I should have raised hell

A trio of recent essays published in The Nation, The American Prospect, and Campus Progress attempt to explain why the United States has not experienced the same kind of student demonstrations that have been shaking Quebec for the past six months. After all, American students face a debt burden twice that of their Quebecois counterparts and graduate into a far more unequal society, with higher youth unemployment and a weaker social safety net. The authors’ explanations –cultural differences between Anglophone and Francophone organizing, elite student apathy, the fact that working class students literally can’t afford to take time off for activism– all strike me as correct. Our passivity does not have a single cause, nor a single cure. To the explanations already given, I would add another: fear.

The United States has the harshest criminal justice system in the democratic world and the life opportunities of anyone arrested and convicted of a crime –any crime, really– are drastically truncated. Contrary to its popular myths, America is a country of neither boundless opportunities for upward social mobility nor second chances for people who screw up, with exceptions made only for the most privileged. Among the reasons I never protested against local injustices while I was a college student, the most powerful, the one I couldn’t argue myself out of, the one that my roiling anger could not override, was my fear of being arrested and jailed. How would my family pay for my legal expenses? If I were convicted of a crime, how would I ever get a job? The tens of thousands of dollars I borrowed to obtain an elite education (in essence, to buy my way into middle class adulthood) would have been wasted, and I’d have no way of repaying my debt. My life wouldn’t be worth living.

So I kept my head down. I was a tame liberal. I volunteered. I blogged. I took to the streets only once, in 2005, to oppose what at the time appeared to be an imminent U.S. military strike against Iran. Somehow, I ended up at the front of a crowd surge, unable to do anything but move forward. When I came to be wedged between the crowd and a barricade erected in front of the Capitol Building, a Washington, D.C. cop in riot gear shoved me so hard in the chest that he knocked the wind out of me. The bruise on my sternum faded away after a few weeks, but the lesson stuck for years. If I wanted to do better than my endlessly broke and indebted parents –and I did, more than anything– I’d have to leave street activism to the kids who could afford mistakes.

Looking back, I had less to lose than I thought, and I should have raised hell.

Dear Huffington Post

Not worn in Europe, North America, Australia or anywhere else that isn’t Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan.

That “Muslim veil” pictured? That’s a burqa, a garment that no Muslim women wear outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Stop using pictures of burqas for stories about attempts to ban the wearing of the hijab and niqab, which, FYI, aren’t one and the same either. Your lazy image selection is playing into the hands of anti-Muslim bigots the world over. Plus, it’s really dumb.

Oh, and desire for alliteration isn’t a valid excuse for writing ‘Burqa Ban’ headlines when, in fact, what will be banned isn’t the burqa.

Stuff annoying me today

– Can we stop saying ALL or even MOST Afghan bureaucrats are corrupt assholes? Corruption is more complicated than venality + impunity = FAIL, and painting the entire Afghan government with such a broad brush is grossly unfair to non-corrupt civil servants working hard under very tough conditions. Mmkay?

– Fake hamsters are causing mall riots. WTF is wrong with people?

– You stay classy, Swiss People’s Party.







– I keep having dreams about governance in Afghanistan. No, really. I even dream about writing on governance in Afghanistan. I have issues, it’s true.

– From now on, anyone who gets too excited about predator drone strikes (ROBOTS! THAT BLOW SHIT UP! THAT SHIT IS AWESOME!) is going to be accused, by yours truly, of having a “drone boner.”

Snapshots of an election

From the Times Online:

One searing image of many to come out of Afghanistan on its historic presidential election day last Thursday sticks in the mind: that of a tousle-haired youth called Hamidullah balancing on the back of his brother’s bicycle on the way to a polling station.

Only 15, he had registered to vote in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, albeit illegally, for the first time in his life and he was eager to be the first to arrive at the polls.

He was 200ft from the football field where election staff had set up tents and cardboard polling booths when a Taliban rocket exploded, slicing half his face away. European Union observers passing in a fleet of armoured Land Cruisers ignored him and his wounded 18-year-old brother, Najubullah, and raced on.

Eventually, medics heaved his lifeless body into the back of an ambulance, leaving only his sandals strewn across the road and his black patterned skullcap next to a pool of blood.

In another snapshot of the election, Hamesha gives his account of being voter #003907269.

in the end i marked the box of the candidate that i would not have voted for on a brighter, sunnier day. but since scary clouds were gathered up on the horizon, i thought i made the choice that would serve us all well at this juncture. these choices are never perfect, one learns. one learns too, that the quest for the perfect, the ideal -as i. berlin would tell you- is one of the most wrong-headed and dangerous of quests ever. then came the four page, 530-plus provincial council candidate ballot. what a confused mess. i knew the person i was voting for, but had forgotten her ballot number. it took me a good five minutes to look through the four pages and find her picture and name. i made a ’swad sahih’ -tick mark- and folded this too. then i went over and dropped these in the two designated ballot boxes indicated by green and orange sign papers. there were some tense looking people sitting on chairs a distance away from the ballot boxes. i told myself these could only be volunteer observers working for one of the campaigns. everyone looked less excited than i had thought, but i was filled with a mix of indescribable feelings -some of them having to do with the choices i had made, others with the fact of having had the opportunity, finally, to be part of it all. i bid everyone farewell and walked out into the blinding mid-day sun, and instantly started rubbing the ink off my finger. the ink, faint and almost unrecognizable earlier, had congealed into a black purple and was impossible to remove.

Oh, this is bad

According to Human Rights Watch, a Chechen aidworker and her husband were brazenly abducted from the office of the Grozny-based humanitarian NGO Save the Generation today (yesterday Russian time).

Two armed men entered the office of the group, Save the Generation, at about 2 p.m., witnesses said. The men said they were members of the security services and demanded that Zarema Sadulayeva, the head of the organization, and her husband, Alik (Umar) Lechayevich Dzhabrailov, come with them. They did not say where they were taking the couple. They had not been heard from as of 9:30 p.m., and Russian authorities had not responded to inquiries about the couple’s whereabouts by the Russian human rights organization Memorial.

Clearly not afraid of being identified or pursued, the kidnappers later came back to take their victims’ things.

Shortly after Sadulayeva and Dzhabrailov were taken away, the men who had taken them returned to the organization’s office and took Dzhabrailov’s mobile phone and his car, a gray VAZ 2110, with a license plate ending in 237.

Not even a month has passed since the murder of one of Chechnya’s –and Russia’s– most prominent human rights advocates, Natalia Estemirova. But unlike Estemirova, who directly investigated crimes by state agents, Sadulayeva and her husband were involved in apolitical humanitarian work.

Save the Generation is a nongovernmental organization in Chechnya founded in 2001 that provides psychological and physical rehabilitation to disabled children, orphans, and other socially vulnerable groups. The group also works closely with UNICEF, among other groups, to provide training about landmines, and promotes protection of the rights of the disabled.

Honestly, it doesn’t get any more uncontroversial than orphans, children with disabilities, and landmine victims. However, this is Chechnya under Ramzan Kadyrov,  and Kadyrov really doesn’t like it when people point out the fact that his republic has, you know, some issues.

In a recent Radio Free Europe interview, he actually made the following statement:

The only thing I can say is that we’ll fully rebuild Chechnya and solve every social problem. Chechnya will be the most successful region in Russia and the world.

Ok then! Right. Those ain’t delusions of grandeur at all.

On the subject of human rights abuses, Kadyrov wanted to make one thing crystal clear: he’s the biggest victim of all.

[…] my father was killed. I’ve lost thousands of people I know [Who actually knows, I mean personally knows, thousands of people? -Ed]. I’ve lost relatives, classmates and friends. And no one says Kadyrov has lost them, that Kadyrov has rights, too. Everyone’s silent about that.

As my stepfather says, “What’s that I hear? The sound of the world’s smallest, saddest violin playing just for you?”

When terrorists set off bombs in the center of Grozny, killing police, women, and children, human rights activists say nothing about that. Why don’t they protect my rights? Kadyrov has lost everything. But whenever something happens in Chechnya — where there are a million residents — if someone violates the law, it’s always Kadyrov who’s to blame.

All of which would seem totally unfair but for the pesky little fact that virtually everyone Kadyrov threatens meets a strange and grisly end soon thereafter. (But don’t worry, Kadyrov has a totally reasonable explanation for this. Watch the video!)

Meanwhile, back in the real world:

“Human Rights Watch is extremely concerned about the fate of Zarema Sadulayeva and Alik Dzhabrailov,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The shocking murder of Natalia Estemirova only last month has made it obvious that activists in Chechnya are being targeted for their work and are extremely vulnerable.”

“If the authorities have officially detained Sadulayeva and Dzhabrailov, they should reveal their location and the legal basis for holding them and guarantee their rights,” Cartner said. “This includes an absolute prohibition on ill-treatment, their right to inform their relatives of their whereabouts, and access to a lawyer of their choosing.”

As if screaming into the wind –which is what all appeals to the rule of law in the North Caucasus have become– HRW finishes with the following:

The detention of anyone followed by a refusal to acknowledge this detention, or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the detained person, constitutes an enforced disappearance, a crime under international law that is prohibited in all circumstances.

These stories don’t usually end happily, but I’m going to hold out hope Sadulayeva and Dzhabrailov are still alive until I read otherwise.

You can’t take from people who have nothing, right?

Last December, Alanna began a post with this:

Bad development work is based on the idea that poor people have nothing. Something is better than nothing, right? So anything you give these poor people will be better than what they had before. Even if it’s your old clothes, technology they can’t use, or a school building with no teacher.

But poor people don’t have nothing. They have families, friends – social ties. They have responsibilities. They have possessions, however meager. They have lives, no matter what those lives look like to Westerners.

I was reminded of that post when I read the following on the Roma Rights blog, even though it isn’t about the kind of development Alanna was referring to:

Three months before the opening of the Universiade, Belgrade’s City Secretariat for Inspections decided to destroy the Roma slum settlement located right next to the athlete’s village “Belleville”. On April the 3rd 2009 all of a sudden a couple of bulldozers showed up at the settlement and demolished 40 houses. As the demolition was carried out without any prior notice to the residents, the people did not even have time to save their belongings from being buried under the ruins. A few of them were practically rescued from their houses in the very moment when the bulldozers were demolishing them.

It’s the assumption that underlies virtually everything governments in Eastern Europe do in regard to Roma housing: Roma lives are so bad, so intolerable, so filthy and hopeless that anything, even homelessness –or, as is the case for untold thousands of Roma in the former Yugoslavia, statelessness— is better than life in informal settlements like the one demolished in Belgrade. Thus, there is really no need to work with Roma communities to create housing alternatives. No, that demands too much effort on the part of busy, mid-level municipal officials, and requires actually sitting down with Roma as peers.  Forget it. Just send in the bulldozers and scatter the Gypsies. After all, you can’t take from people who have nothing, right?