Inequalities of War

When I first heard that a recent U.S. airstrike hit an MSF hospital, I was appalled. MSF does critical work to help those in need, regardless of who they are, in especially dangerous situations. They often provide care when nobody else will, and their neutrality is critical to their ability to do that. This work treats people based on their humanity alone. Hearing that their work suffered such a tragedy is awful news.

But I’m also not surprised. The way that the U.S. has been conducting warfare, it was bound to happen. Things like this have already happened. Jails have been bombed. Funerals, too. In the first year of coalition fighting against ISIS, they have reportedly killed more than 500 civilians in Syria and Iraq [pdf].

This is what comes from bombing everything that moves. The New York Times reported that “the joke was that when the C.I.A. sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official.” And this line of thinking leads to things like classifying the dead – after killing them already – in a manner that “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

This may seem like a tangent, but the inequality of lives on the ground versus American lives is one that leads to a lack of oversight or a trigger-happy order that leaves a long trail of fatalities.

Dider Fassin writes about the “inequality of lives” in the context of MSF in a very different, but enlightening, way. In an essay titled “Inequalities of Lives, Hierarchies of Humanity” in the edited collection In the Name of Humanity, Fassin highlights flaws in humanitarianism’s attempt to treat all lives as equal in light of the fact that some are more privileged than others.

Fassin’s chapter highlights the perceived differences between those who assist and those who are assisted; those who are sacred and those who are sacrificed. He also cites the death of MSF workers in Iraq – and the organization’s subsequent handling of that incident – as emblematic of this hierarchy. It’s an analysis that may very well prove relevant as more information comes out about the recent US bombing and as the media and state narratives about it continue to take shape. But for now, I think the framing of hierarchies and inequalities also applies to the bombing itself.

MSF released a statement charging that the US knew the hospital was there before and during the sustained bombing campaign:

As it does in all conflict contexts, MSF communicated the precise locations of its facilities to all parties on multiple occasions over the past months, including most recently on September 29.

The bombing in Kunduz continued for more than 30 minutes after American and Afghan military officials in Kabul and Washington were first informed by MSF that its hospital was struck.

The decision to knowingly bomb an area close to a hospital (or, even worse, bomb a hospital directly and intentionally) is a decision made on a calculation. Whose bodies are worth protecting, and whose are worth sacrificing? Time and again, civilian lives in the Middle East are not worth as much as others’. Even doctors treating patients cannot be exempt from the warfare going on around them. As Fassin writes: “under the moral economy of Western armies, the sacrifice of civilians is the undesired but necessary burden of, at best, establishing human rights or exporting democracy or at worst, of protecting private and national interests.”

Weekend Reading

Weekend Reading coming at you in its new, even more infrequent manner. Surprise readings:

The video is not “about” colonialism (or about Africa); it’s about the desire for “classic Hollywood iconography,” for the glamour of that period…. Because Swift’s video is “based on classic Hollywood romances,” it cannot be about colonialism. Because it uses “classic Hollywood iconography,” there can be “no political agenda in the video.” Because it’s a tragic love story, it is absolved of nostalgia for white supremacy.

But if the word “classic” is a load-bearing piece of rhetoric, the argument here is a load of crap. Another “classic” Hollywood film is 1915’s Birth of a Nation—an adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan—and the film’s success played a direct and decisive role in reviving the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that occasionally dabbled in politics. For decades, as black people struggled against Jim Crow repression and law-by-lynching, Hollywood films like Gone With the Wind (1939) produced very effective and powerful propaganda for a white supremacist vision of American society; Hollywood in the 1930s was, in everything but name, a public relations office for Jim Crow. But, and here is the point, Hollywood sold white supremacy by foregrounding white romance. Gone With the Wind is not about slavery, ostensibly; it’s about white people in love who just happen to own slaves. And it’s no coincidence that Birth of the Nation literally ends with voter suppression and white people getting married. The romance—the marriage between North and South—is there to make white supremacy look good, to make you forget little things like the fact that Black Lives Matter.

Like Gone With the Wind, Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” is not explicitly nostalgic for white supremacy. But it’s nostalgic for a time when you could be nostalgic for white supremacy, when having a wedding at a former slave plantation raised no eyebrows.

Academics of color experience an enervating visibility, but it’s not simply that we’re part of a very small minority. We are also a desired minority, at least for appearance’s sake. University life demands that academics of color commodify themselves as symbols of diversity—in fact, as diversity itself, since diversity, in this context, is located entirely in the realm of the symbolic. There’s a wound in the rupture between the diversity manifested in the body of the professor of color and the realities affecting that person’s community or communities. I, for example, am a black professor in the era of mass incarceration of black people through the War on Drugs; I am a Somali American professor in the era of surveillance and drone strikes perpetuated through the War on Terror.

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander taps into that wound: “Highly visible examples of black success are critical to the maintenance of a racial caste system in the era of colorblindness.” It’s not that we’re too few, nor is it that we suffer survivor guilt for having escaped the fate of so many in our communities. It’s that our visibility is consumed in a way that legitimizes the structures of exclusion.

Weekend Reading

Giving education away for free is easy, especially if you’ve been doing it for 150-plus years: you just accept students and then start teaching them. But charging tuition is expensive because it requires a huge bureaucracy, all of which Cooper needed to build from scratch. And so, in order to be able to charge tuition, Cooper Union had to borrow evenmore money, partly just to build up that bureaucracy. In August 2014, it borrowed another $50 million. The debts were piling up, while the revenues were still nowhere to be seen.

There is a global refugee crisis–today, it is on Europe’s shores; two months ago, it was on Malaysia’s; one year ago, it was on the southern border of the United States. This is a crisis of no specific moment: it is persistent, because the violence whence it came is persistent. The refugees that violence creates occupy a worldly purgatory. In camps, the ramshackle residence that becomes their home is impermanent by definition, and their new society is governed at once by the formal legal codes of domestic and international humanitarian governance, and an informal assortment of evolutionary bodies. Even when these refugees are resettled–given permanent visas, permanent homes–the societies that host them place them at their margins.

[W]hat Hudson is doing [by using a Chinese pseudonym] isn’t anything that white male writers haven’t already been doing since the first recorded instance of our culture embracing any kind of excellence that did not include them: scramble to come up with ways to keep the playing field uneven, to keep the odds stacked in their favor. The scandal of Hudson performing the laziest act of yellowface (co-opting a Chinese name) to get his poem published and accepted into the Best American Poetry anthology is lurid fodder for our cultural conversation because of its explicitness, but it should not be strange or unbelievable. White people have always slipped in and out of the experiences of people of color and been praised extravagantly for it. After all, 50 years ago, when black voices were fighting to be heard, when their stories of trauma and abuse were struggling for legitimacy, it took John Howard Griffin, a white man who dyed his skin black and wrote about his experiences as a “black” man in his book, Black Like Me, for white Americans to believe that yes, black people were telling the truth about their lived experiences in the Jim Crow South. He was hailed a singular hero. Studs Terkel once said, “Griffin was one of the most remarkable people I have ever encountered. He was just one of those guys that comes along once or twice in a century and lifts the hearts of the rest of us.” It may seem totally nuts now, but as far as who gets credit for simply being affected by black pain, it doesn’t seem very removed from our current world where we heap lavish praise on someone like Jon Stewart for announcing on the Daily Show that he was too heartbroken to make jokes after the Charleston church shooting, as if all throughout this country’s present and past, black people and people of color have not been so heartbroken and so violated that we were left humorless, or worse, dead. To praise Stewart as excessively as he was praised is to say to black people: Your pain is unexceptional and does not matter until a white man feels it too.

Data, Research, and Economics

“Beware the analysis of economists” is pretty much always good advice. It’s advice that I’ve held close whenever I encounter scholarship, especially on the developing world, because I find the reliance on “data” and “numbers” to be somehow more reliable than people to be a farce. Data is, after all, recorded and analyzed and interpreted by people.

That’s why I was intrigued when I saw that Kim Yi Dionne and Laura Seay wrote a short review of Morten Jerven’s new book, Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong. Here’s an excerpt from their review:

Jerven argues that economists have fundamentally misunderstood the trajectory of economic growth in Africa because they mistakenly emphasized the poor patterns of growth in the 1970s and 1980s and ignored the incredible growth in African economies that took place in the 1950s and 1960s. While economists focused on “a chronic failure of growth,” Jerven notes that this phenomenon is “something that never actually happened.” Furthermore, many economists treated Africa as more-or-less a coherent whole, looking to explain differences between African states and those elsewhere in the world rather than comparing African states to one another, furthering the narrative that “Africa” wasn’t growing while ignoring relative growth among African states.

Out of the desire to explain non-growth (even though it was a faulty premise), economists started to focus on income gaps with other parts of the world, which led to studies of other factors that came along with low income. These findings led to neoliberal economic policies mandated by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in the 1970s and 1980s, which had negative consequences for African economies and people’s livelihoods. In short, poorly done economic research led to devastating policies.

I’ll definitely be taking a look at Jerven’s book, for what looks like worthwhile analysis of how economics has treated the continent. This review also reminded me of my usual go-to-economics-critique, a brilliant book review from Mike McGovern that I first encountered a few years ago. While technically a book review of Paul Collier’s work, McGovern’s “An Anthropologist among the Mandarins” is a thorough look at a genre, or even a field, that includes points such as:

By insisting on the credo of “just the facts, ma’am,” the books introduce many of their key analytical moves on the sly, or via anecdote. What an anthropological approach to these same questions would insist on is the attempt to see the dynamics of bottom billion politics and economics through the actors’ points of view. This attempt has the positivist objective of fact checking both one’s facts and one’s categories of analysis, so as to be sure that there is some semblance of fit between the motives, incentives, and rationales attributed to actors and those they may actually be using. Collier expresses disdain for such attempts as a kind of misplaced humanism that is easily manipulated by greedy dictators in search of “useful idiots.” However, it is precisely the epistemological solipsism of his morality tale that exposes its greatest analytical weaknesses at the same time that it best explains why it appeals to a broad audience that has genuine interest in understanding suffering in poor countries even while it has little interest in having its sense of its own well-merited success questioned. This is one explanation of how he comes to the point of effectively arguing for an international regime that would chastise undemocratic leaders by inviting their armies to oust them—a proposal that overestimates the virtuousness of rich countries (and poor countries’ armies) while it ignores many other potential sources of political change.


The other

is that the self-assuredness of economists such as Collier may be a part of the problem and not, as they suppose, a part of the solution. For an outsider, the strangest thing about the field of economics is the fact that although it appears to be wrong much of the time, rather than becoming chastened and introverted, most of its practitioners seem to become bolder, drawing strength from their failures as the mythological Antaeus did by touching the ground. Though Collier as iconoclast writes as if prior development policies have been mired in preconceived notions and misplaced sympathy, the advocates of those same policies also thought that they were acting on the basis of sound data that did away with the misrecognitions that had mystified their predecessors. Looked at over the fifty-year span since the publication of W. W. Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, development economics as a field looks far more like literary criticism than like those natural sciences it emulates… The difference between poets and economists, however, is that for poets, as for literary critics, there are rivalries and certainly individual claims to preeminence, but as a general rule, there is an acceptance that there are many ways to write a great poem, just as there are many enlightening ways to read any great poem. Bound as it is to the model of the natural sciences, economics cannot accept that there might be two incommensurable but equally valuable ways of explaining a given group of data points.

Rachel Strohm deserves a hat-tip for finding an open access link to McGovern’s article, the lack of which is the main reason I hadn’t written about it here earlier. In her post, she highlights McGovern’s call to bring ethnography back into policy-writing, another useful argument in the piece.

As economics continues to train its eye on developing countries, it runs the risk of such myopia. And as political science does the same, it has also been taking an increasingly quantitative bent which can encounter the same risks. As Dionne and Seay state, the rise of large data-sets in Africanist political science could require Jerven’s warning that such data is not perfect, and can lead academics astray. This is where I say I’ll try to stick to qualitative research, and when I use numbers, I’ll remember that they’re not guaranteed to be any more right than people’s anecdotes.

Weekend Reading

Semester starts tomorrow, so get some links while you can:

If stopped by the police, I thought to myself, I would set my phone to record audio and put it on the passenger seat. I would send a tweet that I was being stopped and had every intention of complying with the police officer. I would turn on Periscope and livestream the stop, crowdsourcing witnesses. I would text my family and tell them that I was not feeling angry or suicidal, that I was looking forward to seeing them soon. There would not be time to do all of these things, but maybe if I prepared in advance I could pull off one or two of them. What all of these plans had in common were that none of them were meant to secure my safety, but rather to ensure that my death looked suspicious enough to question.

I was figuring out how to enter evidence into the inquiry of my own death.


Most of us will not be killed by police officers. White supremacy will not kill us so directly, so flagrantly. Instead it dogs our steps, wages niggling wars on our peace itself. Its power is in the daily theft of our joy, our dignity, our sanity. It is in the way we always have to weigh and calculate, how we can never assume good intentions and honest mistakes. Because it is always there, in swirling eddies around our ankles, waiting to drag us under.

White Americans saw the storm and its aftermath as a case of bad luck and unprecedented incompetence that spread its pain across the Gulf Coast regardless of race. This is the narrative you see in Landrieu’s words and, to some extent, Obama’s as well. To black Americans, however, this wasn’t an equal opportunity disaster. To them, it was confirmation of America’s indifference to black life. “We have an amazing tolerance for black pain,” said Rev. Jesse Jackson in an interview after the storm. Rev. Al Sharpton, also echoed the mood among many black Americans: “I feel that, if it was in another area, with another economic strata and racial makeup, that President Bush would have run out of Crawford a lot quicker and FEMA would have found its way in a lot sooner.” Even more blunt was rapper Kanye West, who famously told a live national television audience that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”


When we look at the first 15 years of the 21st century, the most defining moment in black America’s relationship to its country isn’t Election Day 2008; it’s Hurricane Katrina. The events of the storm and its aftermath sparked a profound shift among black Americans toward racial pessimism that persists to today, even with Barack Obama in the White House. Black collective memory of Hurricane Katrina, as much as anything else, informs the present movement against police violence, “Black Lives Matter.”

Book Review – Africa Uprising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

A Southward Move

This  is my 500th blog post, apparently. While I admit that a quarter of that is probably link round-ups, nonetheless I’m going to use this occasion to make a small announcement:

This fall I’ll be moving to the DC area to begin the doctoral program in anthropology at The George Washington University. It’s a small program and I’m excited to be formally continuing on with academic scholarship. I’ve spent the last year teaching at a high school in Fairfield County, Conn., which I absolutely loved, but if I’m ever going to go through the grad school tribulations and make it out alive it’s now.

I will continue to focus on the LRA conflict, though I’m not 100% sure in what form. This means that I’ll continue writing about it here, and it’s probably a safe bet that you can find me in Uganda or its neighbors infrequently over the next few years.

The summer has been spent writing (or attempting to), so you’ll see a few things up here soon, and probably elsewhere as well (fingers crossed). This site itself will probably undergo some changes as well, as it hasn’t had a facelift in several years. Thanks for sticking around – I’ll keep writing if you keep reading (and even if you don’t, probably).

Weekend Reading

The move to more flexible scheduling has come alongside a shift from full-time to part-time work. One industry analyst reported that the retail sector went from being about 70 to 80 percent full-time jobs several decades ago to approximately 70 percent part-time jobs today. Retail employees comprise 11 percent of the US workforce, but 18 percent of those who are involuntarily part-time.

While erratic scheduling makes it difficult for someone not working a forty-hour week to find and hold a second job, relying on part-time work benefits employers — who can more easily vary hours and schedules, avoid overtime pay, and offer fewer benefits. Many companies have store policies that provide benefits only to full-time workers, and the Affordable Care Act applies only to workers employed thirty or more hours per week.

The thinking behind the idea that trigger warnings are a form of censorship is fundamentally illogical: those who offer warnings, at our professional discretion, about potentially triggering material are doing so precisely because we’re about to teach it! If we used trigger warnings to say, effectively, “don’t read this, it’s scary,” then there’d be no need to warn in the first place; we’d just leave the material off the syllabus.


[T]rigger warnings are, in practice, just one of a set of tools that professors use with varying degrees of formality to negotiate the give-and-take of classroom interactions. If you take away the media hysteria surrounding trigger warnings, you’re left with a mode of conversational priming that we all use: “You might want to sit down for this”; “I’m not sure how to say this, but…” It’s hardly anti-intellectual or emotionally damaging to anticipate that other people may react to traumatic material with negative emotions, particularly if they suffer from PTSD; it’s human to engage others with empathy. It’s also human to have emotional responses to life and literature, responses that may come before, but in no way preclude, a dispassionate analysis of a text or situation.

Straight to Court: The Case for Private Prosecutions

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

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

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


Black Lives Matter demonstrators in NYC last November.

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

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

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

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

Protesters in Union Square this April.

Protesters in Union Square this April.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Lives Matter, Direct Action, and the Sanders Campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll give Jamil Smith the last word:

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

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