Also posted on Concrete.
Faced with the barrage of distressing news from around the world, reporting endlessly on shocking events and atrocities committed by those in power, it is tempting to curl up into a ball and cry, or attempt to smash everything – y’know, banks, parliament, corporations, police cars, police… However, neither of these are constructive outlets for one’s rage. Formulating a radical response to world events such as the shooting of unarmed Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, or the bombing and killing of innocent civilians in Gaza, or the illicit invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops is as difficult as it is critical.
The ballooning in popularity of the ice bucket challenge is one response to the wrong in the world – but it’s a misguided one. Giving to charity is in principle a great thing to do – in practice, however, it is important which one you give your money to. Some charities plough the majority of their funding into on-the-ground activities such as research or aid work, and some… don’t. Take the ALS foundation, which has been mistakenly wedded to the ice bucket challenge, for instance – their tax returns reveal that they spend a paltry 27% of their revenue on research, and pay their 11 executives over $100,000 apiece each year. Giving to grassroots foundations and organisations that do truly amazing work or fund highly effective campaigns should be prioritised; I’m thinking something along the lines of local foodbanks, Skateistan or Greenpeace. It’s great to donate to charity – but it’s unnecessary to dump ice on your head to do so. The main problem with the craze is that it seems like some bizarre publicity stunt – a self-congratulatory ego trip for celebrities and facebook sensations that achieves very little and trivialises the act of charity. If you give to charity: great, keep doing it… in private. We don’t need to congratulate you on every £3 a month you give to Oxfam.
A radical response to the problems of the world recognises that many are about abuses of power and the oppression of vulnerable and subjugated groups. All three of the examples given above concern the exercising of authority and power. Palestine has been historically screwed over by the state of Israel and international institutions since the early 20th century, with the aggression ramping up considerably post-‘67. Operation Cast Lead 2008-09 (AKA the Gaza War) killed 1,400 Palestinians by the UN’s count, and three Israelis. Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 killed hundreds of people too, and both sides were accused of committing war crimes. The most recent conflict is yet another expression of the unequal power dynamic between the two states: although Hamas is of course responsible for violence against Israel, its existence is in retaliation against the systematic structural violence that Israel submits Palestine to every day. The state of Israel systematically oppresses Palestinian civilians, by refusing to grant entry and exit visas to those in the Gaza strip – not to visit dying relatives, not to work, not to go to the market and buy food. Gaza’s borders are more restrictive than some of our prisons. Hell, we let a man called Skull Cracker waltz out of HMP Standford Hill on a whim. Israel denies Palestinians the right to a livelihood – they destroy key infrastructure such as water wells, and do not allow Palestinians to abstract drinking water. More than 80% of the water in the shared Israel/Palestine aquifer is extracted by Israel. 95% of Gaza’s water supply is too contaminated to drink due to over-abstraction. Palestinians have no access to water to irrigate crops, and so their economy is stunted, thereby preventing people from earning a living and improving their lives. Israeli troops frequently destroy olive groves full of trees centuries old, either in ‘punishment’ for supposed crimes against Israel, or as a deterrent. Houses are destroyed, schools are destroyed, wells are destroyed, people’s livelihoods are destroyed. It is a systematic abuse of power by one group over another, and the most recent events are another manifestation of that. Israel holds de facto power through force, and de jure power through legislation. The UN and powerful countries like the USA and UK support Israel, and even arm them, condoning the atrocities committed by the state. The Oslo Accords for instance unashamedly prejudice in favour of Israel, allocating more than half of water resources there, and building in institutional obstacles to Palestine obtaining their fair share – Israel has much better representation at the negotiating table.
What happened in Ferguson is another example of those in authority – the police – abusing that power. The USA is famously unequal, particularly along race lines in certain areas. Black students are three times as likely to be expelled from school as their white counterparts, and young black men are more likely to go to prison than to college. The US justice system is institutionally racist, and the shooting of Michael Brown in early August is yet another tragic reminder of the role the police play in perpetuating a racist status quo. The police are essentially the guard dogs of the elites, and the strong arm of the state – they are sworn to protect life and property, and in so doing criminalise and discriminate against those in poverty who do not have property. Institutionalised racism means that many black communities are poor, which results in higher levels of unemployment, violence and crime as people are forced into situations by necessity and lack of opportunities. Thus, when significant protest erupts against an unlawful killing, the state labels it ‘rioting’ and sends in the riot police. Ring any bells? This exact same thing happened in London in 2011 following the killing in Tottenham of Mark Duggan, an unarmed black man, in a community that has traditionally been relatively deprived, like Ferguson. Police violence is the ultimate abuse of power over socially and economically vulnerable or oppressed groups, and it is tolerated by the state because the state is run by elites, for elites. The shooting of innocent civilians, regardless of whether it is by a foreign government or your own, is a systematic waging of class warfare against the poorest members of society.
The situation in Ukraine is more complicated, but still involves the assertion of Russian authority over Ukrainian territorial sovereignty. No matter how much Vladimir Putin tries to convince us that the thousands of Russian troops that have reportedly joined separatist rebels have done so whilst off duty, it is clear that what world leaders, including Obama, are calling an “incursion” is almost certainly an underhand invasion. Russia’s combative stance speaks volumes; a territorial standoff and geopolitical wrangling whereby Russia re-asserts its waning power, reminding the West that the might and influence of the USSR has not diminished entirely.
All of the above represent an assertion of dominance by the powerful over the weak. ‘Weakness’ is here engendered by institutions, geopolitics or both. The prejudice of American law against young black men, and non-white communities in general, represents institutional oppression and structural violence committed against communities that are typecast, stereotyped and brutalised by an unrepresentative and largely white police force, whose job is to protect the state and elites. Post-curtain geopolitical dynamics, corruption and the erosion of Ukrainian institutions by ‘revolution’ have created a vulnerable state susceptible to meddling by power-hungry Tsars. The situation in Israel/Palestine is a combination of the two: institutionalised structural violence continues to oppress citizens, while international geopolitical institutions stand idly by and condone the situation. Israel is granted the green light by nations like the USA and UK who do not condemn their acts of barbarism, which evidently violate international law. Beyond that, they actively arm Israel, providing firearms, aircraft components and drones that are used to wage war against Gaza. Not only is this behaviour contemptible, it makes the leaders of such countries complicit in genocide.
Of course other sides are causing trouble too; Hamas fire deadly rockets, there is violence in black communities, and there is conflict on both sides in Ukraine. However, there is clear inequality between sides: Hamas have greatly inferior weaponry, and Israel has the backing of many international powers. The police in Ferguson have the weight of the state behind them. The disparity is apparent and it is clear that abuses of power are creating these problems. Not only do we need to redistribute resources, but also address the power imbalance at local, national and international levels.