country move. Inhibiting that does us no good.

I still have a few dozen train rides over the next month, so let’s see how I fair. In the meantime, there are some rails that need repair, investment, and technology.

The New American University

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Christopher Newfield has a review of Michael Crow and William Dabars’ new book, Designing the New American Universityin which he gives a cogent analysis of Arizona State University, its vision for the future, and the national higher education ground on which it stands.

Newfield summarizes Crow and Dabars’ overview of ASU’s achievements – including expanding access, increasing diversity, and providing a better education, all in a state with politics such as Arizona’s. He also gives a fair assessment of Crow’s vision for the “New American University,” a moniker he has trotted out for the last decade as president of ASU. This vision is blatantly for access and equality – Newfield calls it “anti-elitist” and I don’t think he’s wrong. ASU’s claim to excellence has long been its willingness to welcome all and provide them with a quality education. This is an important part of the New American University’s vision. But, not for nothing, Newfield looks at how ASU has operated in the current climate of austerity and belt-tightening and finds a lack of vision:

Arizona’s state legislature cut higher education appropriations 32 percent from 2006 through 2011. Then the legislature delivered another 25 percent cut in 2011–’12. While I was writing this review, they voted another 14 percent cut for 2015–’16. As a share of Arizona’s general fund, higher education spending has been cut in half since 1982 (from 20 percent to 9 percent). While ASU was working on its eight NAU goals and making some impressive progress, its public funding base was being cut exactly as though it were the Old American University that has become a political whipping boy.

ASU’s response to these public cuts has been similarly traditional. Arizona was one of four states that saw its public universities double their tuition fees between 2006 and 2011. (California and Hawaii being two others.) ASU student loan debt now averages something over $21,000, up about 20 percent since 2008. ASU has used ever-increasing student body growth to generate ever-increasing enrollment revenues. Many of the new students were assigned to branch campuses or to online programs where costs are lower. Meanwhile, Crow was trying to increase other revenue streams (corporate partnerships, philanthropy) by raising ASU’s research prestige, which means offering special working conditions and internal subsidies for research teams on whose productivity ASU’s rankings climb would depend. Crow played the conventional game by growing enrollments and then using these revenues to support research outputs and reputation. To the extent that ASU uses low-cost enrollment growth to cross-subsidize showcase research, the NAU is welding its superstructure to a traditional budget base.

When he turns to the way forwards, Newfield identifies positive steps in the “New” part of the New American University. He finds a desire for nonhierarchical innovation among the main principles of Crow and Dabars’ vision, and goes on to outline why more universities don’t adapt such models (a section well worth reading). It’s worth noting that, while faculty aren’t up in arms about the New American University and ASU has actually found ways to operate without the levels of adjunctification that many other universities have endured, many of these changes are still extremely hierarchical.

While I was at ASU there was a rash of school and department closing. Within four years as a Education major I was a part of the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education, the College of Teaching and Educational Leadership, and I finally graduated with a degree from the Mary Lou Fulton Teacher’s College. These closings and mergers (there were three different education schools with different focuses and on different campuses as recently as 2008) were met with anxiety from some members of the graduate education population. Other departments were similarly reshuffled with little input from those working within the systems themselves. Combining schools or departments doesn’t always ensure that everyone gets the resources that they need and deserve. I am all for interdisciplinary studies (most of my education has been such), but as I’ve argued before, knocking down departmental barriers needs to be done by scholars and on scholar’s terms. There is a difference between “collaboration across traditional disciplines” and imposed interdisciplinarity.

Indeed, Newfield makes sure not to conflate Crow and Dabars’ dislike for elite, selective colleges with any hopes that they take a stand against the corporatization of universities:

At crucial points, the authors trundle in villains from central casting: “Faculty committees tend to deliberate while shifts in policy, culture, and technology flash by at warp speed,” etc., etc. Collaborative design cannot possibly move forward when the executive party feels entitled to judge (and lecture) the rank-and-file designers on the basis of off-the-shelf imperatives about disruptive innovation. Crow and Dabars miss an opportunity to advocate for fully inclusive collaborative design techniques. I wish they were as anti-managerial as they are anti-elitist.

From there, Newfield moves to a second criticism of the book (and Crow’s broader narrative) – a lack of demand for public funding of public universities. In the book, Crow and Dabars call mass funding of public higher education an “unattainable societal goal.” This is a perfect sum of Crow’s moderate fight against defunding in the Grand Canyon State, one which has caused nearly annual tuition increases in all three state universities. (Insert my all-too-frequent reminder that the state constitution calls for free higher education). Newfield closes with this wonderful conclusion on the New American University and the current higher education context in which it sits:

Crow and Dabars are right to want new public universities to replace the Harvard standard. Their book is worth reading just for that discussion. They also support “massive change” and celebrate moon shots. So then, how about these two moon shots? First, use ASU to model nonhierarchical collaborative design, design that replaces finance-driven restructuring supervised by academic executives. Second, call for the doubling of public funding of public universities (which shouldn’t be difficult as we have recently halved it), in tandem with a halving of tuition (which shouldn’t be difficult as we recently doubled it). Make “free college for all” a medium-term national goal. We did free K–12 a century ago. We did a moon shot for the actual moon. We can obviously do the same thing for correctly funded 21st-century public colleges and universities. But we need people in Crow’s position to tell the truth about the power shifts and the public money that the next-generation, democratized public university will require.

The Durability of Museveni’s Uganda

Over at the Monkey Cage, Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz have a post on how democratic institutions increase the durability of authoritarian regimes. It’s an interesting summary of their recent research, which finds that democratic institutions such as elections actually delay true democratization, allowing authoritarian regimes to remain in power longer under the guise of democracy.

While their findings are not exactly surprising to anybody who has worked in such a country, the extent to which they’ve investigated this issue has provided a really thorough survey of regimes:

From 1946 to 1989, the average authoritarian regime lasted 12 years. Since the end of the Cold War, this number has increased to 20 years…

The figure also shows that rising authoritarian durability has tracked closely with the spread of democratic institutions (elections, legislatures, and parties), suggesting authoritarian leaders have learned to leverage these institutions to enhance their staying power. From 1951 to 1989, an autocracy with multiple parties and a legislature lasted about six years longer in office than one without them (11 years versus five years, on average). Incorporating regular elections (at least once every six years) extended a regime’s life by another year (to 12 years). This power prolonging effect has become even more pronounced in the post-Cold War period. Dictatorships with multiple political parties and a legislature now last 14 years longer than those without (19 years versus five years, on average). Regularly holding elections further extends their tenures to 22 years.

Furthermore, they argue that democratic institutions aren’t just a part of semi-authoritarian states, but that it’s actually a means of keeping states authoritarian. The whole post is worth a read, and presumably the article is too (it’s gated, here). Now, pardon the case study:

Reading the post, I was reminded of Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda. When Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) took power in 1986, they established a no-party government with facets of direct democracy that appealed to peasants across south-central Uganda. Over the years, Museveni has navigated numerous changes to the government and continued to stay in power – part of that strategy has been increasing democratization of the government. (What follows is a real quick summary of a final paper I wrote for a class on political parties a couple of years ago).

The original direct-democracy model of the Resistance Council system sought to provide the people of Uganda with a more democratic and participatory form of government than what they experienced under Amin or Obote. This later became institutionalized as the “Movement” system – a nonpartisan (but in reality one-party) elected government – almost a decade after the NRM came to power.

As calls for multi-party democracy increased, Museveni chose to give in on this issue in 2002, but only in return for the repeal of presidential term limits, allowing the NRM to appear to be opening up the country to multipartyism while simultaneously giving Museveni power in what was supposed to be his last term in office. To make the transition smooth, dissenting voices were bought or dismissed, clearing the path for a new, more “democratic” Uganda. The NRM had complete power leading up to the 2006 elections, in which the opposition faced an uphill battle against a party that controlled the army, the police, the state coffers, and the media.

Museveni also gained support from patronage through a) the military and b) local government. The former he cultivated in the ongoing fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army, and the latter he capitalized on by overseeing the rapid decentralization of government in Uganda. Museveni took the 33 districts that existed when he came in power in 1986 and has since turned them into 111.

Decentralization used the rhetoric of democracy too, giving minority groups within districts the chance to successfully elect a person who truly represented them by giving them their own separate district. Or at least, that was the popular belief. New districts rarely fell along linguistic or ethnic lines, but they did create a whole new tiered system of local government offices that owed allegiance to Museveni.

Another mobilization of democratic ideals for authoritarian gains was the creation of reserved seats in Parliament for women. The Women MP seats helped Museveni harness the women’s rights movements and giving the appearance of a government that was more equitable (regarding gender, at least), but in reality women in the reserved Women MP seats had little power or even a clear mandate (their constituents often overlapped with other MPs’).

Whether its women’s seats in Parliament, the creation of new districts, or the opening up of government to opposition parties, Museveni’s regime in Uganda has been expert at using democratic institutions to remain in power.

(HT Kim Yi Dionne who linked me to (and I think edited) the Monkey Cage post).


References:

Carbone, Giovanni M. “Political Parties in a ‘No-Party Democracy:’ Hegemony and Opposition Under ‘Movement Democracy’ in Uganda.” Party Politics. Vol. 9, No. 4 (2003), p. 485-501.

Goetz, Anne Marie. “No Shortcuts to Power: Constraints on Women’s Political Effectiveness in Uganda.” The Journal of Modern African Studies. Vol. 40, No. 4 (December 2002), p. 549-575.

Green, Elliot. “Patronage, District Creation, and Reform in Uganda.” Studies in Comparative International Development. Vol. 45 (2010), p. 83-103.

Makara, Sabati, Lise Rakner, and Lars Svåsand. “Turnaround: The National Resistance Movement and the Reintroduction of a Multiparty System in Uganda.” International Political Science Review. Vol. 30, No. 2 (2009), p. 185-204.

Mamdani, Mahmood. “Uganda in Transition: Two Years of the NRA/NRM.” Third World Quarterly. Vol. 10, No. 3 (July 1988), p. 1155-1181.

Tripp, Aili Marie. “The Changing Face of Authoritarianism in Africa: The Case of Uganda.” Africa Today. Vol. 50, No. 3 (Spring 2004), p. 3-26.