Reviews at AQ and JMAS

Earlier this year I had two different reviews published in journals. Just wanted to drop them here for folks who study violence in Africa.

In the winter issue of Anthropological Quarterly, I have a book review essay titled “Violence, Intervention, and the State in Central Africa,” reviewing two great recent works. Louisa Lombard’s State of Rebellion: Violence and Intervention in Central African Republic helps us understand the humanitarian intervention in CAR as well as roots of violence there, inequities in the global state system, and problems of peacekeeping and peacebuilding. A translation of Marielle Debos’ Living by the Gun in Chad: Combatants, Impunity, and State Formation gives insight into the politics of armed labor in Chad as men of arms navigate the violent margins of the state there. Both are useful reads that I’d recommend to folks studying similar processes, in Africa or elsewhere.

In the latest issue of the Journal of Modern African Studies, I wrote a short review of Holly Porter’s After Rape: Violence, Justice, and Social Harmony in Ugandawhich is rooted in Acholi custom, lore, and language, and situates sexual violence—both in and out of war—in local understandings of consent, sex, and marriage; the realities of impunity and justice in Uganda’s political and legal system; and the Acholi conception of social harmony. An ethnography that is locally rooted to an extensive amount, Porter’s book is a useful read for those working on gender-based violence and justice after violence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Burundi’s Descent

Quick post with links on Burundi, where things have steadily gotten worse all year but may be descending even more quickly with a recent spike in violence.

Here’s Ty McCormick at Foreign Policy on recent armed attacks on military bases, and what it means for the broader political situation in Burundi. A month ago Kate Cronin-Furman and Michael Broache noted that the violence in Burundi is a political conflict, trying to steer conversation in that direction. However, as Cara Jones notes, the discourse around the conflict is changing form, and may be sign of increasing ethnic conflict:

Since the outbreak of protests against Nkurunziza’s third term, both government and opposition have used ethnicized rhetoric… The government uses ethnic rhetoric presumably to signal to the opposition the potential violence that could come their way and incite citizens to participate in violence. The opposition uses ethnicized rhetoric to push for international intervention, which has the potential of changing the makeup of government.

More concerning than the rhetoric, however, are the ethnic patterns of violence that appear to be emerging. There are reports, for example, that security forces have targeted protesters in Tutsi minority-heavy districts of Bujumbura. These individuals have been arrested, tortured and subjected to other forms of violence. Weekend violence resulted in at least 87 deaths, and witness statements and information on victims’ ethnicity strongly suggest that many of the victims were disproportionately Tutsi.

Refugees International published a report [pdf] that Burundian refugees are being recruited in refugee camps in Rwanda, with negative consequences for all of the refugees involved.

In a piece at Blank Spot Project, journalist Anna Roxvall tells several stories from Burundi over the last few months. The article includes several vignettes that demonstrate the heightened levels of violence that people are enduring. This is just one excerpt (including references to murder and rape):

The water in the Kinyankonge River runs, dirt-brown, down its furrow. A few young men have set up a make-shift bar on a slope and play an edgy Afrobeat through cracked speakers. It’s hot.

This neighborhood along the river is called Mutakura and is the area where the biggest protests against the government raged this spring. Many young men were killed during the clashes there, which is considered the seat of the opposition by police and the government.

”This place used to be bustling with people who came for the clay to make bricks,” says 22-year-old Alain, balancing on the porous river bank.

Nowadays, nobody dares to begin new construction. In the ongoing conflict, the river has turned into a no-name graveyard. In the morning, the people who live here find corpses that have been dumped under the cover of the dark.

”It’s usually not people from here, so I think it’s people who have ’disappeared’ from other parts of the city,” Alain says.

The corpses are mostly men, but one time there was a woman. Someone had violated her with a stick.

Alice, who is 27, also found a dead body here two weeks ago.”It was impossible to see who it was, he was back-tied and had a rice bag over his head,” she says.

We stand there and consider the plastic bags, trash and old shoes that are swirled around and getting stuck on the river bottom. Alice puts her arm around a little girl who has joined us and then makes an irritated gesture toward the mess in the river.

”This affects our children very much. How are they supposed to be able to focus on their education if they find dead bodies on their way to school?”

Update – Dec. 15: Ty McCormick published a follow-up report on the state oppression that followed the armed attack on military bases. While the attacks did happen, a majority of those killed by security forces afterwards were not involved, but were the victims of state revenge.

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.

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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.

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.

Whose Violence Matters?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Partially because of rampant inequality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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.

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.

South Sudan Descends into Crisis

Things have rapidly deteriorated in parts of South Sudan since political infighting between President Salva Kiir and ex-Vice President Riek Machar left Juba locked down on December 15th. A country that was described as “teetering on the brink” a week ago now looks like all-out civil war.

While this is a political crisis first and foremost, it is playing out along ethnic lines, and to very frightening effect. Human Rights Watch has reported that both soldiers and rebels have been seen executing people based on their ethnicity (Dinka or Nuer). Daniel Howden describes what can only be labeled a massacre in Juba (and several others like it) at The GuardianThe most horrifying example of what’s now happening there:

A week ago, Simon K, a 20-year-old student living in the capital of South Sudan, was arrested by men in military uniforms. He was asked a question that has taken on deadly importance in the world’s newest country in the past seven days: incholdi – “What is your name?” in Dinka, the language of the country’s president and its largest ethnic group.

Those who, like Simon, were unable to answer, risked being identified as Nuer, the ethnic group of the former vice-president now leading the armed opposition and facing the brunt of what insiders are describing as the world’s newest civil war.

Simon K was taken to a police station in the Gudele market district of Juba, where he was marched past several dead bodies and locked in a room with other young men, all Nuer. “We counted ourselves and found we were 252,” he told the Guardian. “Then they put guns in through the windows and started to shoot us.”

The massacre continued for two days with soldiers returning at intervals to shoot again if they saw any sign of life. Simon was one of 12 men to survive the assault by covering themselves in the bodies of the dead and dying.

Outside of Juba, the reverse is happening. Armed groups have taken much of Jonglei and Unity states, including Bor and Bentiu, their respective capitols. The UN humanitarian coordinator said that he saw “people who were being lined up and executed in a summary fashion” in Bor. Tens of thousands have sought refuge at UN compounds, and expatriates from many countries have already been evacuated.

As we hold our breath and hope that calm can be restored, talks can be mediated, and people can safely return home, I’ll try to keep you updated. In the meantime, a good primer is Radio Tamazuj’s nine questions about the South Sudan crisis and Think Africa Press’ edition of experts weekly focusing on the crisis. If you’re feeling like historicizing, this HRW dispatch on ethnic tension from earlier this year and this FP piece on how South Sudan faced setbacks from the beginning. If you’re on Twitter, Lesley Warner has compiled a long list of South Sudanese Twitter handles you can follow to get news, and the bottom of this post also has some expats that were (might still be) tweeting from Juba.

Update: Colum Lynch just wrote a good piece outlining how things have devolved.