Making Violence Visible: Mapping Violence against Guarani and Kaiowá Women in Brazil

by Camilla Rossi* 

Photo, for Rossi blog In November 2020 the Guarani and Kaiowá Women’s Council, Kuñangue Aty Guasu, shared the first comprehensive report documenting the initial outcomes of their Violence Mapping project, ‘Corpos Silenciados, Vozes Presentes’. Located in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, since 2006 the Kuñangue Aty Guasu has been working with their local communities to collect reports on the specific ways violence affects the lives of Indigenous Guarani and Kaiowá women.

Historic and systemic violations against the Guarani and Kaiowá communities have led them to live in a context of extreme precarity, often described as the most severe humanitarian crisis faced by Indigenous people in Brazil. Decades of aggressive appropriation of their traditional territories (tekohá) for agricultural expansion, and the ongoing delays in delivering the official demarcation of Guarani lands by the federal government, have forced these communities into small, overcrowded, poverty-ridden reserves. Recent reports showed that these areas are affected by the highest incidence of gender-based and sexual violence among any Indigenous communities in Brazil.

“Violence is a hotly debated topic during our annual assemblies”, the members of the Kunãngue Aty Guasu report. They note how this violence is often “silent” (violência silenciosa), normalised to the point that it goes unrecognised by the very women suffering from it. The ‘Violence Mapping’ project aims to support local women as they turn this silence into a narrative, to make violence visible so that it can finally be identified and addressed. To do so, the Guarani and Kaiowá women have now joined efforts with Dr Jerome Lewis at University College London (UCL) Anthropology, Fabiana Fernandes at the Institute for the Development of Art and Culture (IDAC), and the UCL Multimedia Anthropology Lab (MAL). This partnership, supported by the UCL Global Engagement Fund, aims to visualise the data gathered by Indigenous women and present it as an interactive map, documenting the incidence and geographical distribution of such violence.

What is Violence for Guarani and Kaiowá Women 

As outlined in the Kunãngue Aty Guasu’s reports, the violence affecting Indigenous women is a broad and complex phenomenon, rooted in the historical marginalisation that they continue to face on a daily basis and operating at the intersection of their ethnicity, gender, and chronic economic precarity. They point out how the only law aimed at protecting female victims of violence – Law 11.340, better known as the Maria da Penha Law – does not grasp the complexity of the Guarani and Kaiowá context, and therefore fails to fully protect Indigenous women. As many of the forms of violence they experience are not accounted for in the non-Indigenous (karai) legal system, their suffering continuously slips through the cracks of the judiciary system.

In ‘Corpos Silenciados, Vozes Presentes’, violence against women is identified as both physical and psychological, and perpetuated by various people and institutions – including husbands, boyfriends, the police, public institutions, health professionals, and universities. Among its manifestations, the Women’s Council highlights the stigmatisation of sexual violence among Indigenous communities and the consequent silencing of rape survivors; the demonisation of Indigenous culture, ranging from racist, malicious looks to accusations of witchcraft, death threats, torture, and murder of their elders; the widespread obstetric violence characterised by lack of appropriate care and information, and intrusive, humiliating interventions which disrespect Indigenous cultural sensitivities and needs; and the confinement and confiscation of their lands for profit.

The latter point is particularly important as the Guarani and Kaiowá’s relationship with their ancestral land is fundamental to their physical, spiritual, and cultural existence. The Brazilian State, unwilling to demarcate Indigenous territories and recognise Indigenous land rights, is identified as the main perpetrator of violence. Groups of Guarani and Kaiowá have been responding with the ‘retomadas’ – the reappropriation of lands that have already been identified as part of their territory, but are still in possession of farmers. These attempts have been met with ruthless violence and evictions. The Guarani and Kaiowá women have long been at the forefront of this fight, exposing themselves to unique challenges and risks.

Making Violence Visible 

Strengthening the capacity of community-led responses to gender-based violence is essential to make visible the scale and spread of such violence, consequently facilitating strategies for delivering social justice. This commitment is what built the foundations of a voluntary collaboration between the Guarani and Kaiowá women, IDAC, and UCL MAL in October 2020, when they worked together to strengthen the digital communication infrastructure available to Guarani & Kaiowá women and to support the online coordination of their annual assembly.

Building from the success of this first collaboration, this partnership is now working to support the Kunãngue Aty Guasu’s long-term efforts to combat gender inequalities, by assisting in the creation of a digital infrastructure to monitor and make visible the violence against women. More specifically, the project aims to develop an interactive map to visualise and monitor the incidence and geographic distribution of gender-based violence against Guarani and Kaiowá women. Community members will be supported with comprehensive training on the use of the digital platform and the process of data input, designed specifically to increase accessibility for communities with low written and digital literacy.

The data visualisation and analysis made possible by the interactive map will provide an invaluable resource for the Guarani and Kaiowá women’s monitoring efforts, allowing them to identify, collect, and widely disseminate new datasets by their own terms. In a context where cultural and infrastructural challenges have historically excluded these communities from participating in scientific research and from accessing justice, this project aims to support Guarani and Kaiowá women’s’ capacity to represent their interests, so to develop accurate, sensitive, and effective mitigation measures to combat gender inequalities and violence.

“Falar de mulheres Kaiowá e Guarani é urgente, é agora!”

During the project’s introductory meeting, held on the 6th of May, the members of the Kuñangue Aty Guasu described how researching and collecting data on violence against women has exposed them to further harassment and violence, both physical and psychological. It is also important to remember, they remarked, that the process of writing and talking about their suffering in Portuguese is in itself a form of violence. As they wrote in ‘Corpos Silenciados, Vozes Presentes’:

“The Guarani and Kaiowá dialect is our first language. Portuguese is the second language in which we were forced to understand the violent process of decimation and colonisation of our bodies. Writing in the Karai language (Portuguese) is also violence, but it is the fighting tool […] necessary to send out our cry for help.” (Kuñangue Aty Guasu, Corpos Silenciados, November 2020)

These issues highlight the need for a deeply collaborative research approach which amplifies Indigenous women’s own views, strategies, and needs in the fight against gender-based violence. By reinforcing the Guarani and Kaiowá women’s capacity to collect and analyse data locally, collectively, and autonomously, the partnership aims to counteract this history of colonial oppression and to create a global network of support.

While this initial activity aims to directly address gender inequality and violence among the Guarani and Kaiowá women, the platform and training provided will contribute towards strengthening the community capacity to respond to other pressing challenges. Amplifying the voices of resilient Indigenous women, this partnership aims to contribute towards tackling institutional inequality and discrimination, and to address daily issues of hunger, poor water sanitation, and lack of healthcare resources that Indigenous communities in Brazil continue to face. In the words of Jaqueline Aranduhá, accomplished anthropologist and Indigenous leader: “Indigenous women struggle for their survival every day. Still, we are here at this meeting today because this is for the long-term, because it matters.”

The partnership will present the interactive map at a public event in September. Check out the UCL MAL website to join the online conference and learn more about the development of the project!

•  •  •

*Camilla Rossi is a BSc Anthropology Alumnus at University College London.

Police Abolition or Police Surveillance: The Looming Choice

by Micol Seigel*


Image created by Hugh D’Andrade. CC BY 3.0.

Speaker after speaker at the Republican National Convention last month railed against democrats’ supposed plans to defund the police.  The major spotlight on these denunciations reflects how visible this once-fringe proposal has become.  It also highlights the political position defunding occupies today:  far, far beyond the pale for conservatives and “centrist” voters.  Yet there is concrete movement in this direction on the part of some localities—Minneapolis being a case in point—and dedicated eloquence by activists nationwide.

The chasmic disagreements over defunding the police mean that the road to this abolitionist reform will be anything but smooth. Activists will have to struggle mightily in direct and open venues as well as the shadowy spheres of “frontlash” tactics—sideways measures to contain a political backlash.  Political scientist Vesla Mae Weaver developed the concept of frontlash to describe how opponents of civil rights progress developed mass incarceration.  It might very well apply again now as police departments nationwide build an arsenal of surveillance technology.  Technologies touted as “alternatives” to policing and incarceration are the most serious and underestimated obstacles to genuine police reform.

Underway but underappreciated, the growth of surveillance technology could undermine attempts to shrink the police. Instead of police abolition, this danger could sap this moment’s potential and usher us into a dystopic Big Brother scenario.

Police have used surveillance technology since the mid-1800s, with surges in periods of radicalism such as the 1870s, the 1930s and the 1960s. The history of anti-black racism within surveillance techniques runs deep, as sociology professor Simone Browne has compellingly detailed, looking back to the disciplinary gaze inflicted on antebellum Black people via branding, runaway slave notices, lantern laws, and more. Nowadays the technology includes the thick blanket of surveillance cameras mounted on buildings, fixed points, vehicles, and police themselves; alert, alarm and communications systems; electronic monitoring shackles; data-extraction techniques; and drones. Drone patrols seem particularly likely to surge in years to come, with the nightmare possibility of drones making arrests or simply delivering death. Robocop returns. Equally terrifying is the possibility of ever more data-extraction, to the point that people’s transit, travel, employment, education, purchases, and so on become restricted from afar. Electronic monitoring (EM) has been widely used across the US for extra oversight in parole, and increasingly as a method of punishment when people are sentenced to EM-bound house arrest directly. As many have explained, EM is not an “alternative to incarceration” but rather “another kind of jail.” Its breathtakingly oppressive costs rack up to the hundreds within one month and the tens of thousands for longer terms.  The devices often malfunction, lose radio or wi-fi connection, or record location incorrectly, triggering a violation that can land a person back in jail on a longer sentence than they originally faced because the violation itself is classified as a crime. There is also no evidence that they succeed in preventing crime or compelling attendance at trial.

Electronic Monitoring is dreadful enough in its current incarnation—bulky, hot, often painfully chafing ankle shackles—but even more insidious forms are waiting in the wings:  smaller, more powerful devices, even cellphone apps, capable of capturing much more data than the simple, location-tracking GPS that dominates the market presently. This tech already extends carceral spaces beyond brick and mortar prison walls, and its expansion even further has been long brewing, but is developing even faster as authorities attempt to use it to fight COVID-19.

Experts face the future with concern for the rise of all these technologies. “Assuming that ‘defunding the police’ gains momentum, and even starts to happen somewhere, I think it’s highly likely that surveillance policing of one kind or another will replace some human policing,” writes Mike Nellis, professor of law.  Criminologist Tony Platt agrees:  if reformers are successful at defunding and dismantling, it is “very likely EM will get a big boost as an ‘alternative’ to policing and incarcerating.” (Mike Nellis, electronic communication, 6/14/20; Tony Platt, electronic communication, 6/14/20).  Michelle Alexander, legal scholar and author of The New Jim Crow, fears that e-carceration may be the evolution of mass incarceration—the “newest Jim Crow.”

Technology is only as fair as the society that generates and applies it. Crime statistics in the US have been racist since the nineteenth centuryOur algorithms are racist (the “New Jim Code,” per Ruha Benjamin); so is AI. “Predictive #algorithms are the new frontier of institutionalized #racism in criminal ‘justice,’” tweeted law professor Dorothy Roberts. Given how profoundly racialized U.S. urban space is today, spatial restrictions are racial restrictions, and spatial restrictions are one of the most likely outcomes with more widespread surveillance policing.  As James Kilgore of Challenging E-Carceration has worried, “Adaptations of the Chinese and Indian use of QR codes open up the possibilities of creating personal or group/area exclusion zones or zones with movement restrictions, much like hotspot policing. In India entire areas are risk assessed then the degree of movement allowed depends on the assessment result. This has frightening possibilities for racialized monitoring and supervision in the US” (James Kilgore, electronic communication, 6/14/20).

Indeed, such scenarios already exist, as in the exclusion zones that restrict where people with sex offense convictions can work or live, or the aggressive, all-encompassing surveillance of the overwhelmingly Black and brown city of Camden, New Jersey. When the city disbanded its police department, replacing it with a smaller county force, surveillance shot through the roof.  Some 121 cameras “cover virtually every inch of sidewalk,” supplementing a thirty-foot mobile crane called SkyPatrol; thirty-five microphones around the city that can detect the exact location of a gunshot, scanners that read license plates, and more.  Detroit’s “Project Green Light” spins a similarly alarming web. Liberal reformers see these as possible models other cities might emulate.

In many cities, little new infrastructure will be needed, for private security systems already proliferate that can be put to public use through mandatory or voluntary conscription.  Philadelphia already does this. The “safecam” network, in which police provide residents with security cameras to “deter crime,” obligates those who accept to give law enforcement access to their camera footage at any time. Existing security cameras from such companies as Ring and SimpliSafe are also being patched directly into Police Departments, often by having the company do its own direct outreach to customers.  One recent solicitation from Simplisafe to its clients came via email, reported Jasmine Heiss of Vera’s In Our Backyards.  It read:

As our police departments and emergency responders respond to this crisis, they are getting stretched thin.
We want to help. We want to do our part to reduce their burden—while making sure you get help when you need it most. Here’s how: 
All you need to do is turn on Video Alarm Verification—a feature that’s already included in your system. With Video Verification, if someone breaks into your home, our monitoring pros act immediately to inform the police they have visual proof of an active crime. And that means police dispatch significantly faster. That makes you safer.
 (Jasmine Heiss, electronic communication, 6/14/20)

These companies are profiting from the love affair so many people have with personal surveillance cameras in their houses, an extension into domestic space of our obsession with the cellphones that grab all our data.  This electronically enhanced navel-gazing is not politically neutral.  Those who hope to chart a path to a police-free world will have to reckon with its implications.

The fear that surveillance technologies could come to replace some human policing is no crackpot sci-fi delusion. It is all too real. If protestors of racist police brutality have succeeded in pushing localities to move towards shrinking their police departments, the forces of reaction might launch this sideswipe ambush. Their success could drain the potential of the proposals on the table. The spirit of police abolition would have little in common with this feeble letter.  Activists today might consider adding to their demands that local governments not replace aggressive policing with aggressive monitoring.

This nation has been perched at similar moments of crisis and opportunity for change before.  Many, perhaps even most, were followed by expanded repression. The defeat of Reconstruction saw the rise of convict leasing, chain gangs, and segregation; the promise of labor movements and activism after the First World War were followed by McCarthyism; threats to Jim Crow in the 1950s and the social movements associated with the 1960s preceded mass incarceration. As we have seen before, great groundswells of support for ending obviously racist and evil systems give way to new mechanisms of containment, nurtured by proponents of the old. Each time it took several decades for the new trend to emerge in full force, making it impossible for freedom fighters to track until it was too late.

•  •  • 

*Micol Seigel is Professor of American Studies and History at Indiana University, Bloomington.  In 2018-2019, she was Fulbright Distinguished Chair in International Relations at the University of São Paulo. She teaches and studies policing, prisons, and race in the Americas; her book on the nature of police work and the assumptions that underlie its legitimacy in a democracy, Violence Work: State Power and the Limits of Police, was published in 2018 by Duke University Press. Her work has appeared in such venues as American Quarterly, Social Text, Transition, Social Justice, the Journal of American History, Hispanic American Historical Review, and her Uneven Encounters: Making Race and Nation in Brazil and the United States (Duke, 2009) received a finalist mention for the Lora Romero first book prize of the American Studies Association. A founding organizer of the Critical Prison Studies caucus of the American Studies Association, Micol’s research has been supported by Harvard University’s Charles Warren Center for Historical Studies, FLAS, Fulbright, the ACLS, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Cornell Society for the Humanities, and the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Micol is a longtime member of Critical Resistance, a founding member of Decarcerate Monroe County and Indiana Against E-Carceration, and an Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program instructor. She is currently working on a transhistorical and geographically promiscuous study of places without police.

For invaluable contributions, edits and suggestions, the author thanks Chelsea Barabas, Jasmine Heiss, James Kilgore, Mike Nellis, and Tony Platt.

 • • •

From Islamophobia to Oikophobia in the Netherlands

by Maartje van der Woude* 

Vandalism Amsterdam Art Graffiti Spray Holland

The stakes in the May 2019 elections for the European parliament are unusually high. The results will indicate whether or not nationalist, anti-immigrant, and Euro-skeptic parties continue to grow and expand their influence. Here in the Netherlands, once known as a “beacon of tolerance,” I expect rightwing parties to increase their share of the vote on May 23.

The serious rise of the Right in the Netherlands can be traced to the early 2000s when the Party for Freedom (PVV), led by the Trump-like Geert Wilders, launched an attack on leftwing “undemocratic elites” who had allegedly burdened the country with unregulated migration and integration politics, and had closed their eyes to the Islamization of Dutch society. In the 2017 national elections, the PVV received 1.4 million votes out of roughly 10 million, gaining twenty of the 150 seats in parliament and coming in second behind the neoliberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, far ahead of the social-democratic Labor Party, which was governing with the VVD and saw its support decimated. The result was actually a relief to many progressives who had feared that the PVV might win an outright victory.

While the PVV reached a plateau in 2017, its exclusionary politics and Islamophobia shifted Dutch politics to the right and gave a boost to the recently formed Forum for Democracy (FvD) that promotes similar policies in a slicker and seemingly more mainstream package. FvD is a think tank reconfigured as a political party, led by Thierry Baudet, the Dutch face of the Alt-Right movement.

Whereas the PVV and FvD share the central themes of Euroscepticism and Islamophobia, the FvD dresses up its prejudices in the notion of oikophobia, a term taken from the conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton to describe a “pathological aversion” to an imagined national homeland. Oikophobia, Baudet insists, is destroying the nation-state through its surrender to feminism, cultural Marxism, modern art, immigration, the European Union, and non-Western values.  Cultural self-hatred, claims Baudet, will “homeopathically dilute the Dutch population with all the peoples of the world, so that the Dutch will cease to exist.” In response to a media firestorm, Baudet said he wasn’t talking about race but about culture.

In the 2017 national elections, FvD entered Dutch parliament with two out of 150 seats – a modest but remarkable result for a party that didn’t exist in the previous election. Despite its impressive appearance on the national political stage, very few pundits took the FvD seriously. Yet, it has shown to be popular among new voters and among higher-educated people who always found Wilders too lowbrow or too coarse. The fact that there are several prominent public figures and university professors, including one from my own law school, openly and actively involved in FvD adds to the illusion that Baudet’s politics are moderate and reasonable.

During the provincial elections in March 2019, through which seats in the Dutch Senate are apportioned, the neophyte party won 13 of 75, taking votes from the PVV as well as from the ruling People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. As a result, the current government coalition lost its majority in the Senate.

I worry that too many political organizations and analysts underestimate the growing influence of the FvD. This new respectable version of racism, intolerance, and xenophobia taps into people’s fears and anxieties that demands for rights by underrepresented groups will undermine cultural homogeneity; and that “incursions” from the Global South will result in the “demise of the nation.” FvD is successfully diversifying the radical right by presenting itself as a voice of good sense, while delivering apocalyptic messages about the loss of Dutch national identity and the dangers of Europeanization.

Universities play an important role in the loss of Dutch identity and the demise of the nation, according to Baudet, by brainwashing students with radical leftist ideas. A pamphlet issued by FvD calls upon young people to “Rise and resist against your teachers.” It’s illustrated with an image of a young person throwing a rock and with the face of my colleague from the law school who will enter the Senate for FvD. Though more than 1,500 academics have signed an open letter protesting the party’s position on higher education, the call to report leftist professors is gaining traction. I expect to be reported.

According to several polls, FvD would emerge as the winner if national parliamentary elections were held now in the Netherland. Hopefully, this will be a wake-up call for progressive activists to realize that this is not a temporary shift away from the normal politics of Dutch tolerance, but rather a long-term trend that requires an urgent response.

•  •  •

* Maartje van der Woude is professor of Law & Society at the Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, Governance & Society at Leiden Law School, the Netherlands. She is also a part-time criminal trial judge at the District Court Noord-Nederland and a member of the editorial board of Social Justice.

Pushback on Human Rights in France: The Republic on the Move, but in Reverse Gear

by Rémy HERRERA*

Image by Funkographer, at CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

For some months now, France has been the scene of a turbulent upheaval. Fierce social conflict has long been a defining feature of the country’s political life. It has been a historical given in a nation constructed, for the most part, after 1789 on the basis of a revolution of universal scope that, along with the social advances won in 1936, 1945, and 1968, still exerts a strong hold on the collective memory and the country’s institutions, despite attempts to eradicate all traces of it.Yet for nearly 40 years, France, like all the other countries of the North without exception, has found itself encased in the deadly straitjacket of devastating neoliberal policies that can only be seen as an extraordinary act of social violence, an assault on labor. Their destructive effects—on individuals, society, and even the environment—are propagated by a state that works hand-in-glove with whomever wields the most power at a given time. They are further aggravated by the constraints of the anti-social content of European Union treaties that the French rejected in the 2005 referendum but which were imposed on them in a denial of democratic process—an additional assault on an entire people. It is this particular perspective, in the general context of a systemic crisis of global capitalism, that explains the increasing waves of popular uprisings that have taken place in recent decades: strikes in 1995, riots in the suburbs in 2005–2007, demonstrations in 2000 and 2010. Today, a widespread discontent and general feeling of malaise finds its expression in the yellow vests movement, named after the high-visibility safety vest for motorists worn as a uniform by hundreds of thousands of French people expressing their disapproval of President Emmanuel Macron. This is a new mobilization in terms of its origin, scale, and forms of struggle. It all started on a small scale at the end of October 2018 with a simple citizen petition, without any party or union affiliation, posted on social networks, calling for the abolition of the fuel tax increase recently approved by the government. The yellow vests movement, however, is coming up against the worst resurgence of police violence since the Algerian war. In the face of the various protests, all demanding greater social justice, the authorities have chosen to respond with greater repression, to the extent that human rights are regressing at an alarming pace.

State of Emergency: Origins of the Crackdown

The starting point for the ramping up of repression can be clearly identified as the state of emergency proclaimed in metropolitan France on November 14, 2015 in the wake of the previous day’s terrorist attacks, and extended to the overseas departments on November 18. The security policies put in place then have forced the French people to accept a drastic curtailment of their civil and political rights. Although the state of emergency was lifted on November 1, 2017, most of the special measures it had introduced had by then acquired the force of law: preventive search and arrest, security perimeters, individual house arrest, border controls, etc., are now authorized under the Act Reinforcing Domestic Security and the Fight Against Terrorism. Since then there has been an alarming abuse of this extensive legal arsenal of emergency measures that has had the effect of pushing back public freedoms, notably the freedom of expression and freedom of assembly or demonstration, as well as trade union rights and even the right to physical integrity, all of which are now in serious jeopardy.

Those who have recently taken part in demonstrations in France have certainly witnessed what French and international human rights organizations have been decrying for the last few months: many of the actions of law enforcement agencies are disproportionate and excessively violent. They even resort at times to military weaponry. There is now systematic use of tear gas and water cannons on peaceful protesters and very frequent use of baton rounds (from riot guns, fired at head height, and other so-called less lethal weapons), stun grenades and dispersal grenades, the practice of “kettling” to prevent groups from joining up with other demonstrators, random and arbitrary arrest, verbal intimidation, gratuitous provocation, and even physical assault. The streets of Paris have seen the deployment of armored vehicles, mounted police, and K9 units. On numerous occasions, the police have inflicted degrading treatment on protesters, including minors. In many cases, people who had committed no crime whatsoeverhave been clubbed or locked up. Medical supplies have been confiscated from “street doctors”—the volunteer medics who follow the marches and treat the injured. All of these events have shocked the French, which is precisely the desired effect, with a view to halting the uprising. Such police violence is absolutely unacceptable and violates international human rights standards.

Phase 1: Suppression of Social Movements and Unions

Since the election as President of Emmanuel Macron—formerly a managing partner of the Rothschild investment bank, then Minister of Finance under President François Hollande and proponent of legislation aimed at increasing labor market flexibility—French trade unions have mobilized again. Demonstrations and strikes have spread, especially across such sectors as public transportation (SNCF, Air France), energy (gas and electricity), automobile industries (Peugeot, Renault), telecommunications (Orange), mass distribution (Carrefour), health services (public hospitals, retirement homes, social security), education (high schools, universities), culture (museums), justice (lawyers, judges), garbage collection, and even financial and company auditing. These diverse social movements, which attracted a large following, lasted throughout the spring of 2018. The response by the authorities has been to step up repression, with a particularly dramatic impact on students (evacuation of campuses), environmental activists occupying “defence zones” (ZAD) and, before that, people protesting against labor-market flexibilization laws.

This was clearly part of the same spiral of repression already unleashed against the unions for several years, in violation of existing labor laws. In this direction, the obstacles to trade union activities had multiplied: paydiscrimination against trade unionists, unfair dismissal of strikers, pressure in the form of threats or disciplinary sanctions, curtailment of unionization rights and the right to strike, and even criminalization of trade unions’ action (as has been the case at Goodyear, Continental, and Air France). In addition, recent government reforms to the Labor Code have further penalized social movements, through such measures as the provision of shorter time limits for appealing to industrial tribunals and the introduction of caps on compensation awards in cases of unfair dismissal; the imposition of restrictions to the role of staff representative bodies and to the legal remedies available to them; the devising of mechanisms for breaking collective agreements without regard for job-saving plans or staff turnover; the reversal of the hierarchy of norms so that company agreements prevail over sectoral agreements and the law; the establishment of nationwide workplace termination for economic reasons to facilitate the dismissal of employees in French subsidiaries, while the parent company makes profits on a global scale.

Phase 2: Suppression of the Yellow Vests

President Macron has decided “not to change course”. Without any regard for the suffering and expectations of working men and women, his government is tightening up its neoliberal policies and, moving ever further down the route of social violence and police repression. The record is horrific, unworthy of a country that claims to be democratic and tolerant. Since the start of the yellow vest movement, there have been 11 accidental deaths. More than 2,000 people have been injured, at least one hundred very seriously, with doctors reporting injuries they describe as “war wounds” (i.e., hands torn off, eyes put out, disfigurement, multiple fractures, and maiming), mainly resulting from baton rounds or shrapnel from grenades often fired against peaceful protesters. Several people are still in a coma. And what of the psychological shock to teenagers treated as terrorists by the police, forced onto their knees with their hands behind their heads, or bundled into vans or cells?

Where is this power heading, trampling as it does on its own people and unleashing such levels of violence? On December 1, for example, 7,940 tear gas grenades were fired, along with 800 dispersal grenades, 339 GLI-F4-type grenades (explosive ordnance), 776 baton rounds and 140,000 litres of water. According to preliminary and likely incomplete estimates, just between November 17, 2018, and January 7, 2019, 6,475 arrests were made and 5,339 people were taken into police custody. Nationwide, more than 1,000 convictions have been handed down by the courts. Although most of the sentences are subject to adjustment (such as community service), many result in prison terms: for example, 153 committal orders (involving incarceration) have been issued, while 519 summonses have been put out by the criminal investigation police and 372 by the criminal courts. In Paris, 249 people have been arraigned for immediate trial, 58 have received prison sentences and 63 suspended prison sentences. In the French department of La Réunion, the average prison term imposed on local yellow vests is 8 months. As of January 10, 2019, some 200 people involved in these events were still imprisoned in France.

Legitimacy of Popular Demands

In many respects the demands of the yellow vests intersect with those of labor movements. They demand immediate and tangible improvements to living standards, the restoration of purchasing power (wages, pensions, social benefits), the strengthening of public services, and citizens’ participation to decisions concerning their collective future. In other words, they demand the implementation of economic, social and cultural rights, and peoples’ rightto self-determination. Insofar as they call for greater social justice, increased respect for human rights, and more economic and political democracy, these claims are legitimate and attract broad support among the population.

The mother of all violence, the one that has to be halted as a matter of urgency, the one from which people are forced to defend themselves—as suggested by the Declaration of Human and Citizens’ Rights in the preamble to the French Constitution—is the violence generated by the imposition of unjust, merciless, antisocial, and undemocratic neoliberal measures; the violence that, in the silence surrounding the price movements of capitalist markets, causes homeless people to die of cold, pushes indebted farmers to suicide, and destroys individuals and families by depriving them of jobs, cutting off their electricity and evicting them from their homes; the violence that forces pensioners to turn off the heating, or children to skip a meal, because they can’t afford it; the violence that breaks down all solidarity, that closes schools, maternity wards, and psychiatric hospitals, that plunges small tradesmen and craftsmen into despair as they buckle under their overheads, that wears out wage workers but does not let them make ends meet. The real violence is there, in this extraordinarily unjust and fundamentally untenable system. In that light, the smashing of bank or supermarket windows by a few isolated or confused individuals, while certainly reprehensible, is no justification for police violence.                                                                                  

Update: Until mid-March, 11 people lost their lives, including five “yellow vests”. Most deaths are related to road accidents, two are due to heart problems. An octogenarian also lost her life in Marseille after being hit in the face by a tear gas grenade as she was closing the shutters of her apartment. For four months (from November to March), there have been many injuries during the demonstrations. According to the figures given by the Secretary of State at the Ministry of the Interior, as of March 7, 2019 the injured were 2,200 on the side of the demonstrators and 1,500 on the side of the police. In front of the Senate, the president of the parliamentary group CRCE (Communist, Republican Citizen and Ecologist), Eliane Assassi, has provided the figures of “206 head injuries, including several dozens of LBD shots [defensive ball launchers]”, and “22 people ravaged by these shots” on the side of the protesters.

• • • 

* Rémy Herrera ( is a researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Paris. Article written by the author in January 2019 and used as the basis of a written statement submitted by the Centre Europe – Tiers Monde (CETIM, a non-governmental organization in general consultative status) to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva for its fortieth session on 25 February–22 March 2019. Agenda item 4 ‘Human rights situations that require the Council’s attention’. Distribution on 15 February 2019 by the Secretary-General in accordance with Economic and Social Council resolution 1996/31 [final report available on the UN website, ref.: A/HRC/40/NGO/56]. Translated by the Centre Europe–Tiers Monde, edited by SJ.

Passive Revolution and the Movement against Mass Incarceration: From Prison Abolition to Redemption Script

by William I. Robinson & Oscar Fabian Soto*


At a recent conference that brought together academics and activists from the movement against mass incarceration, one of the authors of this commentary, Oscar Soto, sat through several days of presentations on the current state of the prison reform movement and future directions for research and activism. Yet entirely and painstakingly absent from the proceedings was the prison abolition agenda. Without a single exception, participants failed to critique—or even mention—the system of global capitalism that has produced surplus humanity and mass incarceration. Instead, the majority of speakers focused on reform, and in particular on providing prisoners and the formerly incarcerated with the opportunity for higher education.

The passage late last year of a prison reform bill (the First Step Act) is indicative of the newfound interest among the dominant groups in prison reform. The bill, among its various provisions, boosts prison rehabilitation efforts, including educational and training programs that allow prisoners to “earn credit.” While Democrats and Republicans alike cheered the bill as a “breakthrough,” particularly revealing was its endorsement by conservative and far-right groups ranging from the Cato Institute to the Koch Brothers–backed Americans for Prosperity. Even the Fraternal Order of Police and the union representing federal prison guards backed the bill.

What accounts for this rather abrupt change of heart among the dominant groups, the corporate elite, and their political and police agents? The radical critique of mass incarceration and the movement for prison abolition have been around for half a century, if not longer. As the movement gained steam in the early twenty-first century, linking the call for abolition to a critique of global capitalism and empire, the mainstream took notice and began to embrace the call to reform mass incarceration.

The irony should not be lost here. The organizations and political agents of the corporate elite that have now embraced reform are the same ones that championed capitalist globalization and one of its byproducts, mass incarceration. The newfound concern for over-incarceration and criminal justice reform is shared by a broad array of both liberal and conservative corporate-funded think tanks and foundations, including The Cato Institute, The Heritage Foundation, and the Koch Brothers as well as the Ford, MacArthur, Kellogg, Rockefeller, Mellon, Soros, and Carnegie foundations. These foundations, for instance, funded to the tune of $100 million the Art for Justice Fund in 2017 to dole grants out in strategic doses to criminal justice reform groups.

These think tanks and foundations, let us recall, promoted over the past four decades the neoliberal agenda of the corporate state, free markets, and globalization. The capitalist restructuring and class warfare from above that they promoted in the United States and worldwide resulted in the exponential expansion of a surplus humanity disproportionately drawn from racially oppressed populations and in the concomitant systems of mass social control and repression that produced mass incarceration in the first place.

As politicians, foundations, and the corporate media have taken up the matter of mass incarceration, the focus has shifted from radical critique (including abolition) to reform, and from a denunciation of the brutal injustices of neoliberal global capitalism to a redemption script. The theme of co-optation by capitalist philanthropy was first raised by Marx and Engels, who wrote in The Communist Manifesto that a sector of the capitalist class is “desirous of redressing social grievances in order to secure the continued existence” of its rule. The danger in the ruling group’s newfound interest in critiquing mass incarceration is that the radical critique that has gained traction in recent years—linking incarceration to capitalism, the oppression of marginalized communities, and a ruthless prison-industrial complex bent on turning mass social control into multiple sources of accumulation—will become eclipsed by the rise of the redemption script. As the headline in one article by the industry publication Inside Philanthropy proclaimed, “Redemption: An Accelerator Puts Former Inmates in the Driver’s Seat.” The redemption script is all about helping those incarcerated and released to absorb capitalist ideology and to integrate into the capitalist labor market as compliant workers and “social entrepreneurs.”

Italian communist Antonio Gramsci developed the concept of passive revolution to refer to efforts by the dominant groups to bring about mild reform from above by absorbing intellectual, political, and cultural leaders of the subordinate majority into the ruling bloc in order to decapitate and undercut more radical movements from below. Gramsci also proposed the general concept of hegemony to refer to the attainment by ruling groups of stable forms of power through two distinct relations of domination: coercive domination and consensual domination. All social order is maintained through a combination of consensual and coercive dimensions: In Gramsci’s words, hegemony is “consensus protected by the armor of coercion.” For Gramsci, then, the state is not all about repression; it also plays an educative role, seeking consensus via the co-optation of intellectuals and activists through political, professional, and union organizations that are funded and organized by the private associations of capital and the ruling class.

As William I. Robinson has discussed in his works on global capitalism, in the wake of the 1960s worldwide rebellions and the 1970s crisis of world capitalism, emerging transnational elites launched capitalist globalization as a project to break resistance worldwide, regenerate global accumulation, and reconstitute their lost hegemony. Capitalist globalization brought to an unprecedented expansion of the ranks of surplus labor that, in the United States, has been drawn disproportionately from racially oppressed communities; this surplus humanity has come to constitute the raw material for mass caging and for the exercise of other forms of social control carried out by an expanding global police state.

In recent years, however, global capitalism has been once again facing a crisis of hegemony and confronting a renewed challenge by mass movements from below, including the movement critiquing the prison-industrial complex and calling for abolition. For passive revolution to succeed in reestablishing the hegemony of the ruling class, the mild reform from above must include efforts to disseminate the ideological and programmatic content of the reform itself and have it achieve hegemony over calls for more radical change. That is, legal reforms such as the First Step Act (and others undoubtedly to come) must involve the diffusion of a redemption script that can displace the radical critique of the prison-industrial complex and abolition and become the new hegemonic narrative.

There has been a symbiosis between corporate funders, institutions, and the state in the current campaign to co-opt the new movement against mass incarceration. The resurgent investment in prison educational funding and educational programs for the formerly incarcerated may be welcome in and of themselves. Yet they serve the larger purpose of ensuring the hegemony of the redemption script. Deprived of a radical critique of capitalism and its prison-industrial complex, the movement against mass incarceration runs the risk of being tamed before it has the chance to develop into a revolutionary movement for abolition as part of the struggle against the depredations of global capitalism.

• • • 

* This blog is extracted from a longer commentary that will be published in a forthcoming issue of Social Justice.
William I. Robinson is professor of sociology, global and international studies, and Latin American studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His most recent book is Into the Tempest: Essays on the New Global Capitalism (Haymarket, 2018). Oscar Fabian Soto is a Chicano activist-scholar, a teaching associate in the Department of Sociology at University of California-Santa Barbara, and a PhD candidate in sociology and Black studies. He works with formerly incarcerated and disenfranchised gang-involved youth and is recipient of a Hein Family Fellowship and a Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral Scholarship.

Like We Weren’t Worth Saving

How the Camp Fire Was a Social Disaster

by Michael J. Coyle*


The Camp Fire, which crushed the lives and livelihoods of the 30,000 residents of the town of Paradise, California, was not just a natural disaster. It was a social tragedy rooted in inequality and injustice.

The Camp Fire is but another example in a long string of disasters that supposedly is inflicted upon us by the “nature” of things. That is how the media interpreted the 2007–2008 financial crisis: as “the cost of doing business,” with the vast majority of bailout dollars going to corporations and/or to the very culprits of the crash. It is also how the media continuously construct the “criminal” system: as a social effort “saving” us from “criminals” and the “epidemic” of “crime” (instead of what it really is, i.e., evidence of a targeting practice from a culture awash in white supremacy and class warfare, a massive denial of the ubiquity of “crime,” and one of the planet’s most iniquitous, unlawful, and disturbing collection of institutions and practices).

The commercial media generally portrayed the burning of Paradise as a disaster brought on by uncontrollable Nature, or at best, as the consequences of global warming wrought on us all.1 If one does not look closely, what took place in Paradise gets lost in a rhetoric that literally reshapes what happened. Repeatedly classified in media outlets as the deadliest wildfire in recorded California history, or as a new kind of climate-change wildfire, the Camp Fire has become the foundation of a narrative that deeply buries the truth.

Emergencies tell us a great deal about how life is valued. We learned a lot about how the federal government values communities of color, the poor, and our captives (prisoners) in the stories of Katrina and Maria. Paradise, a town of mostly small, humble houses and numerous mobile homes and trailer parks, was a place whose residents belonged squarely in the middle- and lower-income brackets. For the nearby university town of Chico, Paradise served as a reservoir of blue-collar workers and laborers. For retirees, it was an inexpensive place to make a home, an escape from the absurd price of California real estate.

The popular narrative of the fire focused on “the normal fire-scape of California,” “the results of people living in a fire-prone area,” or what the Governor called “the new abnormal of fires.” But where was the barren ring-of-land protection for Paradise? Where was the prescribed burn around the town of Paradise—which was what saved the neighboring city of Chico from this same fire? One cannot help but remember the well-known inadequate protection of the New Orleans’ levee system that in Katrina left many neighborhoods of color and poor neighborhoods below water. How could a town like Paradise, known to be extremely vulnerable to fire, and especially vulnerable to a fire that would move with extreme speed as the Camp Fire did, be left without protection? Why did only a fraction of the residents receive alerts or an order to evacuate? Why was the decision reached not to use an Amber Alert communication, a message that would have gone to every cell phone in the area? As one resident said, “They totally dropped the ball on this. Look, all these people dead, all these people missing. It’s like they decided to forget about us. Like we weren’t worth saving” (Romero et. al 2018).

As one local wrote, “What emerges, too, is a troubling sign of working- and middle-class challenges compounded by disaster: people on Social Security or disability, people with no insurance, people with nowhere else to go. In this increasingly expensive swath of California, Paradise was one of the last places where you could live on a fixed income. Hospitals, rehab centers, convalescent homes and community pharmacies dotted its main roads. Less than two months ago, the local county declared a shelter crisis” (Pape 2018).

As local fire attorney Matthew Luzaich told me, “Another problem is that insurance companies denied fire coverage to many people. In my experience speaking with clients it was almost always the case that those denied fire coverage were those in mobile homes, modular houses, and very inexpensive homes. Was it the location of these places that made them less desirable to insure? I’m told that it wasn’t a cost issue for these people, it was a matter of not being a possibility for them at any cost.”

The questions linger. Almost half of the dead from the fire are 65 or older. What does this say about how we value the elderly? How could a state main power provider, PG&E, which has already been blamed in a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection report for being the cause of a number of previous fires, be allowed to operate dangerous electric power transmission lines that are currently the favored cause of the Camp Fire? Why are these wires, well known as an extreme fire danger when near forests, not mandated to be buried in the ground? What does this indicate about how a society decides when the interests of a corporation and its most vulnerable populations collide? What does this say about the lack of protections in place from the unhinged corporate greed and unimaginable disregard for human life and the environment from corporations such as PG&E—one that has been documented as an extreme abuser and the subject of a Julia Roberts’ Hollywood blockbuster, Erin Brockovich? When a town narrows the limited paths for emergency exits for the sake of commerce, despite warnings to widen them in a Butte County grand jury report after a 2008 fire, what does this say about the battle of humans vs. dollars?

The aftermath of the fire has exacerbated the problems of the former residents of Paradise. The first wave of evacuees took refuge in a large field adjacent to and owned by a Chico Walmart store. I was shocked by how much hostility was directed at fire refugees and how they were portrayed as potentially dangerous. In an effort to supposedly protect consumers from witnessing the unpleasantness of people in the midst of total loss, pain, and despair, Walmart hired a Texas private security firm, staffed by massive musclemen clad in intimidating military-style outfits and carrying weapons. Unbelievably, Walmart quickly erected a fence around the field and removed the refugee campers. Many of these campers, having lost vehicles and homes, had only local jobs available and needed to stay nearby to get to them; or they wanted to stay close to nearby families and did not want to move to the more distant Red Cross facilities at State Fairground spaces in neighboring counties. In addition, by displacing people in need to distant housing shelters, local activists, who were visiting, comforting, bringing supplies, and feeding people in the Walmart field and other locations, were shut out.

The Camp Fire is already becoming old news. Media accounts prefer new disasters, not reflections on events already maxed out on “empathy exhaustion.” A friend and I started a foundation that connected Bay Area food and beverage companies with local shelters needing food; initially much was given, but for weeks now we cannot even get a response from these providers. Starting very recently, residents have been allowed to return to the almost entirely burned-to-the-ground town of Paradise. A friend working in Chico as a nurse is deeply concerned about the health risks from simply staying and breathing in a town that needs years to clean up the profound toxicity of the earth, the frequently poisonous remains of homes and businesses, and even the harmful air.

But who is going to make a fuss? Where are the practices that we have in place to worry about these lives? Where are the social justice institutions we have built, entrenched, and continuously funded to protect such lives? As the man from Paradise said, who is going to think these lives are worth saving?

• • •


1. Although Paradise suffered the largest loss of lives and homes, the Camp Fire also caused great losses in the communities of Magalia, Concow, Yankee Hill, and Centerville.

Recommended Readings

Gee, Alastair and Dani Anguiano. 2018. “Last day in Paradise: The Untold Story of How a Fire Swallowed a Town.” The Guardian, December 20.
Pape, Sarah. 2018. “When Paradise is on Fire.” The New York Times, November 13.
Romero, Simon, Tim Arango, and Thomas Fuller. 2018. “A Frantic Call, a Neighbor’s Knock, but Few Official Alerts as Wildfire Closed In.” The New York Times, November 21.

• • •

* Michael J. Coyle, Ph.D., is Professor in the Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice at California State University, Chico, and works to highlight the social construction of discarded persons—the excluded, the homeless, those targeted as deviant, the imprisoned—as “unlike us,” “dangerous,” or “punishment-worthy.” He is the author of Talking Criminal Justice: Language and the Just Society and co-editor of the forthcoming International Handbook of Penal Abolitionism.

Brazil, an Urgent Situation

by Clifford Welch*

Demonstration against presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Porto Alegre, Brazil. 29 September 2018. By Caco Argemi CPERS / Sindicato. Source: Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0. Edited.

Image: Demonstration against presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Porto Alegre, Brazil. September 29, 2018. By Caco Argemi CPERS / Sindicato. Source: Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0. Edited.

The front-runner in Brazil’s upcoming presidential election refuses to debate his opponent. He prefers to generate and reproduce disinformation about his opponent without ever issuing an apology or correction. Sounds familiar? In fact, front-runner Jair Bolsonaro looks upon Donald Trump as his mentor, and Trump’s former campaign manager, Steve Bannon, has been an unofficial advisor to Bolsonaro, who sees Bannon as part of his “popular-nationalist” movement.

Unlike Trump in 2016, Bolsonaro’s candidacy is favored by the embarrassing recent record of his opponent’s party, the Workers’ Party (PT). Corruption charges have put several party leaders behind bars. The PT has repeatedly denied the charges and defended a claim of being more honest than any other political party in Brazil. It won three presidential elections with this argument and up until a month before the first-round election, polls showed the PT’s founding light, Luís Ignacio Lula da Silva, as the front-runner, even though he was in jail. With Lula definitively barred from running by the courts, the PT put forward Fernando Haddad, a former mayor of São Paulo and university professor. As his running mate, they selected Manuela D’Ávila, a popular congresswoman from the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB), both publicly endorsed by Lula just before he was jailed. Whereas much of the evidence against the party is credible, the current PT candidates represent a new generation of leaders untouched by scandal.

In the first round of elections, held on October 7, the voters’ top two choices were Bolsonaro, with 46 percent of the vote, and Haddad, with 29 percent of the vote. This election eliminated another 11 candidates and established Bolsonaro and Haddad as the two finalists. The final round of the process is scheduled for October 28.

Reliable polls show Bolsonaro winning with 58 percent of the vote. Many worry that a country that struggled so hard to overcome military rule is about to vote for military rule. In fact, Bolsonaro rose to rank during the later stages of the dictatorship. His vice-presidential running mate is a retired Army general, and another general is coordinating the work of some 30 study groups developing policies for governing the country. Many additional military officials run each of these groups. Military men are capable of respecting the law, but leading officials in Bolsonaro’s camp express their disdain for laws and regulations, like those controlling deforestation and protecting minorities. Just about four years ago, the country passed through a period of reckoning, involving truth commissions at every level—from local institutions to the federal government—analyzing the dictatorship and its crimes on the 50th anniversary of the 1964 coup d’etat. The current resurgence of the military in politics seems in part to be a reaction, as they have stridently denied any wrongdoing and oppose reparations for violating the human rights of their victims.

Bolsonaro, like Trump, shows little respect for democracy. During the campaign, he refused to participate in debates and proudly rejected negotiation with political leaders and parties, accepting endorsements while declaiming deals. After the first round, he accused the electoral system of fraud and said that he will not accept electoral results if he loses the final vote. In a radio interview, he reinforced his rejection of the debates. His handlers seem intent on using an assassination attempt on the candidate in September to keep him cloistered while they run his campaign through social media, where “fake news” has included absurd allegations against Haddad, such as support for incest and sex (rather than sex education) among minors.

In the meantime, Haddad and the PT are anxiously planning, negotiating, and campaigning to accumulate at least nine more points to win. He has released a plan for his government, including solutions for Brazil’s devastating economic crisis. Haddad is reaching out to Protestants and Catholics in order to counter the support Bolsonaro has received from evangelicals. (Evangelical leaders see in the thrice-divorced Bolsonaro a defense of “family values,” defined as male dominance, opposition to reproductive rights, and intolerance for the LGBTQ community.) Haddad has sought the endorsement of losing presidential candidates and incorporated the third-place candidate in his proposal for government ministers. However, many politicians and parties have expressed neutrality. Given Bolsonaro’s lead, a neutral position is actually an endorsement for the former Army captain.

With Bolsonaro’s campaign oriented by Paulo Geudes, a “Chicago boy” neoliberal trained by Milton Freidman, and staffed by military officials, the business class supports him. If elected, Brazilians can expect a reactionary transformation similar to that undertaken by Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s, whose dictatorship imposed draconian structural adjustments on Chile. These included huge cutbacks to education and health care as well as privatization and selling off of public universities and hospitals. Bolsonaro has proposed something like a flat tax that actually raises taxes abruptly on all but the poorest wage earners. Among the demands of the agribusiness sector is the further relaxation of controls on Amazon rainforest deforestation. The “lungs of the world,” as the Amazon is called, could soon be lost. Bolsonaro has also said that he will classify rural social movements as terrorist organizations. His plan for governing has not yet been released, but his statements already make clear his intention to ignore constitutional responsibilities, like agrarian reform.

Bolsonaro has used Manuela’s party affiliation to redbait Haddad and warn of Brazil becoming another Venezuela. Haddad’s poor showing in São Paulo during the first round demonstrated the ticket’s limited appeal among the middle and ruling classes. These were the groups that gave their full support to the 1964 coup. Bolsonaro’s success at mobilizing the support of poor, working-class, and Afro-descendant voters, including women, is what has surprised analysts on the left. Certainly, contradictory aspirational outlooks, especially in the context of a difficult and long recession, play an important role. Bolsonaro’s propaganda includes numerous testimonials from supposed supporters who are Black and female.

In the face of Bolsonaro’s popularity, the PT will have to struggle relentlessly to retake the presidency. It is clear that the Bolsonaro campaign is oriented by hatred. The PT would do well to adopt an anti-hatred stance. It could be geared to undermine Bolsonaro, while it indirectly provokes people to reconsider their dismay with the PT.

In appealing for a politics oriented by love rather than hatred, the PT has to emphasize its outsider status and thus the change its victory will represent. The recent elections, as well as support for Bolsonaro, demonstrate the voters’ intense hope for change. Bolsonaro and his party are new to the national political scene. The parties currently in power lost big in the election, despite their advocacy of neoliberal policies very similar to those of Bolsonaro. Their presidential candidates received little more than 5 percent of the vote.

Finally, Haddad and Manuela need to emphasize how they symbolize not the restoration of Lula—the current jingle is “Happy again” with the PT—but rather the renovation of the party. In other words, they have to make people believe in the dream the PT represented to people when Lula was inaugurated in 2003 and tens of thousands of people gathered in the capital to cry with joy. As new but politically experienced and savvy politicians, Haddad and Manuela give the party a chance to reach the presidency and nurture the growth and prosperity of a socially just Brazil. The alternative, Bolsonaro’s victory, will instead bring division, repression, and more capital accumulation for the one percent who already receive a third of Brazil’s income, making the county the world’s most unequal in income distribution.

Against hate, for love, change and renewal!

• • •

*Clifford Welch is a former San Francisco longshoreman, ranchhand, reporter, and cofounder of the National Writers Union. He teaches contemporary Brazilian history at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP). A previous version of this piece has been published by the Latin American Perspectives blog (here).

“Millions and Millions of Lulas”: A Post from Brazil

by Clifford Welch*

São Bernardo do Campo SP 07 04 2018 O ex presidente Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva depois da missa nos braços do povo do sindicato dos Metalurgicos do ABC. Foto Paulo Pinto/FotosPublicas

Image by Paulo Pinto/FotosPublicas (source).

Thirty-eight years ago, in April, 1980 Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva went to jail for the first time. On April 7, 2018, the former president of Brazil, one of the most beloved politicians in the world, went to jail for the second time. Both times the metalworkers union in the industrial suburbs of São Paulo played a significant role. In 1980, Lula was president of the union. In 2018, he chose the union’s impressive headquarters as the stage for what may prove to be his final act of civil disobedience. In 1980, Brazil’s secret police jailed Lula for violating national security laws by criticizing authorities as corrupt while encouraging a strike of more than 100,000 metalworkers in factories. In 2018, Brazil’s federal police—akin to US Marshals—jailed Lula for “crimes of corruption and money laundering.” In his final public address before being jailed, delivered to thousands of supporters gathered around the union hall and broadcast live on hundreds of platforms, Lula reaffirmed his innocence and compared his current imprisonment to his former jailing. In both cases, he argued, his real crime was to have dared to fight for poor people and the oppressed.

Many one-time supporters of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Workers Party (PT) have doubted the ex-president’s claims of innocence. The charges for which he was jailed are only some among several others that the judiciary plans to level against him. Federal prosecutors and judges, including some appointed by Lula, meticulously constructed the so-called JetWash anti-corruption operation that determined Lula to be the “conductor of a grand orchestra formed to pilfer the public coffers.” In a judicial system centered on professional judges rather than juries, one such judge ruled Lula guilty of accepting an expensive beachfront condominium, its costly remodeling and additional storage space—alleged to be worth about US$1 million—in exchange for helping a construction company get lucrative contracts from Brazil’s state petroleum transnational, Petrobras. Lula consistently denied the accusations and even prosecutors had to admit the absence of written evidence documenting Lula’s ownership of the apartment.

Before she ran for election as the PT’s presidential candidate in 2010, Dilma Rouseff served as Lula’s chief of staff. Her administration continued many of Lula’s policies, but the financial crisis of 2008 hit Brazil forcefully around 2012, causing her to experiment with unpopular neoliberal policies. She won reelection anyway in 2014, demonstrating the massive support enjoyed by the PT. However, the opposition united in attacking her every action, including weekly attacks from ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. In August 2016, the Congress impeached Dilma for misleading congress in her management of the federal budget. Politicians and the mainstream press associated her impeachable offenses to the JetWash scandal, but there were no links. Nearly two years later, prosecutors still had not charged her with any crimes.

The impeachment of Dilma and the persecution of Lula have been accompanied by a rapid fire campaign to replace their policies with extreme neoliberal ones, including a constitutional amendment that locks in reduced social spending for 20 years and the shuttering of the federal ministry responsible for implementing agrarian reform. Moreover, the profoundly unpopular interim president (Michel Temer, Dilma’s vice president, who has single-digit approval rating) has joined the worldwide club of authoritarian populists by claiming that Brazilians “desire” dictatorship, by using the army to police Rio de Janeiro, and by allowing a general to threaten a coup if the Supreme Court were to grant habeas corpus to Lula in the case at hand. With presidential elections coming up in October, Lula had begun his campaign for reelection and polls placed him well ahead of rivals, with the support of nearly 40 percent of the electorate. (In Brazil, voting is obligatory.)

Lula’s supporters see in these events and conditions political motives for the ex-president’s persecution. They see his jailing as extremely unjust, a rouse to repress both Lula and the PT. With the left in disarray, the right is salivating over its first chance in 20 years to compete for the presidency without the charismatic former labor leader in the game. Temer is the one who should be persecuted, they say, not only for betrayal—Temer, whose Democratic Movement Party allied with Dilma, counted on the PT’s support to get elected—but also for Temer’s corruption, which is seen as much worse than Lula’s. He is accused of accepting bribes topping US$60 million and paying millions in hush money. His use of the federal budget to buy votes in congress far outweighs similar payments allegedly made by the Lula administration. Moreover, in trading favors, Lula sought legislation to expand the federal university system, strengthen agrarian reform, fortify Brazil businesses, and create banks and pharmacies with special subsidies for the poor. Temer, on the other hand, bought support by agreeing to sign legislation to ease labor law regulations to make it easier to exploit workers in situations analogous to slavery, and he reduced fines for companies accused of damaging the environment.

For Lula’s supporters, the world has been turned upside down. They see the logic in Lula’s argument when he said in his final public address: “If being a criminal means placing higher education within the reach of poor people, Blacks in the university, poor people able to eat meat, buy cars and travel by air, poor folks farming, starting small businesses, having their own houses. If these are the crimes I committed, I will continue being a criminal in this country, because I plan to do a lot more of this.”

In choosing to hold up in the Metalworkers’ Union hall after receiving the order to report to jail, Lula sought to galvanize his image as the people’s defender. Some had questioned his commitments to the grassroots during his eight years in office. Indeed, he proved to be one of international capitalism’s greatest friends, as he paid off Brazil’s foreign debt, liberated the use of GMO seeds, invested in primary product exportation, and helped turn some Brazilian firms into transnational corporations. However, he also promoted policies and expanded federal spending for priorities like those itemized in his recent speech.

On his last day of freedom, half of his address was dedicated to an embrace of a new generation of leftist leaders. He endorsed at least three candidates for president from competing political parties. He admitted that his age, at 72 years old, left him indisposed to flee, go underground, and lead a resistance movement. He asked his critics on the left to appreciate as necessary the compromises he had made as president, comparing them to ones he had made as president of the union four decades ago.

He asked us to reflect on the lessons his life represents. He reminded us that he is the only individual in Brazil’s 518-year history to rise from the humble origins of a squatter’s son to be president of the nation, proving transformation is possible. He described how he learned politics in the labor movement, took energy from the peasant and homeless movements, and reached out to his political rivals to govern a country steeped in authoritarianism. Persecuted and prosecuted, he returned to his political birthplace to declare his immortality: “It doesn’t matter anymore to try to avoid that I wander all over this country because there are already millions and millions of Lulas. I am no longer a human being. I am an idea, an idea mixed together with your ideas.”

• • •

*Clifford Welch is a former San Francisco longshoreman, ranchhand, reporter, and cofounder of the National Writers Union. He teaches contemporary Brazilian history at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP).

The Kerner Report’s 50th Anniversary: An Occasion to Rewrite History

by Tony Platt*

Anniversaries provide many opportunities for revisionist and wishful thinking about the past. The 50th anniversary of the Kerner Report is no exception.


The new mythology remakes the Kerner Commission as a bastion of liberal democracy and enlightened social science, betrayed by a political system, especially President Johnson, that succumbed to political pressures from the Right. In reality, the Commission itself was marked by internal contradictions and contributed to the repressive policies that brought Richard Nixon to power in 1968.

The Kerner Report, recalls former Senator Fred Harris, the one surviving commissioner, “recommended ‘massive and sustained’ investments in jobs and education to reduce poverty, inequality and racial injustice.” Conveniently forgotten are the forty pages of recommendations for improving the riot control capacities of police, National Guard, and Army.

Following several years of urban revolts, in July 1967 Lyndon Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (popularly known as the Kerner Commission after its chairman Otto Kerner) that worked at a furious pace and published a memorable report a few months later on March 1st, 1968.

Unlike previous official inquiries into civil disorders, the Kerner Commission was the first federally funded, national, and Presidential-level inquiry into US race relations. The size and scope of its final report was comparable to Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, published twenty-four years earlier. The Kerner Report provided seemingly unassailable moral authority for the proposition that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal…. What white Americans have never fully understood – but what the Negro can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

This unprecedented statement by a government commission was followed by proposals to end discrimination in jobs, education, and housing; expand the welfare state; make policing more responsive to African American communities; provide six million low-income families with public housing; and eliminate institutionalized segregation. In other words, complete the promise of the New Deal.

Fifty years later, the promise is still unfulfilled. Public schools and public housing remain hyper-segregated in many parts of the country; the rate of poverty remains about the same, while the gap between rich and poor has increased; and mass incarceration became the new welfare.

In the search for explanations about how an incipient social democracy was derailed, there is a tendency today to reify the Kerner Commission as a united liberal front trying to hold the line against Johnson’s opportunism and what would become neo-conservatism.

The Commission itself was divided and tried to juggle reform and repression. It was opposed to the mobilization of tanks and machine guns in the immediate response by government forces to “civil disorders” on the grounds that “the indiscriminate and excessive use of force” was counter-productive. Instead, the Commission advocated more sophisticated and diversified forms of counter-insurgency, including the establishment of “intelligence systems” and “rumor collection centers,” the training of special police units to infiltrate Black communities, the preparation of police for “riot control,” the development of a variety of “non-lethal chemical agents” in order to achieve “temporary neutralization of a mob,” the increase of “riot control training” for the National Guard, and the strengthening of the Army’s ability to “control civil disorders,” including the use of “psychological techniques to ventilate hostility.”

In sum, concluded the Kerner Commission, riot control required “large numbers of disciplined personnel, comparable to soldiers in a military unit, organized and trained to work as members of a team under a highly unified command control system.”

The second myth about the Kerner Report is that social scientists writing about race in the late 1960s were a unified bloc whose politics ranged from left liberal to radical. In fact, academics, including the commission’s consultants and researchers, were deeply divided. White men administered the Commission’s internal functions, with Black staffers primarily sent out to do interviews in African American communities. “The whole thing was a racist operation,” said a field investigator.

According to Andy Kopkind’s contemporaneous critique, the contributions of leftist intellectuals were sidelined. The White House vetoed Herbert Gans’ involvement because of his protest against the Vietnam War and the Commission’s technocrats made sure that bold ideas in “The Harvest of American Racism,” a report written by progressive sociologists, were “popped down a memory hole.”

Instead, intellectuals in a private war research company, the Institute for Defense Analysis, shaped the Commission’s mix of soft and hard techniques of social control, a strategy endorsed by many leading social scientists, such as Neil Smelser and Morris Janowitz, and later by James Q. Wilson and other academics for law and order who articulated the punitive turn of the 1980s.

The Kerner Report remains an important statement about the lost opportunity of social democracy. But it is also testimony to the combination of benevolent rhetoric and repressive interventionism that characterized Cold War liberalism, and prefigured the rise of neo-liberalism. Johnson was not the only one who, in the words of Fred Harris, “distanced himself from the ‘two societies’ warning.” So did the Kerner Commission.

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Fred Harris and Alan Curtis, “The Unmet Promise of Equality,” New York Times (March 1, 2018).
Elizabeth Hinton, From The War on Poverty to The War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Harvard University Press, 2016).
Morris Janowitz, “Social Control of Escalated Riots,” University of Chicago Center for Policy Study (1968).
Andrew Kopkind, “White on Black: The Riot Commission and The Rhetoric of Reform,” in Tony Platt, ed., The Politics of Riot Commissions, 1917-1970 (Macmillan, 1971).
Nicole Lewis, “The Kerner Omission,” The Marshall Project (March 1, 2018).
National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Report, introduction by Tom Wicker (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1968).

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* Tony Platt is a member of the editorial board of Social Justice, and editor of The Politics of Riot Commissions, 1917-1970 (Macmillan, 1971). His latest book, Beyond These Walls: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in the United States will be published by St. Martin’s Press in January 2019.

Silenced Press: The State of Democracy in Mexico

by Antonio Martínez Velázquez*


An altar in honor of murdered Mexican journalists located outside government offices in Mexico City. The memorial was erected as part of the protests over the murder of Javier Valdez, May 2017. Photograph by Lizbeth Hernández.

In 1906 Ricardo Flores Magón, an intellectual who fought for freedom and equality during the Mexican Revolution, criticized the “venality and aggressive cynicism” of a press that was “praising the clumsiness and wrongdoings of the government […] covering up crimes, threatening virtues, spreading evil and barbarism.” Today, the situation in Mexico is not much different. Mexico has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world to live and work in if you are a journalist. Censorship, government interference, and violence make a mockery of a free press.

Statistics show the depth of the problem in Mexico: One journalist is attacked every 26 hours, and 39 were murdered from 2012 to 2017. To put this into a global perspective, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that during the same time period, five journalists were murdered in South Sudan, one of the most violent countries in Africa; six journalists were killed in Israel and the occupied area of Palestine; four in Colombia; and none in Venezuela. During the worst years of the Bosnian War (1993–94), 11 journalists were killed.

In addition to the known assassinations, 23 reporters have “disappeared” since 2003. Because of threats, both in person and online, hundreds more have been arbitrarily detained by the police, had their equipment damaged, and were even compelled to find shelter away from their homes. According to the Human Rights National Commission, impunity is rampant: 99% of cases involving journalists who have been killed remain unsolved. When this kind of violence is reported, the media gives it little attention. Their deaths might even be reduced to a tweet.

Despite the gravity of the problem, a large proportion of the population does not find the silencing of the press an urgent issue. After working as a human rights defender and as an investigative journalist with a focus on violence against the press in Mexico and Central America, I find it hard to think anyone could be indifferent to this issue. Why the apparent indifference?

First, because of the stark violence of the 21st century, our threshold regarding what is acceptable widens with each threat, execution, and murder. This problem is compounded by the general lack of appreciation for the value of journalists. The highly concentrated television market and the lack of diversity in national media contribute to the general perception that journalists have sold out to political power. Some independent journalists do exist who are gaining public trust—Carmen Aristegui, Daniel Moreno, Salvador Camarena, Daniel Lizárraga, Marcela Turati, Alejandra Xanic, and Diego Osorno come to mind—but they are a novelty within the Mexican media landscape.

Second, the tension between being an activist and a journalist remains unresolved. Activists have to be tough and informed and must put forth radical positions so they can at least get part of their demands met. The raison d’être of activist journalists is to distrust official versions of any story. We raise doubt, ask hard questions, do in-depth research, and report on the facts. In no way does this approach undermine a journalist’s capacity to work as a professional. Unfortunately, the national media only periodically publishes or broadcasts the work of activist journalists.

Mexican journalists live in the worst of two worlds: They are afraid of organized crime and of the government. In a country that is supposedly fighting a war against drug trafficking, it is difficult to differentiate whether a journalist is killed by drug lords or by public officials. We know that public servants commit five out of ten attacks such as threats, arbitrary detentions, or physical aggressions. Local newspapers are the most affected. In Nuevo Laredo, the newspaper El Mañana has stopped covering violence related to narcotraffic even though the region is one of the most affected by it. In 2012 the newspaper’s building was attacked with explosives, in 2013 they received cybernetic attacks, in 2015 the Director Enrique Juárez was kidnapped, and in 2017 the local government launched a campaign to discredit the newspaper.

The last six years have been marked by violence and political upheaval related to the 43 missing students from Ayotzinapa, corruption scandals that are not prosecuted, and government spying against its own dissidents. Now more than ever, it is essential to have a healthy media, watchful and critical of the misuse of political and economic power. Mexico has not undergone a full transition to democracy, and this is also true for the press and the mass media.

Although there are more diverse media today—we now have one more national TV chain and a growing ecosystem of digital media such as Animal Político—the relationship between owners of the written press and political power remains intact. Media democracy implies having a distance from governmental interests and a critical eye vis-à-vis an interpretable reality. In Mexico, print media is part of the governmental machinery. The fourth estate (the press) is not sovereign.

During 2016, the federal government spent over $472 million dollars on governmental advertising. This is not regulated, nor are there transparent criteria for its allocation. The money interferes with information, making it harder to distinguish the truth from pure propaganda.

For local newspapers, the struggle is harder. If we follow the money to see where editorial decisions stem from, we find that around 50% of local newspapers’ income come from official advertising: money given out by the government as a method of control and indirect censorship. In February 2012, the Diario de Juárez received a letter from the Public Security Office that asked the newspaper to change its coverage about violence in order to be able to benefit from governmental advertising. The newspaper made public the attempt of censorship and the government agency had to withdraw its threat. How many cases like this exist? How many do we know about?

On one hand, our form of crony capitalism has led to a market of highly concentrated private advertising to which only the biggest actors have access. On the other hand, uncontrolled and unaccountable governmental advertising and publicity has chilling effects at the federal and local levels.

As shown by José Merino and Darío Ramírez, “more than half of the effective space” in the front pages of Mexico’s newspapers is “devoted to notes that are based only on statements by a single person, institution or organization.” This finding undermines one of the main objectives of journalism: to seek the truth. Every day we see directors and media owners photographing themselves with politicians as a mutual self-celebratory act.

One hundred and ten years later, the words of Flores Magón are frighteningly current. We have not fully transitioned to democracy. The government is still threatening, silencing, and buying off the press. Violence against journalists means that we live in a country where we have to fight and struggle for the truth every day.

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* Antonio Martínez Velázquez is a human rights defender and a journalist. Currently he is Executive Director of Horizontal, an independent media and cultural center based in Mexico City. For the past decade, he has worked to enable political participation through digital tools. His work has been published in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs Latin America, Rolling Stone magazine, El Universal, Gatopardo, Animal Político, and Reforma. He coauthored the books Pensar Internet ([Thinking the Internet], 2017); Recuperar la política ([Recovering politics], 2017); CiudadanosMX: Twitter y el cambio politico en México ([CiudadanosMX: Twitter and political change in Mexico], 2011).