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:

Silencing Propaganda: When Art and Speech Become Violent

Last week, my history class discussed the death of Thami Mnyele, a South African anti-apartheid activist and artist who was killed in an attack by South African forces in Botswana. Mnyele, the subject of a biography by Diana Wylie (which was our reading for class), was a South African artist whose works went from emotional depictions of oppression under Apartheid to campaign posters as a part of the Medu Art Ensemble. He was also an anti-apartheid activist influenced by Black Consciousness and was a part of the ANC’s militant wing. Despite not being a high-level ANC leader, Mnyele was killed as a part of South Africa’s famous raid on Gaborone in 1985, when South African soldiers crossed into Botswana in the middle of the night to attack a number of ANC safe houses.

My professor told us to ignore his militant side and asked what it meant to consider whether or not his murder was legal. What it meant to even think about saying it was okay to go across borders to kill an activist. I pointed out that it gives credence to South Africa’s argument that propaganda is violent. But I didn’t say that because I thought the government was wrong – propaganda can definitely be just as violent as a gun or a bomb – words and images have power. I was merely pointing out that contemplating whether or not crossing borders to kill activists is okay implies that it could be. But I suppose the real question is, at what point is it okay to silence that speech? And back to my professor’s point, what does it mean to consider that as an option?

Looking at Mnyele’s art (Wylie’s book is replete with images), my mind kept coming back to Aaron Bady’s recent ruminations on free speech and its place in America. In looking for the line between speech and violence, he argues:

My point is not that any of this is or isn’t legitimate; some forms of speech are odious, and if the state has a right to prohibit, criminalize, and punish “violence,” then criminalizing speech is just one of those things it’s going to do, and does. But the difference between behaviors which are prohibited and those which are protected has nothing to do with the red line between speech and violence, and never has, because  no such line exists.

We’ve been dealing with this a lot, be it freedom to camp in parks as expression or right to post other people’s photographs online. To what extent is expression or speech or art okay, and to what extent does it need to be silenced by censorship, arrest, or even murder? At what point is shooting up an Obama campaign sign or tweeting that #AGoodJew is #ADeadJew something that must be stopped? And at the more extreme end, at what point does anti-state speech warrant assassination? Mnyele was clearly an enemy of the South African government – he was actively opposed to its rule, and worked against it – militarily, yes, but primarily through art and recruitment. Similarly, Anwar al-Awlaki was allegedly involved in planning some terror attacks, but his true value to al Qaeda lie in his ability to preach and recruit for the cause; Samir Khan was an editor for a magazine published by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Like Mnyele, neither were high level operatives, but both were effective recruiters through propaganda. Both were American citizens killed by a drone strike in Yemen without due process, solely because of the threat their speech possessed.

In light of the drone strike, the questions mentioned before have been flipped around. Because Apartheid = Bad, and America = Good, al Awlaki’s death is made to seem okay. Instead, people are left to debate what it means to even consider that killing him was wrong. People who raise his rights as an American citizen and point to his low-threat position in militant operations are shunned in the name of national security. “But he was al Qaeda.” But what does it mean to consider that this killing is okay? Again, it means that you’re giving credence to the state’s assertion that preaching and publishing warrants death. And again, it’s not that recruiting through speech and expression can’t have negative effects – it’s that we haven’t been able to find the point at which it’s okay (and as a result, find the point at which it’s not okay) to silence our opposition. And this is because, perhaps like the line between speech and violence – it doesn’t exist. The state will always weild its right to crack down on its enemies, we just have to wait and see who falls into what category. The government will decide who falls into the category threatening enough to put a name on a list. That’s how Mnyele was targeted, and that’s how Khan and al Awlaki were targeted.

But because that wasn’t enough, al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son would be killed two weeks later, and when asked how he could justify the killing, Press Secretary Gibbs explained, “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well being of their children.” It’s not just the threat level that goes into determining if you deserve to live or die. It seems, in some cases, your lineage is enough to warrant your guilt, and therefore your assassination – but we already knew that.

Dealing with Hate

By now you’ve probably heard about Pamela Geller and her American Freedom Defense Initiative, which bought ad space in New York City that many have called hate speech (because it is). Earlier this month New York’s Metropolitan Authority was forced put up the ads, which a court ruled were protected under freedom of speech (indeed it is). The ads read “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man.  Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” Earlier this year, the same group put the same ads on buses in San Francisco. Both situations have brought forward the number of ways to respond to free speech used in hateful ways. When hate speech is used, and critics call it such, the defenders of hate routinely argue that you can’t infringe upon their right to free speech. This is true, but the conversation doesn’t stop there. The First Amendment goes both ways, and there’s a diversity of tactics to respond to hate speech. The so-called “anti-Jihad” ads have shed light on just a few ways to shout down hate speech.

This Monday, New York’s MTA put up the ads in ten places throughout the city. Almost immediately, street artists took up the task of marking the posters for what they are, labeling them “hate speech” and “racist.”

Photo originally posted at Mondoweiss.net

Photo originally posted at Mondoweiss.net

Not long after that, Mona Eltahawy embarked on a quest to spray paint over one of the posters when a woman with a camera stood in the way, creating a weird scuffle of paint and yelling that ended in Eltahawy’s arrest.

Photo from the New York Post.

Last month, San Francisco’s saw a very different response. The SFMTA announced that any proceeds from the AFDI ads would go to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, and subsequently put up their own ads to complement the hateful posters. The new ads read “SFMTA policy prohibits discrimination based on national origin, religion, and other characteristics and condemns statements that describe any group as ‘savages.'” They are posted on the same buses as the AFDI ads, and there’s a big arrow to make sure everyone understands what they’re talking about.

Photo by WarzauWynn

The First Amendment guarantees free speech, but it doesn’t shield you from criticism or from others speaking against you. I think a lot of us can agree that the ads should be allowed to go up and still be absolutely elated when they’re graffitied, covered, and mocked. SFMTA and the activists in New York called the ads what they are: hate speech. And they have the right to do so. To paraphrase Maryam Monalisa Gharavi, in any war between hate speech and stickers/spray paint/counter-ads, support whatever the hell isn’t hate speech.