(Keynote Address delivered to the University of San Diego Conference: The Catholic Church Moves Towards Nonviolence? Just Peace Just War in Dialogue on October 6, 2107)
Thank you. I’m honored to be amongst so many great scholars, theologians (including Cardinal Turkson and Bishop McElroy) activists, peacebuilders, policymakers and military officers. Thank you to University of San Diego, the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, and the Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture for organizing this conference on Just War Just Peace in Dialogue – I can’t think of a better topic for a civil-military conversation. I would like to applaud the members the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative – there are many in this room – for helping to bolster the Church’s thought leadership and practical investment in alternatives to war and violence. Special thanks to Cardinal Turkson for presiding over last April’s Rome conference on Nonviolence and Just Peace, and for being such a tireless proponent of human rights, dignity, and a world without violence.
Tonight I will focus on the power and potential of nonviolent options to prevent, mitigate, and transform violent conflict and advance sustainable peace. I will offer evidence backing the efficacy of these nonviolent options and offer some practical ways the Catholic Church, along with its governmental, military, inter-faith, and non-governmental allies, can strengthen them.
But first, let me share a couple of stories about what brought me to this work and has kept me inspired and hopeful ever since.
Pope John VI famously said, “If you want peace, work for justice.”
I grew up in southern Vermont and my family often attended mass at the Weston Priory, where a hearty group of Benedictine monks live, farm, sing and celebrate the Gospel. Masses take place in a barn overlooking the Green Mountains. The monks welcome everyone – from all faiths, religions, and walks of life – to join in the celebration. The Priory has a great gift shop. After mass I would make a beeline for the books section, which is where I began to collect biographies of Mahatma Gandhi and Dorothy Day, along with books about nonviolent resistance and radical peacemaking. These books introduced me to Oscar Romero, Dolores Huerta, and the Catholic Workers, who became my s/heroes. Somehow my Mom always ended up paying for the books.
Pope John VI famously said, “If you want peace, work for justice.”
After high school I was involved in grassroots restorative justice work. I lived and worked at the Rutland Dismas House, a transitional home for former prisoners and college students. The Dismas motto, “reconciling former prisoners with society and society with former prisoners”, is animated by a community support structure for those transitioning from prison. I observed how members of the community – including those who had initially opposed Dismas House being in their back yard – mobilized to provide home-cooked meals to the residents, offered them jobs, and gave them support. Dismas House has been highly successful: my Dad tells me that the recidivism rate for its residents is about 15 percent, compared to 70 percent nationally – and at less than a third of the cost of incarceration.
Later I had my first rendezvous with the Jesuits at Boston College, where “service to others” is a campus creed. I studied political science and lived in France and Germany while researching European integration, one of the world’s greatest peacebuilding projects. After starting grad school at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, I attended a Boston film screening of A Force More Powerful, a documentary film about six highly consequential nonviolent struggles. The film highlighted how unarmed civilians stared down the British empire in India, confronted Nazis in Denmark, fought apartheid in South Africa, removed dictators in Chile and Poland, and dismantled Jim Crow in the US using strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, sit-ins, and other forms of nonviolent direct action.
The film was inspiring. I decided to focus my PhD research on the strategic dimensions of nonviolent resistance in self-determination movements. The International Security Studies departments at Fletcher and the Harvard Belfer Center were my strongest backers. Meanwhile, West Point and the Army, Navy, and Air Force war colleges invited me to come talk about civil resistance as a form of nonviolent power and a functional alternative to violence. I attended the Summer Workshop on the Analysis of Military Operations and Strategies (aka “war camp”) and was that “interesting” person talking about people power.
In 2006 while working at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, I met Erica Chenoweth – a fellow political scientist and quantitative guru – at a conference in Colorado. She was skeptical about the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance. So were a lot of people, who insisted that nonviolent resistance could “work” but only under certain favorable conditions. In tough contexts, like violent dictatorships, the prevailing wisdom was that violence stood a better chance. Erica and I decided to test these assumptions, by systematically comparing the effectiveness of violent and nonviolent resistance. For the next couple of years we collected data on all known major violent and nonviolent campaigns from 1900-2006. These were campaigns challenging incumbent regimes and vying for territorial self-determination.
During this book-writing time I was in Kabul, Afghanistan with the State Department, at the peak period of insurgency. Occasionally, on nights and Sundays while chapter editing in my hootch, a “duck and cover” siren, signaling incoming rockets or mortar, would interrupt the effort.
After collecting data on 323 major violent and nonviolent campaigns, each with at least 1000 observed participants, we arrived at a surprising conclusion. The nonviolent campaigns were twice as successful as armed insurgencies. They achieved their goals 53% of the time compared to 26% for violent campaigns, a percentage that has remained basically the same through 2015. (“Success” was defined as removal of the incumbent regime or territorial independence.) While there has been a slight dip in the overall effectiveness of nonviolent campaigns recently, violent insurgencies have become even less effective.
Why has civil resistance so dramatically out-performed armed struggle? We found that the most important variable determining the outcome was the size and diversity of participation. Nonviolent campaigns attract on average 11 times the level of participants as the average violent campaign. The moral, physical, informational, and commitment barriers to participation are much lower for nonviolent resistance compared to armed struggle. Whereas armed insurgencies often rely on a relatively small group of young, able-bodied men, nonviolent campaigns attract women and men, youth and elderly, able-bodied and disabled, rich and poor.
She was skeptical about the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance. So were a lot of people, who insisted that nonviolent resistance could “work” but only under certain favorable conditions. In tough contexts, like violent dictatorships, the prevailing wisdom was that violence stood a better chance.
One reason is that the number and range of tactics available to nonviolent resistors is huge. Gene Sharp catalogued 198 methods of nonviolent action in 1973. That number has vastly expanded as the creative limits of the imagination have expanded. Power is fluid and ultimately flows from the consent and cooperation of ordinary people. When large and diverse groups of people remove their consent and cooperation from an oppressive regime or system of power using tactics like boycotts, strikes, and civil disobedience, no ruler, no matter how brutal, can stay in power. Members of security forces (army and police) are also significantly more likely to defect, or to disobey regime orders to use repression, when confronted with large numbers of nonviolent resistors, compared to armed insurgents. When security forces defect, as they did in the Philippines, Serbia, Ukraine, and Tunisia, this is often a decisive variable.
We found that the chances of success are higher when groups maintain nonviolent discipline in the face of repression, when they creatively alternate between methods of concentration (like sit-ins and demonstrations) and methods of dispersion (like consumer boycotts and stayaways) and when they invest in decentralized leadership.
Nonviolent campaigns also contribute to more democratic and peaceful societies. Less than 4 percent of armed rebel victories result in a country becoming democratic within five years. A Congolese bishop reinforced that point to me recently. He counted off the number of insurgent leaders in his country and across the continent who had led successful armed struggles, then became even more tyrannical than their predecessors. On the other hand, the skills associated with nonviolent organizing, negotiating differences, building coalitions, and collective action reinforce democratic norms and behaviors. And they tend to produce more peaceful societies.
Nonviolent civil resistance, then, is a functional alternative to violence with both short and longer-term positive effects. It is a particularly powerful nonviolent channel for marginalized or oppressed people to challenge systems of power – whether they are exploitative corporations, dictatorships, or institutionalized racism – and build more inclusive, just societies.
Pope Francis, in his 2017 World Day of Peace address, a monumental document, noted that “momentous change in the lives of people, nations and states had come about ‘by means of peaceful protest, using only the weapons of truth and justice.”
The Church has played a pivotal role in some of the most significant nonviolent struggles in history. Many will recall the iconic image of the Filipino religious sisters, confronting military forces and a kleptocratic Marcos dictatorship in prayerful resistance during the 1986 “people power” revolution. Across the Philippines priests and nuns, in partnership with the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, trained their communities in nonviolence and nonviolent action. Cardinal Jamie Sin attended one of these workshops. He later joined the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines in calling for a “nonviolent struggle for justice”, using Radio Veritas to amplify the message. This preparation, combined with an election-monitoring mission led by local religious leaders, paved the way to Marcos’ nonviolent ouster. Today, Filipino religious leaders, facing another violent dictator, are once again engaged in nonviolent activism.
The nonviolent campaigns were twice as successful as armed insurgencies. They achieved their goals 53% of the time compared to 26% for violent campaigns, a percentage that has remained basically the same through 2015.
During the Polish Solidarity movement in the 1980s, Pope John Paul II, with local priests and nuns, famously stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the worker-led movement that challenged Communist tyranny with nonviolent resistance. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was martyred for showing solidarity with campesinos and other victims of junta brutality. In the US, 4 feisty religious women have taken to the buses and streets to give voice to the poor and undocumented; they have animated Laudato Si through direct action to protect the environment.
I am often asked: what about cases of genocide, ethnic cleansing, or violent extremism? What about protecting innocent people? What are the nonviolent options in these cases?
First, I don’t come at this topic from a pacifist perspective. I’m the first to admit that nonviolent action has not always worked. At the same time, there is little evidence to suggest that armed resistance would have done any better in places where nonviolent resistance failed. Military interventions on humanitarian grounds, as in cases like Rwanda or the protection of Yazidis in Iraq, may save lives in certain cases. But, practically speaking, mustering the political will to support military intervention on Responsibility to Protect (R2P) grounds has become so difficult that it is strategically imperative to develop alternatives.
The second point is that most mass atrocities historically have occurred in the context of armed struggles and civil wars. Very rarely are large numbers of unarmed civilians killed while engaged in mass nonviolent campaigns. New research by Erica Chenoweth and Evan Perkoski found that nonviolent resistance can even decrease the likelihood of mass atrocities. Not surprisingly, armed movements with foreign support are much more likely to elicit mass killings.
It is also worth mentioning that while the WWII ultimately brought the end to the Nazi regime, civil resistance and nonviolent noncooperation saved thousands of lives. Jacques Semelin, in his book, Unarmed Against Hitler, chronicles a number of these examples, including the case of German Aryan women who protected their Jewish husbands from concentration camps through sustained protests outside the SS headquarters in Berlin.
Power is fluid and ultimately flows from the consent and cooperation of ordinary people. When large and diverse groups of people remove their consent and cooperation from an oppressive regime or system of power using tactics like boycotts, strikes, and civil disobedience, no ruler, no matter how brutal, can stay in power.
Nonviolent protests and other forms of collective action have won tactical concessions from extremist groups like ISIS in Iraq and Syria and al Shabaab in East Africa. For example, women’s led protests outside an ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, led to the release of political activists in 2014. Two years ago in northeastern Kenya, fighters from the al-Shabaab terrorist group ambushed a bus filled with women. The fighters demanded that the Muslim and Christian women separate, a tactic they’d used in the past before slaughtering the Christians. The Muslim women refused to separate, and shielded the Christian women. They said: “You will kill us all or leave us alone.” Their collective stubbornness worked – the al Shabaab fighters left without anyone on the bus being killed.
Oliver Kaplan recently released a book, Resisting War: How Civilians Protect Themselves, which analyzes how unarmed civilians have influenced the behaviors of state and non-state armed groups in civil war contexts. He examines cases in Colombia, with extensions to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and the Philippines. The study shows how unarmed civilians self-organized and created autonomous, resilient institutions. They carved out peace zones, prevented extra-judicial killings, and deterred violence targeting civilians.
These findings have important implications for the Church and other external actors seeking to prevent mass atrocities. They suggest that supporting local self-organizing and collective action in the midst of violent conflict can help save lives.
There are other ways to deter violence and human rights abuses in conflict zones. Unarmed civilian protection, which is the use of unarmed civilians to do ‘peacekeeping’, has had 5 demonstrable successes. Nonviolent Peaceforce, Christian Peacemakers Teams, Peace Brigades International and Operation Dove have led civilian peacekeeping missions in South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Guatemala, the Philippines, Indonesia, Israel-Palestine, and elsewhere. Evaluations of unarmed civilian protection reveal that this activity has saved lives, changed the behavior of armed groups, and made local peace and human rights work more possible.
The UN High Level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations stated: “unarmed strategies must be at the forefront of UN efforts to protect civilians.” Strategically it makes sense for major military powers, including the United States, to invest in UCP programs as an effective and less costly form of peacekeeping.
Of course, it goes without saying that if you want to prevent mass atrocities, you prevent war. Prevention demands investment, and right now the levels of US and global investment in violence prevention are infinitesimally small compared to the sums dedicated to war fighting. Practically, prevention means supporting inclusive and participatory economic and political processes (recall that institutionalized discrimination against Iraqi Sunnis contributed to the rise and spread of ISIS). It means fostering dialogue and trust between communities and police (justice and security dialogues have done just that in Nepal and Burkina Faso). It means using diplomatic, military, and trade levers to challenge crackdowns on civic space and human rights violations (security force abuses in northern Nigeria fueled the rise of Boko Haram).
Nonviolent campaigns also contribute to more democratic and peaceful societies. Less than 4% of armed rebel victories result in a country becoming democratic within five years.
In the area of violence prevention, our U.S. military colleagues can make particularly valuable contributions. When military leaders, who have been strong proponents of the work of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), demand greater investment in non-military solutions, when they point out the gross under-resourcing of diplomacy and development – when compared to military hardware and train-and-equip programs – it makes a difference. Military advocacy on Capitol Hill and in the private sector for massively increased investment in violence prevention and peacebuilding is a concrete way to advance just peace around the world.
Relatedly, enlightened military leadership understands that corrupt, undisciplined, rights-violating security forces are unreliable partners. Their practices fuel insurgencies and violent extremism. There is a smart guide written by Admiral Dennis Blair, called Military Engagement: How Armed Forces Can Support Democratic Transitions Worldwide. It instructs on how military relationships and security partnerships can incentivize democratic norms and behaviors and deter security force crackdowns on peaceful opposition. I hope that this guide might one day be fully integrated in military education and training in the US and around the world.
So far I’ve focused a great deal on civil resistance and nonviolent collective action. But we know that this is one set of tools in a much broader nonviolent arsenal. Transforming violent conflict and dissolving its root causes requires a combination of people power and peacebuilding. That means linking nonviolent resistance, which intentionally escalates conflict, and traditional peacebuilding tools like negotiation, dialogue, and mediation, which de-escalate it.
The theory here is that in conflicts marked by great power asymmetries, where groups are intentionally marginalized or excluded from political processes, power needs to shift and an unjust status quo disrupted before conflict resolution become possible. In other words, nonviolent action is often necessary to “ripen” the situation for resolution. As Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in 1963:
“You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
The Polish Solidarity movement combined Gdansk shipyard strikes with formal roundtable negotiations. The Liberian civil war came to end because the government and rebels were pressured – in part by a women’s-led sex strike – to reach a settlement. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Nepal was reached when popular nonviolent resistance shifted the power dynamics and incentivized meaningful peace talks. Veronique Dudouet highlights these and other examples in an excellent report, “Powering to Peace: Integrated Civil Resistance and Peacebuilding Strategies”. Anthony Wanis-St. John and Noah Rosen focus on the importance of negotiation in nonviolent resistance in a recently published USIP Peaceworks report.
I am often asked: what about cases of genocide, ethnic cleansing, or violent extremism? What about protecting innocent people? What are the nonviolent options in these cases?
Using and sequencing these dialogical and direct action techniques is both an art and a science. USIP is currently developing a practical guide, called “Synergizing Nonviolent Action and Peacebuilding” (SNAP), which is intended to inform field-based trainings on how, practically, these nonviolent approaches can be used together. We hope that this action guide might be helpful for organizations like Pax Christi, Mercy Corps, Caritas International, Catholic Relief Services, and members of the Alliance for Peacebuilding whose work is grounded in conflict affected communities.
So we know that nonviolent resistance is important in negotiating a sustainable and just peace. This aligns with the fact that, historically, the most durable peace processes and national dialogues have been inclusive and participatory. Desiree Nilsson’s study of all peace agreements reached in the post-Cold War period found that the involvement of civil society reduced the risk of failure by 64%. Peace accords that include civil society actors – including religious groups, women’s groups, and human rights organizations – are more likely to see peace prevail. The Colombia peace process, which culminated in a landmark peace accord last year, featured the active involvement of victim’s groups, women’s groups, and other civic actors. Other research has found that the presence of skilled negotiators and facilitators at the local level contributed to the success of national dialogue processes. Training mattered.
Women’s participation merits special focus. Multiple studies have found that women’s inclusion in peace processes correlates significantly with their success – Northern Ireland and Liberia are classic examples. Women bring unique identities, perspectives, and a sense of urgency to peace processes. While women often need to fight for a place at the table, it stands to reason that unlocking the leadership potential of women at all levels of an organization or institution, including the Catholic Church, would strengthen its ability to forge peace.
Another nonviolent tool, mediation, has helped resolve some of the most intractable violent conflicts, including the civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, Mozambique, Northern Ireland, and Colombia. The Catholic Church, often in partnership with other faith groups, has often been a key mediator. We know the critical role that the Vatican and Pope Francis played in mediating an end to Colombia’s civil war. The Catholic Lay Community of Sant’Egidio played a vital role in ending the devastating Mozambique civil war (1975-1990). Sant’Egidio, a Rome-based organization with some serious mediation skills and a biblical commitment to service, compassion, and peace, developed strong relationships with the two conflict parties, the ruling Frelimo party and 7 RENAMO rebels. It brought them together in Rome for meetings over 2 years that culminated in the signing of the Rome General Peace Accords in 1992.
In northern Uganda, which has endured nearly 3 decades of civil war between the government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu and his Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace initiative, an inter-faith conflict transformation organization, has won the trust of all sides, allowing him to carve out spaces for peace. Odama, who I was honored to meet in Rome, has facilitated years of dialogue between government and LRA forces. He famously says, “As long as there is an opportunity for peace talks, I shall pursue it.” While a comprehensive peace settlement in Uganda remains elusive, and the government is currently cracking down hard against nonviolent civic groups, perhaps one day, religiously mediated dialogue combined with citizen-led collective action will achieve a breakthrough.
Transforming violent conflict and dissolving its root causes requires a combination of people power and peacebuilding. That means linking nonviolent resistance, which intentionally escalates conflict, and traditional peacebuilding tools like negotiation, dialogue, and mediation, which de-escalate it.
Similarly, in South Sudan, where post-independence civil war and dictatorship have created a terrible humanitarian crisis, the inter-denominational South Sudan Council of Churches, one of the strongest civil society groups in the young country, has issued an Action Plan for Peace (APP) focused on dialogue and reconciliation. There is also a budding youth-led nonviolent movement in the country, called Ana Taban (“I am tired”) that is using the arts to build bridges, call out abuses on all sides, and mobilize people for peace. Hopefully the wisdom of the elders and youth energy will creatively combine to bring sustained peace to South Sudan.
A core tenet of just peacemaking is addressing and overcoming legacies of gross human rights violations and other historical injustices. Faith groups have historically contributed in significant ways to transitional justice and reconciliation. There are multiple models of truth-telling and reconciliation. In Guatemala, the Catholic Church, under the leadership of Bishop Juan Gerardi, helped initiate, organize, and execute the successful national truth commission, the Recovery of Historical Memory Project, in the mid-1990s. In Chile, the Catholic Church advocated for the country’s Commission on Truth and Reconciliation following Pinochet’s removal from power in 1990 – a core component of that country’s transition to democracy. The Chilean commission helped inspire the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission shepherded by Archbishop Tutu.
The effectiveness of all these nonviolent techniques – including civil resistance, dialogue, mediation, negotiation, unarmed civilian protection, trauma healing, and transitional justice – are grounded in the skills and legitimacy of those using them. An important role the Church (and all of us) can play in advancing just peace globally is building strategic and tactical bridges between the techniques of grassroots nonviolent action and peacebuilding and investing in them.
Practically, this can be done via education and training, through the diplomatic and policy influencing arms of the Church, through inter-religious initiatives and through field-based programming with conflict-affected communities.
- Catholic universities around the world can educate and train youth and communities in the full menu of nonviolent options and their practical, strategic applications; they can support cutting-edge research on conflict analysis and just peace approaches.
- Catholic leadership from the parish level on up can help integrate just peace and conflict transformation teachings into religious trainings, lay formation, homilies and sermons.
- They can draw on research, films, and training materials on nonviolent action (many translated into dozens of languages) developed by USIP, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, Pace-e-Bene, Rhize, and other organizations.
- The Pontifical Council on Inter-religious Dialogue can continue to promote just peace approaches that draw on all the religious traditions.
- Church leaders can communicate with government officials and security forces to deter violent crackdowns against peaceful activists.
- They can take diplomatic action when state/non-state actors are engaged in systematic human rights abuses, high-level corruption and exclusionary policies that fuel violence, and show solidarity with nonviolent activists and peacebuilders on the front lines.
- The Vatican Secretary of State and Holy See missions in NY and Geneva can use existing initiatives, like the UN Sustaining Peace Resolution and the Sustainable Development Goals, to advance just peace approaches and tools.
Logistically, the Church can also provide safe spaces in places like the DRC, South Sudan, Venezuela, and Cambodia, where activists and peacebuilders can meet, strategize, and plan actions. It can offer small resources and transportation support for those forced to operate in restrictive environments, often with little or no money. It can work with Catholic and other private foundations to support grant-giving that aligns with just peace objectives.
I mentioned the military’s role in advocating for greater investment in nonviolent alternatives and peacebuilding. The Church could work with the military to support unarmed peacekeeping pilot initiatives in places like Syria and South Sudan. And encourage it to use military-to-military levers (training, funding, education) to strengthen governance in partner defense institutions, and deter repression and human rights abuses.
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.
At least one national government, Lithuania, has made civilian-based defense, which involves the use of mass civil resistance and noncooperation to deter and repel foreign attacks, a core component of its national defense strategy. Building up the nonviolent resistance and peacebuilding skills and capacities of citizens, in schools and communities, is a great investment in national and international security. Of course, a papal encyclical on nonviolent action and just peace would help focus Church energy and resources on all of these options. Perhaps one day.
I have a special place in my heart for nonviolent organizers and the work they do – Dorothy Day is atop the list. Let me end with her pragmatically hopeful words:
“People say, what is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.”
May this conference create ripples that spread in all directions and inform how we all, individually and collectively, civilian and military, doctrinally and practically, can bolster nonviolent options to advance a more just and peaceful world. Thank you.
By Maria J. Stephan
Maria J. Stephan directs the Program on Nonviolent Action at the U.S. Institute of Peace, which focuses on applied research, training and education and informing policies and practice related to civil resistance, nonviolent action and their roles in transforming violent conflict and advancing just peace. Her Twitter is @MariaJStephan
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From Shifta to Terrorist: A Shifting Narrative Of Northern Kenya
A section of Kenyan citizens has been labelled dangerous to the main body of the country and denied a national identity and equal status with their fellow citizens.
As Kenya was celebrating her independence in 1963, the people of the Northern Frontier District were mourning the death of their dream of self-governance under British rule. In the spring of 1962, at the Lancaster House Conference, the region’s delegation had demanded self-determination for the NFD. The colonial government appointed an independent commission to look into the question and a referendum to determine the region’s future was subsequently held. The results of the plebiscite were however cancelled under suspicious circumstances even though they indicated that the overwhelming majority supported self-determination. The people felt cheated, and the north exploded in rebellion.
Northerners, especially those from the northeast, accuse the British colonial government of craftily handing over the region to Kenyatta. The colonialists had promised the separatists’ leaders that they would delay independence for the region to facilitate the orderly transition from colonial rule to self-rule.
The British played both sides after the Northern Frontier District delegation rejected the terms of independence and demanded a different path for the district. The colonial government decided to disregard the wishes of most of the inhabitants and handed over the region to the post-independence Kenyan government. Somalia protested the move, which further complicated the north’s struggle for independence.
What had been a people’s quest for self-rule became a political tussle between Kenya and Somalia. This issue has yet to be settled six decades later, and the north has become a victim of unending sabre-rattling. Kenya became independent on the 12th of December 1963 with Jomo Kenyatta as its Prime Minister. A State of Emergency was declared for the north-eastern region on the 27th of December 1963.
The Shifta war
The rebellion that followed the declaration of independence was, to the separatists, a struggle for self-determination. To the Kenyan government, the separatists were Shifta, the name used to reduce the separatists and the NFD population to bandits, outlaws, thieves, criminals, and murderers.
The Shifta label has stuck, although the events surrounding the coining of the term have been carefully erased from the history books. The Shifta narrative was meant to unite the rest of Kenya against the menace of the separatists. The media effectively adopted the new term as a standard reference to the rebels. Newspaper headlines reported shifta attacks almost daily throughout the period of the conflict.
The “war” was mainly skirmishing between the ill-equipped ragtag army of northern rebels and the Kenya military backed by British planes and tanks. It is the population in the north that bore the brunt of the fighting. The nomads had to sustain the fighters in their midst with their meagre resources while dodging the military operations and bombings.
The conflict began on the 22nd of November 1963 when NFD rebels burnt down a camp in Garissa. The rebellion took its toll on the inhabitants, forcing them to flee in droves to the neighbouring countries of Somalia and Ethiopia. Kenyan security forces considered everyone a rebel and the Shifta label was liberally applied without discrimination to men and boys from the region. Villagisation and shooting of camel herds were used extensively by the government to force the nomadic pastoralists to settle.
The secessionists expected to receive arms and ammunitions from Somalia, but Somalia’s loud noises were more bark than a bite. Nothing of material import came from Somalia in the four years of the war.
While fanning the conflict through declarations and radio broadcasts, Somalia was unwilling to train, arm and fight alongside the secessionists. The significant material support provided to the Kenya government by the British and the superior training of the military forces eventually turned the tide of the war in Kenya’s favour.
The end of the war began in 1966 with the exodus of the nomadic population. By 1967, the secessionists were out of arms and had no resources to rely on as the nomads crossed the border into Somalia in droves in what is known as John kacarar (escaping John). The secessionists surrendered in groups throughout 1967.
Realising that the rebels were at the end of their tether, Somalia accepted peace terms with Kenya mediated by Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda. An agreement to end their differences and restore diplomatic relations was signed on the 14th of September 1967. The secessionist war effectively ended without any agreement with the secessionists themselves, without demobilisation, without any concession to the suffering population of the north and on terms that were never declared public to the residents of the NFD. Four years of bombings, shootings and plunder had left the northeastern region — where the fighting was concentrated — destitute.
Once the war was over, reconstruction failed to begin. The schism remained in place. The military went on with operations aimed at clearing the region of “shifta elements”. The cost of the war was never enumerated. The hopelessness that descended on a defeated community required leadership, which never came.
A new narrative of bandits roaming in the unsafe wild north began to take shape. Collective punishment was the modus operandi during this period. Whenever armed criminals committed a crime, the nearest settlements were decimated by the soldiers.
In the late 1970s, an incident occurred along the Kenya-Ethiopia border where a military vehicle was burnt. The locals claimed the action was perpetrated by armed Ethiopian militia. In what came to be known as the Malka Mari Massacre, the Kenyan military detained over two hundred men and stoned them to death. None of the men was armed, and the military did not fire a shot.
In the period that followed, poaching became rampant as the stockpiles of small arms fell into the hands of poachers. Overnight, the “Somali Poacher” was born. The parks were now under threat from a new breed of armed men motivated by nothing more than money, and allegedly backed by influential people close to the government. Throughout the 1970s, the Somali poacher terrorised Kenyan elephants, rhinos, and cheetahs.
The secessionist war effectively ended without any agreement with the secessionists themselves, without demobilisation, without any concession to the suffering population of the north.
In 1980, the security forces burned down Garissa after detaining and killing many of its inhabitants. This was an incident directly resulting from a disagreement between poachers and their contacts in government. A disgruntled poacher took matters into his own hands and killed several soldiers and other government officials.
The 1980s also saw the infamous Wagalla Massacre of 1984, where thousands were tortured and killed at an airstrip in Wajir, ostensibly during a military operation to curb banditry.
While Shifta and poachers were the competing narratives used by the government to explain its inability to bring the northern region under proper government control, the region suffered wanton neglect and underdevelopment.
The Somali-Ethiopia war ended in 1978, sparking the return of thousands who had fled the region during the war of secession as Somalia descended into clannism and corruption under military dictatorship. That same year, Vice-President Daniel Arap Moi gave a speech that sparked the alien debate when he threatened that the government would register all Somalis and deport anyone found to have allegiance to Somalia. It took 11 years for this policy to be implemented.
But the alienation of Somalis had begun earlier as it is recorded that police had raided Eastleigh and arrested Somali foreigners as early as 1970. Traders from the north-east were deemed vagrants and deported from areas in the Rift Valley and Central Kenya back to their home region.
Citizenship documents were tightly controlled, and a system of verification was put in place to make it impossible for the region’s inhabitants to register as citizens. The police were given orders to stop and ask for IDs from anyone looking like a Cushite, a Somali or other related tribes who were distinctively identifiable.
The pink card
In 1989, the famous Kenya-Somali verification and registration took place. The system was designed to catch anyone who could not be linked to a sub-location and known clan.
People had to state their family tree up to their sub-clans, and a pink card with these details was issued to the successful ones. The system was designed to force out of Kenya those unaffiliated to any of the groups “indigenous” to the country.
It is estimated that at one point hundreds were crossing the border into neighbouring countries daily. People were detained, women with young children appeared in court accused of being in the country illegally. Suspected aliens were loaded on military lorries and dropped off in Liboi across the Kenya-Somali border. Many families, especially those elites with businesses, crossed into Uganda and left for Europe or America. The pink cards eventually became available for a fee, and it is believed registration officials took hefty bribes in the process. The verification and registration were suspended after two harrowing years during which homes were raided, their inhabitants detained, and property was lost when entire families were deported with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
As the “aliens” narrative waxed and waned, a new event triggered the updating of the terminology.
In 1991, the Somalia government of Siad Barre collapsed, spilling hundreds of thousands of refugees into the neighbouring countries. Kenya was grappling with its fear of Somalis and now had to face the eventuality of hosting desperate refugees, including the deposed president.
But the alienation of Somalis had begun earlier as it is recorded that police had raided Eastleigh and arrested Somali foreigners as early as 1970.
The refugees were allowed in and settled in camps where they were fed and housed by the UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies. Throughout the 1990s, Somalia was controlled by warlords who divided the country into green zones, fought viciously among themselves and continued to spill out new refugees.
Apart from participating in efforts at reconciliation and in hosting refugees and facilitating their resettlement in Europe and America, Kenya stayed out of Somalia’s affairs. As the refugees were too many to be housed in the sprawling camps in Dadaab, Dagahaley and Kakuma, some ended up living in towns with the alien cards issued by the UNHCR as identification.
The idea of controlling the movement of refugees soon became fashionable. For the security forces it is difficult to differentiate between locals and refugees and soldiers engaged in random stop-and-searches and nighttime raids in the main towns to flush out illegal aliens.
The controls placed on refugees living in towns illegally sparked lucrative human trafficking where the police and traffickers facilitated the movement of people from the Somali border to the interior. IDs and passports became available for those who could pay but were impossible to acquire for genuine inhabitants of northern Kenya.
While Somalis and their Cushite cousins were getting used to the “alien” idea, a new term landed on Kenya’s shores: terrorism. International terrorists bombed the American embassy in Kenya in 1998. The perpetrators had names similar to those of the northerners and the refugees. The “terrorist” label did not stick for another decade and during this period Somali businesspeople invested heavily in the Eastleigh suburb of Nairobi, creating a vibrant market where initially had been an unremarkable residential estate with a few wholesale and retail shops.
This economic boom coincided with the emergence of piracy on the Somali shores of the Indian Ocean. Suddenly the Kenyan media were reporting that piracy money was flooding the markets and making life costly for the residents. The Somali pirates were real, but this was part of international piracy having its operations on the lawless Somali coast. How the piracy money was siphoned into Kenya was never explained. The piracy issue occasionally crops up when overzealous reporters make disparaging references to piracy and the real estate boom in Kenya.
In 2011 Kenya sent troops into Somalia in an operation dubbed “Linda Nchi” after a tourist was kidnapped at the coast and probably taken across the border. There were other cross-border raids. However, significant Al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya began in 2012 when Kenyan forces were integrated into the forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). As Kenya became embroiled in state-building in Somalia, with the creation of Jubaland floated as the reason for the invasion, Al-Shabaab started bringing its terrorism into Kenya.
In 2013, the Westgate Mall shootings led to the death of 67 people. More than 67 others also died in attacks in Mpeketoni in Lamu in 2014. The attacks on Garissa University attack were the worst, leading to 150 dead, many of them students. These brazen attacks were attributed to Al-Shabaab. Although the terror group had already internationalised and was recruiting with no regard to ethnicity, Kenyan Somalis became the target for blame, name-calling, and arrests.
In 2013, Human Rights Watch released a report titled “You are all terrorists”. The terrorist narrative drives xenophobia, arbitrary arrests, detention, and torture. After the terror attacks in 2014 in Eastleigh and Mpeketoni, the security forces conducted an indiscriminate door-to-door operation targeting anyone who did not have an ID card to hand. This security operation was dubbed Usalama Watch. Those who did not have the document were taken to Kasarani Stadium and held there for two weeks. About 900 people were taken to the stadium, the majority being young people who could not acquire IDs due to discriminatory bureaucratic procedures , and a haphazard and corrupt system that barred genuine citizens from receiving the document.
The verification and registration were suspended after two harrowing years during which homes were raided, their inhabitants detained, and property was lost.
Over half a century of negative portrayals of people from the north means that the official government policy is skewed when it applies to them. The acquisition of a passport is generally a straightforward process. To ensure that aliens from the north do not acquire this critical document, the immigration department and security agencies have an illegal and discriminatory step in place for border communities — vetting. It is not enough that a northerner provides sufficient genuine documentation. The applicant must appear before a group of government officials, security officers and appointed individuals to prove their citizenship. To pass this step, one must know their location chief, the genealogy of ones’ clan and other trivialities that are ordinarily unnecessary in life.
The emergence of one label does not lead to the dropping of the existing labels. Shifta, Poacher, Refugee, Pirate and Terrorist shape the thinking behind public actions. These negative portrayals have an impact on how national matters are debated and resolved.
A section of Kenyan citizens is considered as dangerous to the main body of the country. The secession war that ostensibly ended in 1967 is still being fought; the terms of the agreement that ended the war have never been the subject of a national conversation. Did the agreement include such important matters as citizenship, identity, development, and non-discrimination? The security agencies have not discarded their belligerent attitude towards the population and the civil service retains the policies of the 1960s towards the people of the north.
One must know their location chief, the genealogy of one’s clan and other trivialities that are ordinarily unnecessary in life.
National identity is at stake as those who rejected becoming part of Kenya at independence cannot have equal status with everyone else. They are aliens, and “they all look like”. The most dangerous portrayal is the association with terrorism; poachers and pirates are small fish compared to terrorists. In the last few years, enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings related to the war on terror have become commonplace. It is hard to fight for the rights of one who is labelled a terrorist and is disappeared or killed.
Public association with a terror suspect is a stigma that nobody is willing to be associated with. Crimes are committed under cover of fighting terrorism, and there is nothing the targeted community can do about it. That is the power of a label; it obscures the truth, gives authorities cover to commit genocidal crimes and permits the practice of xenophobia in public.
The End of Abiy-Mania
When he ascended to power in April 2018 Abiy Ahmed elicited goodwill inside and outside Ethiopia but the continuing humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region is losing him friends.
Ethiopia will go to the polls on June 22, buffeted by various crises domestically and abroad. But the upcoming election has many echoes of the May 15 2005 election, whose impact continues to shape Ethiopia’s domestic politics and politics in the Horn of Africa. Central to Ethiopia’s current domestic crisis and the border dispute with Sudan, is the Abiy-Amhara compact.
The 15 May 2005 elections were the third national elections to be held under the 1994 constitution following the ouster of the Marxist-Leninist Derg. In the 1995 and 2000 elections, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government harassed the opposition parties, forcing the influential ones to boycott the polls, with the result that the EPRDF won both elections with over 90 per cent of the seats.
Ahead of the 2005 election, the EPDRF signalled the significant participation of the opposition parties so that Western observers—whose support was critical for Meles—would declare the elections to have been free and fair. The incumbent party acceded to the pre-election demands of some opposition parties, allowing in international election observers and giving the opposition parties a chance to sell their manifestos on the national broadcaster. These conditions were absent in the previous elections. While these were not among the chief demands of the opposition parties prior to the polls, they indicated reasonable good faith on the part of the government compared to previous elections.
As a result, for the first time in Ethiopia’s history, a nationwide multiparty competition seemed possible; neither the ruling party nor the opposition had ever faced a competitive election before.
Internal turmoil within the EPRDF preceded the election. The Central Committee of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s core support base—broke up into two rival factions in 2001. With his base in the Tigray heartland at risk, Meles took advantage of his central position within the broader EPRDF coalition and outmanoeuvred his rivals. He sacked several senior officials and successfully weathered the storm, but the fault line remained and emerged during the 2005 elections.
The pre-election period saw the unprecedented participation of the opposition parties and civil society organisations in the campaigns. Election Day went peacefully, and the early results in Addis Ababa and other major urban areas showed the opposition parties making significant electoral gains. According to unofficial preliminary results, the opposition had won 172 parliamentary seats—its most considerable showing yet in the 547-member assembly. On the night of the election, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declared a one-month ban on public demonstrations in the capital and brought the Addis Ababa security forces (which would have come under the opposition’s command had they been sworn in) under the control of the Prime Minister’s office.
Opposition parties boycotted their seats in parliament, alleging rigging by the incumbent. Their refusal to take up their seats in parliament handed Meles Zenawi and his party a third term in office. Meles interpreted his “mandate” as a licence to take the authoritarian path. Hundreds, if not thousands, of political opposition and human rights activists were arbitrarily detained, with some facing the spurious charge of treason. Ethiopian security forces killed almost 200 demonstrators in post-election protests in June and November 2005 and arrested tens of thousands of people.
With the domestic front “sorted”, Meles turned to regional matters. In December 2006, Ethiopia’s military intervened in Somalia to root out the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which had brought stability for the few months they were in charge. The Ethiopian forces captured Mogadishu in less than a week, and the UIC dissolved and surrendered political leadership to clan leaders.
Ethiopia’s ouster of the UIC tapped into a deep historical hostility between Somalia and Ethiopia, something Al Shabaab, the youth wing of the UIC, exploited with a mix of latent Somalia nationalism and anti-imperialism.
Ethiopia’s actions provided Al Shabaab with an opportunity to translate its rhetoric into action. Al Shabaab began targeting the nascent Somalia government, Ethiopian forces, the Transitional Federal Government security, political figures, and any Somalis collaborating with Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s and TFG’s heavy-handed counterinsurgency responses played into the hands of Al Shabaab.
Ethiopia’s incursion into Somalia took place three weeks after General John Abizaid, the commander of US forces from the Middle East to Afghanistan, had met with then Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Sixteen years later, Ethiopia goes into another election whose consequences could transcend Ethiopia.
The limits of Abiy-Mania
When he ascended to power in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed elicited a groundswell of collective goodwill inside and outside Ethiopia. He embarked at breakneck speed on reforms that just a few years earlier would have sounded far-fetched.
At home, Abiy released political prisoners, appointed the country’s first female as the ceremonial president and a cabinet half-filled by women. He nominated a once-jailed opposition leader as the new chairwoman of the electoral board. In the Horn of Africa region, Abiy had a rapprochement with Eritrea, a country with which Ethiopia had fought a bloody war between 1998 and 2000. Abiy also attempted to mediate the Sudan political crisis.
The Nobel Committee awarded Abiy the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize “For his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, particularly for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.”
Federalism vs centralisation
While the trigger for the Abiy-led military operation against the Regional Government of Tigray in the north of the country is the alleged attack of the federal army base by the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the attack was only a symptom and not the actual cause.
The battle between Abiy and the TPLF and other groups is a battle between those who champion the multi-ethnic federalism constitution and those who prefer a centralised state. Abiy favours centralisation to federalism.
The Tigray region is not the first to bear the brunt of the military and federal security forces to achieve Abiy’s centralisation agenda. The Oromia and Sidama regions have also been at the receiving end of the violence of the federal security authorities.
Abiy embarked at breakneck speed on reforms that just a few years earlier would have sounded far-fetched.
Throughout its long history of state formation, Ethiopia was for thousands of years ruled by emperors under a monarchy with a unitary system of government. The last emperor, Haile Selassie, was deposed in 1974 and from then on until 1991, the country came under a dictatorship with a unitary system of government.
The creation of the EPRDF in 1989—an ethnic coalition of the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front, the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM; later Amhara Democratic Party), the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO; later Oromo Democratic Party), and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM)—had changed that.
Abiy’s shot across the bow was the dissolution of the EPDRF and the launching of the Prosperity Party (PP) on December 1 2019. The OPDO, ANDM, and SEPDM voted overwhelmingly to join the party, while the TPLF rejected the idea as “illegal and reactionary”. The timing of the move was convenient, coming just a few months before the election that was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The EPDRF’s multi-ethnic federalism and the inclusion in the constitution of the right to secede for all “nations and nationalities and peoples” of the country were innovative breakthroughs in a country with 80 different ethnic groups. But the constitution was also a product of ideological foment and political necessity. The leaders who revolted against the Mengistu junta had emerged from the student movement that had adopted the “nationalities and the land question”, redefining Ethiopian statehood.
The Oromia and Sidama regions have also been at the receiving end of the violence of the federal security authorities.
While the multi-ethnic federalism has been imperfect, especially its implementation and the domination of the EPDRF by the TPLF, in a multi-ethnic country with historical and contemporary grievances against the state, federalism has acted as a safety valve against ethnic tension.
Abiy and Amhara expansionism
The Amharas are Abiy’s vociferous supporters at home. They, especially their elites, have an axe to grind with the TPLF for diluting their decades of uninterrupted state power and control. Amhara language and culture are the state’s language and culture, and the language and culture of the Orthodox Church which wields unfettered power. But with its political nous, its deep bureaucracy and know-how, the TPLF was always a challenging prospect for Abiy, a political novice with limited federal-level experience and hardly a political base. The connecting tissue of Abiy-Amhara unity is the lowest common denominator that is the fear and loathing of the TPLF. After dissolving the EPDR, a coalition in which the TPLF was a strong partner, the next step was to defeat the TPLF militarily. Even before the November military incursion into Tigray, Amhara militias were massed at the border with Tigray. If Abiy’s anti-TPLF move was intended to destroy them as a political force, for the Amharas this was an opportunity to regain some of the territories they had lost to Tigray in 1991.
Ethiopia also has a boundary dispute with Sudan. The dispute centres on the al-Fashaga region, Sudan’s fertile breadbasket located in Gedaref State, which borders Ethiopia’s Amhara region in the north-west. According to the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1902 the area belongs to Sudan and, unlike the regime of Omar al-Bashir, for the transitional government of Prime Minister Abdulla Hamdok, settling this dispute is a priority. However, the Abiy-Amhara alliance has made resolving the dispute complicated.
Sudan is also a critical factor in resolving the Tigray crisis; the country is the only remaining supply route for the TPLF as Eritrea is closed to them and bringing in supplies and fuel through other routes is risky. Sudan could also determine how the GERD dam conflict will be resolved. Unlike Egypt, Sudan could benefit from cheap electricity if the dam is filled, but the country will not countenance losing al-Fashaga. Abiy faces difficult choices: cede al-Fashaga to Sudan and gain a partner in the dam negotiations while also denying the TPLF a supply route or keep al-Fashaga and lose Sudan in the GERD dam discussions, leaving the TPLF to use the Sudan border for supplies.
The Tigray conflict, which Abiy initially promised would be a straightforward law enforcement operation, has instead metastasised into a slow-grinding counterinsurgency operation. The continuing humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region is losing Abiy friends.
On May 23, the US State Department announced visa restrictions for any current or former Ethiopian or Eritrean government officials, members of the security forces, or other individuals—including Amhara regional and irregular forces and members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the resolution of the crisis in Tigray.
In a multi-ethnic country with historical and contemporary grievances against the state, federalism has acted as a safety valve against ethnic tension.
America’s sanctions came on the heels of the European Union’s suspension of budgetary support worth €88 million (US$107 million) until humanitarian agencies are granted access to people in need of aid in the northern Tigray region.
On the 7th of June 2021, Representatives Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Michael McCaul (R-TX), who is also Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, together with Karen Bass (D-CA) and Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), respectively Chairwoman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Global Human Rights, issued a joint statement after tabling a resolution condemning violence and human rights abuses in Ethiopia.
The sanctions come as Ethiopia awards its first telecom licence for US$850 million to a consortium that includes the UK’s Vodafone in what could herald the opening up of Ethiopia’s closed economy.
Before the EPDRF came into power, Ethiopia was a posterchild of famine and incessant conflict, especially under the Derg regime. Abiy and Amhara nationalism is bringing back the echoes of the Derg era and the upcoming June election is unlikely to resolve current crises; if anything, it will exacerbate them.
We Still Can’t Breathe: Chauvin’s Conviction Maintains the Status Quo
Chauvin is simply a cop who committed an action so ugly that he had to be made an example of so that America could get back to normal.
Sometimes even the “biggest” victories can ring hollow. That especially seems to be the case several months into 2021, and 11 odd months after George Floyd had his life snuffed out in front of a red-brick grocery store in South Minneapolis, around the corner from the “Little East Africa” neighbourhood. That Derek Chauvin, the cop who laid his blatancy in the form of a knee across Floyd’s neck in a gutter finally faced some form of consequence in the form of a guilty verdict, may, in and of itself be of little consequence in the grandest of schemes.
Yes, right now it seems as though the verdict that has come down harshly on Chauvin is a rebuke of all things heinous, nothing less than a massive moral victory for racial progress, black America and global equality.
Indeed, rainbows shall now shine through and if you listen to many pundits within the American (and for that matter, Western) broadcast media, racism against Black America has been solved once and for all — à la the presidential election of Barack Obama way back in those heady days of 2008.
Chauvin will be sentenced on June 25th of this year. Much of Black America is already lowering their expectations away from the 40-year maximum prison sentence.
Life is full of disappointments.
In itself, the Chauvin verdict is not one of them; it is just another opportunity for a larger collective sadness, another opportunity for an eventual letdown, a reminder of the global system of injustice that is, frankly, far as hell from ever being permanently resolved.
I haven’t been in Minneapolis since the end of May 2020, the Saturday following the Floyd killing, when the very landscape and fabric of the “Twin Cities” of Minnesota and Saint Paul were irrevocably changed. Walking around that day, the sense of despair was palpable. All of Lake Street — all seven kilometers of it — seemed to have been hit by varying degrees of madness. Some buildings were completely burnt out, husks of their former selves; others had smashed windows or had “BLACK OWNED BUSINESS: DON’T BURN!” scrawled in graffiti across the boarded-up doors. Thousands of people trudged around with shovels, cleaning up debris ahead of the inevitable next night of chaos.
In the weeks that followed, the protests spread across the United States, and even took root on a global scale, spreading as far as Nairobi, London, Kampala, Rome and dozens of other cities. In Minneapolis, all the tension of a tense superpower seemingly dying of its own hubris during the chaotic early months of the COVID-19 pandemic descended on an idyllic neighbourhood. By the day I arrived, May 30th, the United States National Guard was being deployed to put down any form of violence with their own forms of violence. But the damage had been done and the rest of the country was experiencing its own varying levels of chaos. At least two people were killed in Minneapolis alone (and at least 19 across the rest of the US, though this number seems to be low). Dozens of people were injured in Minneapolis alone (although the exact numbers are hard to confirm; personally I talked to at least three people who had sustained non-lethal injuries during the protests, so the real number could be much higher).
Thousands were injured across the US, with hundreds more incidents of police brutality filmed and shared widely. In Minneapolis there was approximately KSh 53 billion worth of damage related to the unrest. Bob Kroll, the president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis who allegedly had white supremacist ties retired at the beginning of 2021. The Minneapolis Police Department was defunded following the reckoning that fell upon the Twin Cities in those warm early summer weeks.
Among pundit across America, talk of alliance and “listening” rapidly became the norm. Many leading neo-liberals put out statements, Republicans and Democrats alike. Trump ordered the beating up of peaceful protesters in front the White House and goodhearted liberals were shocked and appalled. Everyone said it was a “sea change” in American race-relations.
Less than three months after the George Floyd protests kicked off there was a “monumental change” — Jacob Blake was shot in the back by police in the city of Kenosha, in my home state of Wisconsin. The NBA boycotted games, more conversations were had and the world kept right on turning, same as it ever has.
When it comes down to issues of inequality, racism and oppression the status quo is always maintained, especially in America. Two steps forward and three steps back seems to be the pattern, one that is only reinforced by the pattern of police getting away with the murder of Black Americans — whether on tape or merely under “suspicious” circumstances in which “the officer felt their life was threatened and required a response of lethal force”.
Perhaps it is this constant pattern of impunity that has caused the most damage, a pattern that in the US can be traced to well before the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, California. The riots were sparked off by the acquittal of cops who had been caught on film beating and kicking King senseless on the shoulder of a freeway.
It’s the same as it ever was.
Over the years since, especially in this age of social media ubiquity, incidents police violence against Black men, women and children have been caught on camera with horrifying regularity.
Horrifying, but not at all surprising. Everyone within the Black community in the US has long known the score. “Officers under threat” deaths, cases failing to be investigated, rumours of pistols being planted, delays in emergency responder times, ties to white supremacy, “warrior cops” getting more military equipment, stop-and-frisk policies, higher incarceration rates among Blacks, continual harassment, talking to children about keeping hands visible when dealing with police, media bias, fetishisation of police, the “Blue Lives Matter” movement — the list of systemic issues within US police forces could fill the remainder of this article.
In this age of social media ubiquity, incidents of police violence against Black men, women and children have been caught on camera with horrifying regularity.
The American judicial system itself is inherently flawed. The narrative among much of the “upstanding” upper middle-class elements of society is that somehow race relations were, if not solved outright, repaired with a sustained “upward” trajectory somewhere around the funeral of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination in 1968.
They paint a rosy picture of race-relations in the US in which all segregationist judges were replaced with forward thinking progressives, where all cops with KKK ties were unceremoniously fired, where the ghosts of “Jim Crow” laws (designed to suppress, segregate and subjugate post-slavery Black America) simply faded into the distant memories of a bygone era. The result was a sort of racial Cold War, where proxy wars were fought through the war on drugs, mass incarceration, neoliberalism and police impunity.
“At least segregation is illegal now”, says White America when pressed, as if cities, schools, hospitals and police actions were not still segregated sans overt painted signs.
Such sentiments bled into the politics of the US’s two major parties, Republicans spearheading the “War on Drugs” under the Reagan presidency of the 1980s and the Clinton administration cutting social programmes and accelerating mass incarceration during the 90s under the all-American ideal of “pulling oneself up by your bootstraps”. Such proponents of America’s neo-liberal ethos cared little whether there were any boots to begin with.
Slowly the technology caught up with the reality, and the anger felt across the marginalised communities in America had a focal point on which to pour out their frustrations. The images were there on film, little snippets sent into cyberspace by countless onlookers. The anger was in the bloody and lifeless body of Michael Brown lying for hours in a Missouri street. It was in Eric Garner pleading that he couldn’t breathe while being choked to death by cops in New York City. It was in Philando Castille being shot and killed in his car seconds after telling the officer who had pulled him over that he had a licensed gun in the car and reached for his wallet. (This shooting also happened in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.) It was in Breonna Taylor being shot dead on a no-knock warrant in Louisville, Kentucky only for the officers to be charged with “wanton endangerment” for firing bullets into a neighbouring apartment.
None of the officers in the above incidents were convicted. Some were never even brought into a courtroom.
On April 11th 2021, Daunte Wright was shot and killed by a cop during a traffic stop in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Details and footage of the incident are scant. The officer involved has been charged with second-degree manslaughter (a lesser charge than homicide in the US court system). Protests have sprung up around the US, youth wearing surgical masks — the hallmark of the smoldering COVID-19 pandemic — clashing with police and facing arrest, and “non-lethal weapons being deployed by officers to quell pockets of unrest”. This killing occurred at the epicentre of the “defund the police” movement — Minneapolis.
The cycle continues same as ever, two steps forward and three steps back in Black America’s quest for equitable treatment.
The police are just the visible agents of the systemic suppression of Black people that stretches far beyond the shores of the US.
If COVID-19 has shown up anything, it is the brutality of police worldwide. Most times their actions go on with impunity. Cops in Kenya beat up people without mercy and enforce curfew by leaving motorists stranded on highways. In Uganda cops extort commuters under threat of jail. In Rwanda the stranglehold on the nation continues to tighten under threat of harsh penalties.
There is no equality when it comes to the Global South, particularly for much of Africa whose suffering at the hands of the police echoes the oppression faced by the Black community in the US.
The cycle continues same as ever, two steps forward and three steps back in Black America’s quest for equitable treatment.
Through this lens of warranted cynicism, the “guilty” verdict handed down to Derek Chauvin by a jury in Minnesota is not a massive turning point. The very pundits stating that the verdict is such a monumental moment of change inherently prove that it is nothing remotely close to such a trend. There will be other failed indictments, other cops walking away, more cases of mysteriously “lost” body-cam footage. More will die, protests will spring up and be quelled with extreme prejudice.
Chauvin, the smirking killer that he is, did prove one thing and one thing only: where the “line” truly is, where the grey areas that the police hide behind blur over into black and white, from a “justified act of lethal self-defense from a frightened officer” into outright murder. His actions were so unquestionably heinous that they had to be dealt with. What Chauvin did derives directly from an ugly history; he lynched that man and at the time thought he would get away with it, hands in pockets, cocky half-smile on his face while his bodyweight cut off George Floyd’s air supply in that street gutter. Bystanders begged him to stop as the other officers watched in idle complicity. Paramedics were not allowed to give medical aid and Chauvin continued to apply pressure for minutes after Floyd had become non-responsive.
The systems, after all, stay much as they are in America. Profit margins must be maintained and “order” by way of the status quo must be upheld. The Twin Cities, of which Minneapolis is the more visible twin, would have simply exploded if the verdict had come back anything less than guilty. After a year of protests, COVID-19 lockdowns, electoral strangeness, Trumpian policies, political divisions, economic challenges and continued incidents of police violence, the tinderbox that was Minneapolis could not have handled Chauvin walking free out of the courthouse to appear on Fox News to “thank God”.
If that had happened the resulting violence would have dwarfed any incidents of unrest in America’s past. It is likely that weeks later clashes with police would be continuing on a nightly basis in dozens of cities across America. Minneapolis, where major corporates are headquartered, would have been engulfed in flames so huge the smoke would have been seen in the neighbouring state of Wisconsin.
The tinderbox that was Minneapolis could not have handled Chauvin walking free out of the courthouse to appear on Fox News to “thank God”.
Chauvin’s true legacy is that of an outlier, the ultimate talking-head example that “things are different now”, that something has truly been accomplished on a systemic level when it comes to police treatment of Black America.
In reality, Chauvin is simply a cop who committed an action so ugly that he had to be made an example of so that America could “get back to normal”.
For Black America in 2021 however, normal life is chockful of disappointments.
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