19 December 2014
Once upon a time, in school, we were told that human communities gathered up, fundamentally, towards the primary objective of ensuring the survival of each of their members. That was the benefit for the citizen of the ‘social contract’, achieved at the cost of accepting that authority would be given only to a few. Continents have been conquered, cities and states have sprouted, growing a relative and imperfect, but unquestionably improving respect for the dignity of human lives. In a word: our collective, initial wager has proved successful. Or so it seemed. What happened, then, on the 9 August of this year, when the proudest democracy of our world brought its death row onto the streets? Membership to the club of the ‘Rogue States’ is clearly a fluctuating business nowadays, so where is the world citizen of our age expected to feel safe, between a school ground of Peshawar and a sidewalk of a city suburb of Missouri? Perhaps those echoes, those coincidences, those firsthand testimonies reaching us from all directions are meant to meet and combine, contributing to charting the informal code of an internationally connected citizenry determined to hold to the initial promise of the participatory democracy. In the last decade, the popular protests are still calling for our attention, but it has welcomed in its ranks the support of the new, pan-global educated class, armed with its online presence, becoming what may be the first forms of a worldwide, translocal collective of citizen politicians. But beyond their respective fights, these movements already enact the change they advocate: transforming constitutions and institutions becomes the temporary objective; urging the permanent attention demanded of every society member is its long-lasting accomplishment. This week on LILA Inter-actions, Will Simcoe goes from Thailand back to the USA to bring the principles of the nation back to its reality. Meghna Chandra bridges the USA and India, observing the relevance of Ferguson for social quests in the Subcontinent, and she reflects on the mode of the protest as a rich medium of expression for the new forms of awareness rising today.
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Claims to Life
On the afternoon of 22 May this year, I was sitting in an empty office on the outskirts of Chiang Mai city in Northern Thailand, staring anxiously at my computer screen. It was right around the time that I would normally start packing to head home for the evening, but I had a deadline coming up, so I intended to stay and work through the night. Unfortunately, my hefty to-do list was not the only concern on my mind, as it had been a tense couple of days in Thailand.
Two days prior, I had awoken in the morning to find that I was living under martial law. Though the military insisted that a coup was not underway, those around me, some of whom had already witnessed eleven successful Thai coups in their lifetime, braced themselves, waiting for history to repeat itself. As the military seized all major TV and radio stations and blocked Internet access to several websites, a takeover seemed imminent.
Thai soldiers waiting outside the Army Club,
during the coup
Although it came as no surprise when the Army General formally announced a coup at 5 p.m. on 22 May, the event’s predictability did not ease the outrage of watching the forced removal of democratically elected leaders. I stayed at the office, but I could no longer focus on my work. All I could do was follow live updates on social media: constitution scrapped, political leaders detained, nation-wide curfew imposed. As I drove home just in time to beat the curfew, I wondered what could be done to stop the ongoing regression of Thailand’s ‘democracy’.
Along with many others in Thailand, I soon looked to the United States for a response. Surely, we thought, the self-proclaimed moral police of the world would put pressure on the junta to return power to the elected administration. It is quite remarkable, how even those of us who are painfully cognizant of the glaring hypocrisy of ‘the U.S. as moral authority’ can find ourselves idealistically hoping that the US will step in and do the right thing in times of ethical crises.
Washington’s response to the Thai coup consisted of cancelled joint military drills, suspended military aid, and a prompt statement of condemnation, urging “the restoration of civilian government immediately, a return to democracy, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, such as press freedoms.”
At the time, the irony of this statement was already apparent for a number of reasons. For one, a recent study out of Princeton University convincingly argued that the U.S. is not a democracy, but in fact an oligarchy. Additionally, the militarisation of Thailand had been strongly encouraged by Washington through security assistance, which had contributed to the U.S. military industrial complex. John Kerry decried the silencing of dissent by the Thai junta, but just a few years prior, U.S. federal agencies advised municipalities on how to crackdown on the Occupy movement protests, including press suppression tactics, which involved the harassment and penning off of journalists covering the protests.
I was well aware of these facts, yet it still somehow seemed appropriate for the U.S. to sanction the Thai military for their actions. It is as if Washington’s position of global dominance would persuade one to temporarily disregard hypocrisy in the hopes of remedying external injustices. Since my return to the United States 4 months ago, however, these hypocrisies have been growing increasingly conspicuous, and all the more difficult to overlook.
Due to the events that transpired this year in Ferguson and Staten Island, the integrity of the U.S. justice system has come under intense scrutiny. Since the aftermath of the Kent State shootings, you are unlikely to find U.S. troops massacring retreating protestors with live rounds from assault rifles – as the Thai army did during the 2010 red-shirt crackdowns – but the US has certainly proved to have its own twisted form of state-sponsored, impunity-driven murder of civilians.
The seemingly endless cycle of police brutality, non-indictment, and public outrage currently underway in the US is the product of a complex set of factors. Much of the public debate has centered on racial issues, which are undeniably relevant considering the history of race relations in the United States. However, the issue could also be addressed more pragmatically through a reformation of our approach to policing and justice in the country.
The ‘broken windows’ style of policing, which advocates zero-tolerance for small, ‘quality-of-life’ crimes, wastes valuable police resources, creates tension between depressed communities and the police, and results in unnecessary altercations. More importantly, it ultimately fails to address the root causes of crime and unrest, such as structural inequality. Alas, American proponents of ‘broken windows’ policing have been spreading the theory to law enforcement agencies throughout the world. Just last April, the Central Investigation Bureau of Thailand sent senior police back to school to be trained in the practice of focusing on minor crimes, ironically referring to it as ‘sustainable crime reduction’.
Reforming the American justice system
In order to alleviate public outrage over the impunity enjoyed by police officers who have killed unarmed civilians, the U.S. must reform its justice system. Specifically, there must be changes made to the grand jury process, which, now, allows public prosecutors to determine exactly which pieces of evidence are to be presented to the jury, behind closed doors, without any form of cross-examination. Due to the close relationship between police and the public prosecutors who rely on them for evidence, it cannot be assumed that the prosecutors will impartially investigate their associates when justice calls for it. Several solutions are possible, such as the use of outside prosecutors in cases involving civilians killed by the police, the creation of a special prosecutor position for police-related deaths, and an increase in the transparency of the grand jury process. Some critics have called for the altogether abandonment of the grand jury system.
While the police brutality problem in the U.S. must be addressed for the sake of the country, our international reputation may have recently become tarnished beyond repair. The Senate report on CIA torture released last week revealed a disgusting array of human rights abuses carried out by a U.S. federal agency. In an all-too-perfect twist of irony, it seems that the CIA actually committed acts of torture at black sites within Thailand. As it turns out, the “we’re #1!” mentality that was fed to me as a child may indeed ring true…in the category of hypocrisy.
As an American of colour in Delhi, it was horrific to find out about the police murder of Michael Brown, even as I was thousands of miles away from the event. Other Americans I knew in Delhi felt his death deeply, and we followed the news together closely.
The highly militarised state crackdown on protestors, immediately after the crime, was shocking, but it also made clear that even the local and state governments knew that people were about to rise up in a way that was very threatening to the forces of so-called ‘law and order’. We could sense that this was a historic moment. When Darren Wilson was not indicted, and the uprising began in good earnest, several friends and I got together and agreed that we had to organise a showing of solidarity with the shutdowns, walkouts, boycotts, and die-ins happening across the United States.
We were already writing about our views and sharing them over social media, but this was not enough. The process of organising a public action, including building political connections with other activists, learning about the Indian context, and directly confronting power—as we did when we protested at the US Embassy despite every attempt by the Delhi police to stop us—was uniquely transformative.
In thinking about the objectives and format of the protests, we decided that we wanted them to be an opportunity to draw connections between social injustice in the United States and in India. Though racism in America has a specific history, the kind of social exclusion, ghettoisation, and exploitation that characterises American white supremacy has its parallels with the discrimination faced by people from the North East, Muslims, Adivasis, lower castes and African immigrants in India. For example, Muslims, Dalits and Tribals make up 53% of all prisoners in the country, despite making up only 39% of the population (Indian census). Meanwhile in the US, according to the Department of Justice, black males make about 12-13% of the American population, but make up about 40% of the prison population. In India, African immigrants are tarred as drug dealers and prostitutes, and face harassment daily and discrimination by the police. People from the North East face constant intimidation in metropolitan centres like Delhi, over their phenotypical features and perceived cultural differences. Xenophobia against North Easterners has led to public displays of violence, as in the case of Nido Taniam, who was beaten to death by a mob earlier this year.
The racist dehumanisation that was behind Darren Wilson seeing Michael Brown as “a demon” who deserved to be gunned down is not unlike the dehumanisation responsible for violence against socially marginalised groups in India. Importantly, this kind of blatant devaluation of the lives of oppressed minorities persists in two countries that tout themselves as great democracies, a title which they often use to justify imperialist aggression from Afghanistan to Kashmir. Pointing out the hypocrisy of the claims of these ‘democracies’ to moral authority is key to challenging global systems of domination.
A protest in Delhi, in support of Ferguson
As we set the protests, we had the full support of the Students’ Union of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, as well as leftist, Dalit, and African immigrant student groups. Among the speakers at our first protest were Dalit student activists who drew theoretical and historical links between caste and race, while Professor Bimol Akoijam connected racism against North Easterners and Africans, as well as the racist undertones of discrimination against darker-skinned people. A Ugandan student spoke about the discrimination he faces in Delhi when trying to rent an apartment, shop at malls, ride in public transportation, and just generally walk in public spaces peacefully.
It is not just in universities, or in Delhi, that people are using Ferguson as a springboard for continuing to speak out against the othering and devaluation of certain bodies. Communities are making the connections worldwide between what is happening in Ferguson and local struggles against oppression. I have seen images from Palestine, the UK, Japan, Syria, and the Philippines proclaiming support for the anti-police violence protestors. I came across a picture from the Cultures of Resistance Facebook page with a banner from the Syrian revolution that says: “We stand in solidarity with the oppressed who cannot breathe #Blacklivesmatter” The fact that people fighting both ISIS and an oppressive regime have found commonalities with the movement asserting the value of black life in the United States shows that Ferguson has global significance as a movement of the oppressed claiming their right to life.
People outside of the movement screech that there should be a leader to set the limits of the protests and delineate specific demands that power could meet, so to make the protest go away. I think what is so wonderful about this movement, and other protest movements in recent years like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, is that they are characterised by a collectivity that cannot be easily co-opted. They are fertile spaces for people to think outside our present realities and evolve our collective social conscience.
Occupy Wall Street… and variations
In the US context, there has been a lot of talk about translating the movement into easily measurable ‘concrete’ legal change. But the murder of Mike Brown is not the result of a policy problem. I have seen the proposal for mandatory body cameras for police floating around on mainstream media outlets, but as the acquittal of Eric Garner’s murderers revealed, having the entire killing on video does not make a difference.
As an organiser and leftist, I think the way to end state violence involves more and more people becoming a part of these movements and articulating and enacting a vision for the kind of world they would like to live in. Incredibly, there was an article in Rolling Stone by a grassroots organiser listing ideas for a cop-free world, including the use of unarmed mediation, decriminalisation of almost all crimes, restorative justice, and direct democracy at the community level. Underlying these ideas is the need to imagine a more loving, nonviolent, and evolved social existence. As a forum for many voices, the anti police violence movement is a place where such an imagination is flourishing.
Will Simcoe is an international development professional with interests in education, public health, and economic policy. He is currently preparing for graduate studies after having worked for several years providing curriculum development and programme support for EPOP Asia, a non-profit organisation that delivers education to social development workers in Southeast Asia. Will spent the first 19 years of his life in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but has since called many places home, including Missouri, France, Thailand, and Nepal.
Meghna Chandra is a Desi American organiser and writer. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Urban Studies and is completing her MA at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Modern History. She loves bicycling around Philadelphia, reading and writing radical science fiction, and becoming a part of communities wherever she goes.
Disclaimers: The opinions expressed by the writers are their own. They do not represent their institutions’ view.
LILA Inter-actions will not be responsible for the views presented.
The images and the videos used are only intended to provide multiple perspectives on the fields under discussion.
Voice courtesy: Samuel Buchoul
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