After a season of lockdowns and social distancing, people are taking to the streets. The U.S. has seen large-scale and widespread uprisings after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the latest in a series of Black victims of police brutality. Solidarity protests calling for racial justice have spread across the world. Meanwhile, uprisings continue in Hong Kong, Pakistan, India, and elsewhere.
In an ongoing series, The Drift is inviting short reflections on global protest movements. We ask: What are we learning about direct political action in the midst of this unprecedented crisis? What are we risking, and what are we gaining, by gathering together—many of us for the first time in months?
In the middle of the night on May 26, armed robbers in Turbat, Pakistan shot Malik Naz to death in her home, as her four-year-old daughter Bramsh watched. Bramsh herself landed in the hospital with a bullet-grazed collarbone. There is a video of her waking up and asking repeatedly for her deceased mother.
The perpetrators belong to one of many state-backed death squads operating in the neglected province of Balochistan, and this incident is only the latest in a harrowing record of abuse of power and lawlessness in the area. Bramsh and her mother were unusual targets of the state-sponsored and systemic onslaught that members of the Baloch ethnic minority have come to know well, and which normally preys on men in the form of enforced disappearances.
Appalled by the assault on the mother and daughter and frustrated at the predictable inaction from the authorities, scores of Baloch people staged mass sit-ins and protests during the Covid-19 pandemic. In major cities across the province, men, women, and children marched peacefully with masks and placards to demand justice for Bramsh and Balochistan.
While public figures in Pakistan expressed solidarity with victims of racial injustice around the world—some with black squares on Instagram, others by acknowledging anti-Blackness in their communities—Bramsh’s plight was met with grave silence. This silence, too, is engineered: news from Balochistan is typically greeted by a national media blackout. Once again, protest coverage was limited mainly to Twitter. One image from the #JusticeforBramsh protests is particularly striking: Four children—three girls and a boy—sit cross-legged on the floor, holding posters with Bramsh’s image from the hospital, now ubiquitous on the Internet. The children wear surgical masks and look up into the camera. It’s not just the sight of these young protesters in the middle of a pandemic that is haunting, but rather what forms the backdrop of their protest, and makes up their daily lives.
The setting of this photo is immediately identifiable to anyone familiar with the plight of the Baloch people: women gathered in a tent, makeshift walls covered with headshots of young men carrying their names and other identifying information. Since the onset of the War on Terror, thousands of Baloch men have been kidnapped and “disappeared” by Pakistan’s ruling establishment and its many allies, often in broad daylight. One day here; the next day transported to a dark institutional crevice, leaving no trace behind. It is common knowledge who takes these innocent men away and, unfortunately, that many will not make it back—at least not alive. I think of the young boy in the picture protesting for Bramsh and wonder whether the girls next to him may, one day, have to carry his face on posters; if he, too, will become a state souvenir; a wall hanging in the tents.
It has become routine for Baloch women to gather like this, holding images of their disappeared men—some have several loved ones to account for. They show up day after day, rain or sun, and sit for hours. Many of them have visited these tents for years, still waiting to be heard. The tents have become the site of women’s resistance in Balochistan. The assumption was that women could be relatively safe, that the establishment would not treat them as a threat, though there have been some reports of disappeared women, too. With the murder of Malik Naz, that hope has been dashed, reinforcing what all Baloch people have come to know: that they are never safe, that neither their childhood nor womanhood will save them.
On June 8, families affected by enforced disappearances commemorated the Baloch Missing Persons Day. While the same silence offered to Bramsh gripped the rest of the country, one video of a young woman, Haseeba Qambrani, at a demonstration at the Quetta Press Club managed to gain traction on social media. In her defiant act of grievance against the state, she speaks openly against the oppressors as she pleads for the return of her abducted brothers. She cries, “I have already lost one brother whose mutilated body was thrown into the streets.”
The women of Balochistan are the Baloch people’s vessel of dissent against the state; the tether that keeps the missing men from vanishing entirely. They are the face of protest; their remembrance is resistance. Like Bramsh, their grief and loss fuels the movement. Haseeba Qambrani ends her litany with a powerful declaration: “I am no longer Haseeba—I am Farzana, I am Mahrang, I am Bramsh, I am Balochistan.” Even in this state of perpetual limbo, the women of Balochistan never pause their lament, their seemingly endless search. Perhaps we, too, should search—for the state’s missing conscience, and ours.
—Zuneera Shah, Lahore
I am tired of the need for protests.
I start here because I believe the fundamental truth that Black Americans do not deserve to be hunted and executed everywhere the land is stolen. What is important here is the need, the overwhelming need to live, the soul wrenching need to cry out that we, too, are human.
Raphäel Lemkin felt the world needed a means of defining the slaughter of a people, and coined the phrase ‘genocide’ in 1944. His work was instrumental in creating a means to action. Per Article II of the United Nations Genocide Convention, genocide is defined as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
The United States did not become signatory to the convention until ninety-seven other countries had, nearly forty years after genocide became a crime under international law. America feared a reckoning, for what do you call the slaughter of a people, the stripping of their faiths and languages, the centuries-long enslavement and squeezing of labor, the denial of access to housing, education and democratic institutions, the constant enacting of ways to separate breath from body? We are accustomed to calling it whiteness, white supremacy, racism. The UN calls it genocide.
Yes. It sits uneasy at my fingertips too. But I have read opinions and heard from friends proclaiming that the response to this recent slate of murder (George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Amaud Arbery, Tony McDade, may they rest in power) feels different. It almost sneaks out of the throat, a sound afraid of its own capacity for conflagration. Black people are tired.
I am. Tired of hearing the shouts, exhausted by the tear gas, weakened by the rubber bullets. Tired of communities burning, angry that we have to continue to protest. The first time you’re slammed with the realization that you are expendable by your very skin, something irretrievable in you dies. The reminders thereafter, the claiming of the right to live, the very need to claim it, takes from you. These constant protests are both a dousing of the American project in gasoline and a striking of a match for the inevitable reckoning. They are a refusal to eat from America’s poisoned fruit with the hope of being heard over the din of inaction, but they take as much as we give.
I am also proud of the protests, empowered by them, in awe of the ability of my people to remain unbroken in the face of tyranny. I am reminded that we must continue to tell the homies we love them and are justified in holding on to Blackness as tightly as we do. The protests remind me to straighten my back, to swing if swung on, to smile with the fullness of my lips, to love and lust like I’ve learned to believe in the beauty of myself, to write liberation into existence, to live as if life is only a moment, because we wouldn’t protest if someone’s life weren’t always getting trimmed down to one.
This moment, like those countless cries for liberation prior, carries the burden and hope of itself. If there is something eerily familiar, it is that we are tired but resilient, proud while facing a doom unable to end us. If there is something different, perhaps it is not in the emotions felt, not the crack of gunshots or the sting of tear gas. Perhaps the difference is being able to wield new weapons, utilize new language. Perhaps what is different is the certainty with which we are able to say that we will kill this nation in tandem if it continues to kill us. That when it comes to genocide, there is no room for negotiation.
—Deshawn McKinney, Milwaukee
American cages—our prisons, jails, and immigrant detention centers—have been the world’s deadliest places during the Covid epidemic. Incarcerated people around the world have risked further exposure to the suffocating virus by rising up together and protesting. These cages are tools of distance even in “normal” times. We are told that this distance protects us. Since the start of the epidemic, many states have slowed down prison and jail release, ostensibly to protect those outside from the virus that those inside will transmit to us. In Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and more places to come, protestors have been circling prisons. We on the outside pound on the pavement with our bare hands, and those inside pound back on the thick panes of glass separating out from in. The police use force to block our direct communication, but serve nevertheless as a mode of transmission. Our shared clamor suggests that we may already be infected with the same virus.
—Henry Shah, Boston
The life expectancy for St. Louis’s well-to-do University City suburb is eighty years. Just a seven-minute drive north, it drops to seventy years. It likely won’t be surprising to learn that people who live in northern St. Louis are predominantly (~94%) Black. St. Louis, perched on the Mississippi river in what we call our country’s heartland, has long been a crucible for our country’s racial disparities; Walter Johnson’s recent book on its history called the city “the broken heart of America.” It is no accident that one of the first major protests of Black Lives Matter took place after the police murdered Michael Brown in Ferguson, in northern St. Louis County.
I am studying to be a doctor here. A year in this segregated metropolis has already opened my eyes to systemic inequalities that I scarcely registered in a lifetime in the Mid-Atlantic suburbs. Last Friday, I joined hundreds of other medical students, doctors, and healthcare workers on Kingshighway Blvd., the main road leading up to Barnes Jewish Hospital, which is affiliated with Washington University in St. Louis. One by one, healthcare workers in scrubs and white coats exited the hospital with homemade signs and placards. They crossed the street to join us, fanning out along several blocks. Some passing cars honked in support, piled high with children leaning out of sunroofs, videotaping the demonstration that spanned several blocks and cheering loudly. Others sped by, eyes on the road, trying not to look at us or our signs. It was difficult not to notice the demographics of these silent passersby.
All around the country that day, healthcare workers and medical students were demonstrating under the motto “White Coats for Black Lives.” It’s taken us far too long for us to come together and state the obvious: that systemic racism and police brutality are public health crises. From cradle to grave, our medical system fails Black Americans.
Barnes Jewish Hospital has a huge catchment area and is part of one of the largest healthcare systems in the midwest. People drive from hours away, beyond just Missouri and neighboring Illinois, to receive their care at our hospitals. Yet just several blocks north, past Delmar Blvd., (which demarcates the so-called “Delmar Divide” between Black and white St. Louis), Black St. Louisans are unable to access the care of these top-rated providers. Though our hospital is just four miles south of some of the poorest zip codes of north St. Louis city, the St. Louis public transportation system fails the residents of these neighborhoods. What would be a twenty minute drive becomes an hour-plus journey requiring careful coordination between multiple buses and metros to reach the hospital’s doorstep. The other option? A three hour walk.
So what happens in emergency situations? St. Louis also has among the highest homicide rates in the country, with almost 70% of its homicides taking place in north St. Louis city. Combined with Missouri’s non-existent gun control policies, which allow anyone over nineteen to carry a concealed firearm without a permit, you have an unrelenting crisis. People who get shot in north St. Louis are dying without even a chance of reaching the hospitals just a few miles away. Some physicians are taking steps to improve the situation. Dr. Laurie Punch has started a program called Stop the Bleed, which trains community members across St. Louis to provide emergency care to victims of gun violence. The hope is for trained bystanders to keep these victims alive until they can be safely delivered to medical professionals. While such programs are empowering, everyone involved recognizes the total absence of relevant laws and social services.
Racial disparities surface in every exploration of unequal access to healthcare services and unequal burden of disease. Yet medical school curricula barely capture this state of affairs. You could graduate with flying colors without seeing racial inequities as much more than a footnote. Everyone studying to become a doctor in America should understand racial disparities in maternal mortality, chronic illness, and violent crimes. They should recognize that refusing to expand Medicaid disproportionately affects already marginalized communities. It cannot be optional for American doctors and doctors-in-training to say that Black lives matter. Such a paradigm shift in the medical field is not an obvious corollary to the protests, but if the medical community does seize the opportunity to highlight racial disparities as a mandatory component of the curriculum, it could be one of the most important effects of this month’s unprecedented popular explosion of despair.
—Kaamya Varagur, St. Louis
I think about George Floyd in the context of others I know: One woman in Appalachia who, while homeless and living in a tent in the woods with her husband, was subject to a sudden drug raid by local police. When no drugs were found, she and her husband were arrested and jailed on charges of “aggravated criminal littering” based on pieces of trash found near their tent. There was a woman in the Bronx whose apartment was raided by police in the middle of the night on a false tip, traumatizing her young children and vandalizing her home. As a civil rights investigator, I work alongside those who have been punished within a criminal-legal system that serves only to crush them and their families, and to criminalize them for their race or for their poverty. This system is not broken: it is brutal and racist by design.
Policing does not keep us safe. The police are, and have always been, an agent of white supremacy, an enforcer of white property, and an instrument of white violence. The police cannot be reformed. They must be defunded.
The urgency of the protests have pushed us to an inflection point, out of which divestment and reinvestment must be the way forward. Reinvestment is not a new idea, though weeks of protest have pushed activists’ longtime call to divest from the police into mainstream conversation. Organizers all over the country—groups like Dream Defenders in Miami and Reclaim the Block in Minneapolis—are pressing their local officials to divert funding from police departments into critically needed social services. And it may already be working. In Los Angeles, pressure from Black Lives Matter and other activists recently resulted in $150 million in budget cuts to the LAPD, money that will be reinvested into communities of color.
—Lily Bou, Washington, D.C.
You had been writing and publishing intensely against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) brought into a law by Modi’s government, which discriminates against Muslims. You said that politics today was not local, but it has global dimensions everywhere. What are you learning about the changes in the organization of direct political action and protest movements in the midst of this unprecedented crisis? Is anything new, or are all the familiar dynamics and power structures at play—on the ground and in the discourse?
Shaj Mohan: I have been saying that resistance and protests are no longer very helpful. Instead, we should be thinking in terms of systemic transformation, more precisely revolution. Divya Dwivedi recently wrote that it would require a re-articulation of Kantian imagination as the collective faculty which can create freedoms in politics. I do see certain resonance in some of the discourses today.
Now, we can never create fantasy fictions of politics and then implement them. So when I wrote about the anti-CAA protests in India it was with the knowledge that a revolutionary transformation was already taking place in politics because the lower caste people (Bahujan, which means the real majority who are 90% of the population) have been organizing outside the electoral forms of politics, which anyway systematically excludes them, across party lines. The Bahujan are inventing a new faculty in politics, and for that reason the people associated with these movements are being arrested even in the middle of the lockdown. The silence on the streets should never be mistaken for a quiet submission in politics. From what I can see of the world, from out of the room (but not quite like the Chinese sage), the world is stretching like a bow during this lockdown—let’s say there is Kairos (καιρός), or an opportunity, in the world.
In Delhi there were intense communal riots in February right before the coronavirus made its presence known. Has that ground to a halt? Have people migrated their activism to online spaces? In America protests have begun due to the killing of an African American man, George Floyd, by the police, which is the most recent incident in a series of racial profiling. Are there parallels between India and America in all this?
SM: There is a great difference between India and America. In America the African American people are a minority and in India the lower caste people are the 90% of the population. When the lower caste people are lynched and murdered on a regular basis we see no protests, neither in India nor across the world. India went into lockdown following a pogrom against Muslims and in America the people came out on the streets following a lynching.
Yet there are similarities between the two situations. What we perceive as extreme events, such as pogroms and lynching, are prepared by everyday discriminations which we failed to tackle in India and elsewhere. This has been known ever since genocides were studied. A group of people do not appear as dangerous or less than human so easily without a lot of preparation. This can be seen today in the parallels between the arrests of those who demand justice–and sometimes just the right to live–in these protests being arrested on extraordinary charges in both countries. Afterall Modi and Trump have a friendship of vile power and obscene rhetoric. Therefore we should not see the pandemic as having very suddenly instituted something special in the world. The pandemic and the lockdown have a mechano-lensing effect which shows us things which are about to seize us. As you know, gravitational lensing, the bending of light by gravity, allows us to see astronomical objects behind the object which bends the light. Often these lensed objects, such as galaxies, appear stretched, enlarged, multiplied and so on. The pandemic has not really invented anything yet, but it is revealing and distorting the hidden evils of our world. It is showing us the discriminations, poverties of various kinds, the suffering of temporary teachers, the extreme vulnerability of sexual politics and trans-activism, and the undemocratic form in which the world is being held together by techno-economic-corporate order. If we see parallels it is because all the problems of the world are determined by the same order.
There has been news about people stealing food and other methods of popular “protest” amongst India’s poor and working classes, can you go into a little more detail on what is happening on the ground, other modes of resistance and protest? Theft and destruction of shops have been seen in protests in other parts of the world too, including France and America in recent months. Is there something like a general principle that connects them?
Mohan: People stealing food in the middle of a pandemic in an extremely poor country like India cannot be seen as protest. When the Lorries carrying flour were looted their owner said that it was justified, it was the right of the people to eat. It is market morality which tells us that you must not steal, you must not be a pirate, but pay for everything with your exhaustion; rather, you must not aspire to the things which the super-rich have. The market morality is the worst in the academies, as Aaron Swartz found tragically.
But, your question points to something interesting, the beginning of the proliferation of theft and piracy in the middle of political actions. We should remember that one of the icons of our entry to a post-war world was the film “The Bicycle Thieves”, which was about the morality of theft. A moral order works in a particular social system because it has found that certain restrictions are necessary to derive parameters and constants which can give the system regularities. For example, in Althusser’s idiom the morality of a worker being on time in a factory, her obligations to her children, and the children’s training in these moral codes in school are interconnected; that is, the moral obligation to the family is what ensures the worker’s appearance in the factory on time, which makes the factory sync with the family. This “sync” has already been lost in our societies and therefore we have moral codes which do not have parametric effects on the working of the world. When people don’t have work and the conditions to raise children, it follows that they cannot entertain the moral obligations from another epoch. So, let me say this: It is hunger and starvation that is evil, and not theft. As the American poet said “I don’t mind stealing bread from the mouths of decadence”.
Varagur: How do you see politics and protests changing across the world due to the coronavirus? How do you think COVID-19 and Modi’s lockdown will change India’s longstanding and unusually strong traditions of mass protest, from farmers’ marches to civic rallies?
Mohan: I am neither “Sophos”, the wise man, nor a prophet, the one who sees ahead. I am only the philosopher. I think the protests in the name of resistance will continue precisely because protests do not achieve anything. Resistance implies that you defend something you hold as valuable against the advancement of something you perceive as harmful. We have no idea what it is that we are defending anymore. If it is an egalitarian society that we wish to defend then we have to start constructing it ourselves, with precision, and only then resistance might mean something. Otherwise, protest is the same as prayer, or sometimes partying on the streets; a few hours of distraction, if you are lucky, which makes it easy to accept that it will be worse tomorrow. But I do see currents of precise imagination, at least on the internet today.
Varagur: Have people been able to protest the (by any measure, quite extreme) lockdown at all? In America the protests against the lockdown came mainly from the far right. Now, it seems that the lockdown is not sustainable anywhere and yet there is no cure in sight. What is driving the decisions of the state everywhere?
Mohan: This is what I call a “vortex of evil”. States are forced to adopt lockdown as a temporary measure, to prevent large numbers of deaths and to prepare the healthcare systems which were never conceived for dealing with pandemics. But if the lockdown is extended indefinitely there will be starvation, more diseases to deal with, and certain economic catastrophe which the corporations would not want. Therefore, as opposed to the doomsday enthusiasts who see this as the final enclosure of man, most governments, especially in Europe, are holding at bay a “vortex of evil.”
In India, perhaps in America too, we have something else. Fascist organizations thrive on crises of low intensity which they then accelerate to increase their control over society. They are elected by their supporters to cause destruction to some or the other enemies (which is the case with Trump as well). Modi’s supporters know that he is an illiterate man good at pogroms, for the same reason his supporters trust that he is going to be terrible at dealing with crisis of this magnitude. Fascism today is elected ineptitude, whether in India or America, and it is our misfortune that in this dark hour we cannot exchange it for something better. But, if people are willing to forget the party form of politics we can find our way out of this lockdown with reason, and reason alone.
Interview with Shaj Mohan, philosopher, New Delhi – June 2, 2020