Message to the Grassroots: An introductory brief fifty years on

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Malcolm X interrogates all in Message to the Grassroots

“Just as the slavemaster of that day used Tom, the house Negro, to keep the field Negroes in check, the same old slavemaster today has Negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms, 20th century Uncle Toms, to keep you and me in check, keep us under control, keep us passive and peaceful and nonviolent”

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of one of Malcolm X’s most quoted speeches, capturing many of the facets that make him a central figure in death just as he was in life.  With his words Malcolm creates an intimate atmosphere, maintains a sense of humor while utilizing a radical and uncompromising tone to build an all-encompassing criticism.  Clearly the content resonates with audiences today just as much as yesterday with the familiar unaddressed themes of class, injustice and war.  Malcolm X delivered ‘Message to the Grassroots’ at Northern Negro Grass Roots Leadership Conference on 10th November 1963 at King Solomon’s Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan.

“We have a common oppressor, a common exploiter, and a common discriminator. But once we all realize that we have this common enemy, then we unite on the basis of what we have in common”

The speech begins with a call for unity but this is not a demand for uniformity, an aspect made clear through the fact that this was Malcolm’s last speech before leaving the Nation of Islam.  Rather the call for unity is a strategy to promote a consciousness that has been denied amongst a people dispossessed and to investigate diverse cultural and intellectual traditions in order to build from these strengths.  Malcolm highlights the relevancy of the Bandung Conference where non-Western countries met to discuss their concerns without the overbearing gaze to the imperial nations; making it clear that people need to set their own agendas rather than simply reacting to a static political system.  The need to set our own terms is a conundrum that remains significant to contemporary activists and alternative media outlets.  The power of the grassroots is not in seeking to be a part of a bankrupt and corrupt political system but using creative abilities to organize themselves.

“If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad”

We might actually invert this quote as being ‘if violence is right abroad than violence is right in America’ thereby capturing a trajectory of Malcolm’s ‘by any means necessary’ stance that continued to develop until his death.  While there is always a need for contextualization Malcolm uses a discussion of revolutionary movements around the globe to reveal how black people in America are being contained by fighting imperial wars abroad and by being compromised by civil rights leadership.  In doing so Malcolm highlights the importance of land in revolutions, although not his intention he perhaps exposes a fissure of impotence to the revolutionary spirit of today; what skills can massive urban populations rely on in the event of a revolution and what can they hope to gain from a revolution when they a reliant upon the safety of the city?  Getting back to Malcolm’s words, the house negro/field negro dichotomy is used to launch into a criticism of other civil rights leaders as well as wider class conflict, Cornell West is utilizing the same rhetoric to expose almost identical inconsistencies today in Obama and others.  Indeed both note how civil rights leaders contain and co-opt the demands for change of people.  Some of the most interesting details emerge when Malcolm explains how the March on Washington came about and how President Kennedy drafted in Martin Luther King Jr and the rest of the ‘big six’ to contain and co-opt the discontent of black Americans.  Peter Gelderloos makes the same point about the failure of non-violence.

“If you think I’m telling you wrong, you bring me Martin Luther King and A. Philip Randolph and James Farmer and those other three, and see if they’ll deny it over a microphone”

While many of the differences between 1963 and 2013 are clear from the language the contrast that stands out in my mind is something that is easily missed or taken for granted; audience and location.  One of basic fundamentals of this speech is not the content but the audience and location.  In contrast to today, Malcolm is not speaking to some abstract ‘grassroots’ over the Internet or to those in the luxury of a university but to some of those most affected by inequality.  It is a well-defined audience that does not have to go to him on his terms – he goes to them and meets them on their terms.

Peace…

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The Banality of Impunity

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Indonesia, 1965: a campaign of mass assassination, torture, rape, imprisonment and various other atrocities followed Suharto’s grip on power and led to over thirty years of dictatorship which has encouraged a system of corruption ever since.  This is the broad context for a film where those taking a lead in such human rights violations are given the power to control the story.  The contents of the film exude Indonesia and with that come a vision so much more than nationality.  To appreciate the film a consideration of subject and method are required while the specific politics of 1965 Indonesia deserve their own space.

Films about violence often assume the perspective of resisters or survivors.  When killers are portrayed it is often as losers or clearly reformed, not the case here.  This may sound like a grotesque joke, to give unrepentant killers the power to tell and edit stories of mass murder with little regard for their victims but the final product provides insight into their disturbing and surreal realities.  Instead of seeking to display ‘facts’ The Act of Killing explores the intimate and contradictory interpretations and justifications for mass murder.  In one scene Anwar and an old killing buddy are wearing makeup to look like torture victims while they re-enact violence against an actual victim; a reflection of the continued treatment of victims by the Indonesian state perhaps.

To rewind a little, Arsan and Aminah or Born Free was the film conceived and directed by Anwar and his murderous crew, a film in which they also play killers and victims.  In part The Act of Killing is a document of making that movie as the actors-directors-killers seek to control their emotions and memories through a commentary in which they reveal motives and practices.  Whether Joshua Oppenheimer, the director, conveyed the fact that Arsan and Aminah was just a prop is an interesting question but the granted impunity seems to imply consent was not considered important.   The tapestry of impunity that unfolds reveals personal and national inabilities to acknowledge massive injustices that encourage impotence in dealing with corruption.

The audience is commended to look upon Anwar, the main character, as a man of good health and someone to laugh with and feel sorry for.  That is if he was not a mass murderer confused about the reasons for his own fluttering guilt.  It is this connection that seeks to sucker the audience into a more personal dilemma; you are also implicated in such acts of impunity both domestic and foreign.  With this recognition the mirror of more recent horrors that seem closer to home rings out.  The ritual consuming of impunity and violence through corporate media outlets and political parties encourages Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, Trayvon Martin, Israel/Palestine.  History isn’t simply created by the winners but encouraged by the spectators.

Unlike much of the commentary about the film, The Act of Killing itself can be read as going beyond many dichotomies such as fake/real, fiction/non-fiction, happy/sad, perpetrator/victim.  At the same time there is a clear human rights frame as Oppenheimer concentrates upon the acts of killing, the propaganda that fuelled them, and the atmosphere of impunity.  Consequently the film hits home because genocides are never about the victims but about powerful elites who want to take and maintain control.  Perhaps for this reason it is more important to gain understandings of killers rather than victims.

Robert Cribb has written at length about the 1965 killings and points out that neglecting the role of the army allows for an orientalist feel, that it was simply ‘natives at it again’.  However the prospect that Indonesia’s armed forces are a professional outfit capable of anything more than keeping its own citizenry down is bold.  Likewise the opportunity was missed to explore more religious dynamics in the 1965 killings.  But that’s enough on what the film was not, the fact that Anwar’s gang speak so blatantly on camera makes for a powerful testimony.  The possibility of exaggeration is countered by a scenario where boasting about the horrors of murder and rape can be considered a social wealth.

The Act of Killing therefore sits alongside Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission recent report advocating government apologies and victim compensation and Tempo’s (national Indonesian magazine) recent investigations demonstrating that this is not a one off phenomena.  As such The Act of Killing has helped provide a three-prong approach to breaking over forty years of silence on the killings.  It also breaks ground in documentary style and subtly ponders more general questions about each individual’s responsibility in mass injustices.

The Act of Killing is released on DVD at the end of November until then you might catch it at your local cinema.

Shooting Clay Drones

There is much hype over drones – to such a degree we might do more to catchphrase ‘drone porn‘.  The government, corporate media, and private companies are all desperate to use them and activist and professional opposition quick to highlight their use in mass killings.  Meanwhile a productive group of hobbyists are fervently making their own drones with deep knowledge, plenty of time and much money; you can even purchase toy predator drones for children.  Some entering the debate have no sense of perspective; a drone is merely an intrusion into their privacy as if the ‘police state’ did not exist decades ago.  Where groups converge is on the knowledge that unmanned autonomous aerial vehicles are the future of government control and government sanctioned violence, although apparently some in the upper echelons of the armed forces need to catch up.  Drones are cost efficient and reduce human risks while providing intelligence and firepower for their masters.  In fact Palestinians are so accustomed to the literal buzz of drones that they call them ‘zenana’, ‘buzz’.  The rich hobbyists may whiff of a secluded geek stereotype but rest assured this will not be for long with artists and Hollywood eager to get creative with drones.  Meanwhile gamers are also in on the fast-paced route to acceptance, in case they cannot tell the difference between reality and fiction as some assume, they have the option to buy a remote control drone as well as play with one in game.  This is precisely why the opposition to drones should not purely rely on the tool itself, such an approach is doomed to failure and misses the more significant issue that drones embody; joint corporate-government collaboration.  Even the tiring Amnesty International and the RAF can recognise that policies for drones already exist in the form of International Law.  Yep, even the most simple of graphics show the increase use of drones, and this only going to continue.

Drones are a hyper-technological leap forward and like an iPhone concerns over ethics and morality will not curtail usage.  Forget weapons capability consider the intelligence capability of a 1.8 giga-pixel surveillance drone that is capable of displaying 6-inch objects at 20,000 feet, twenty-four hours a day.  Manufacturing industries have proven to be loyal only to gross wealth and are able to seduce policymakers when they need to.  At the same time neoliberal governments chase cuts and privatisation in all areas, UAVs allow them to do this more aggresively with their militaries, as such it is clear that the corporate media will serve more as advertisements for drones – including documentaries, note the funder of this ‘infomercial’.  Consequently drones win the media debate because they set the terms and conditions; they are eco-friendly and may even be able to provide routes to ‘peace’ in some of the world’s truly complex arenas of violence (update).  When courts of law are willing to ignore processes of justice in favour of maintaining the status quo then we should be thinking about new methods and fresh perspectives; such re-evaluation should start at home.  The dirty work of governments in known and unknown acts of violence was being conducted on mass scales before the existence of drones; UAVs do not enable something new in terms of violence that cannot be defended against but rather in terms of collaboration.  As such we need to avoid misinterpretations of the debate and unpack the greater danger and significance of drones.

Blackwater (Xe) can dominate focus on private military companies, and for good reason, but this is a rapidly expanding industry – in number and responsibility.  Some on the international scene were able to predict this return and with governments having observed testing grounds around the world, perhaps most horrifically in Iraq, have unsympathetically decided to privatise overseas adventures in imperialism as well as domestic affairs including policing in Lancaster (almost), prisons, and disaster relief.  Sustained analysis is virtually non-existent and popular debate is not considered.  Despite the Montreux Document (2008), reaffirming that outsourcing to private militias is illegal, nation states are pressing on; consequently controversy is constructed around whether corporations are regarded as ‘civilian’ and thereby exempt from the Geneva Conventions.  Because private military companies are not officially allowed to be directly involved in hostilities the terminology is simply adjusted to ‘defensive support’ despite occupying ultra-sensitive areas and being responsible for direct hostilities.  Highlighted best by the Aegis involvement in Sierra Leone where the company broke the UN arms embargo but continued to get government contracts.  This video makes the situation seem very complicated, at the same time the speaker highlights key words ‘support’ and ‘backup’ but the very fact that a State outsources to Blackwater is illegal; listen to the whole video numerous innocents murdered but the company is not accountable and definitely not the state.  This is not a stand-alone incident.  Responsibility is removed from the State, is removed from the corporation, and placed firmly with individuals.  It’s a cosy relationship with whoever it is in power, the only problem is when corporations get ideas of takeover… and get found out as in Equatorial Guinea.

The image of private military companies is the very embodiment of colonialism; just look at Anthony Sharp – the photograph reeks of nostalgia for Empire’s finest sorting out the natives and doing the Motherland proud.  It’s not just the look of such mercenaries unless we forget the likes of the British East India Company and the Dutch East Indies Company – corporate-government enterprises to protect profits and exploit the vulnerable.  Hence they continue the tradition of European imperialism, and of course racism remains paramount.  If there are any doubts just watch the first two minutes of Shadow Company.  It is envisioned that each of the ships in Sharp’s private navy will consist of sixty crewmen, the majority being ex-Royal Navy and ex-Royal Marines.  Meanwhile before Sharp set up Typhon he was not on the seas or in the military but investing in online media outlets.  We often hear of ‘corruption within international development while in the domestic sphere we change the vocabulary to ‘expenses’ or in the case of private military companies we call it ‘fraud’.  The extension to continued colonialism is clear as with drone bombings in the Yemen, authorised by Obama but to hide issues of legality Yemen claim responsibility.  Consequently we can see that it is not a purely collaboration between corporate-government partners that is evolving but also between national-global powers.

If we consider the researchers who developed and solidified drones we can see that those at the cutting edge have moved on.  They have proven their technical worth and now seek to harness new tactical capabilities.  Even a brief flurry at three consecutive and major research projects will reveal that by the third drones are no longer the major concern.  Jointly funded by government and corporate agencies Argus, Aladdin and Orchid reveal the ‘game structure’ of progress.  As one researcher confirms, the goal now is to enable computer systems to facilitate humans to make better decisions.  As such UAVs are neoliberalism’s perfect tool enabling governments to assume control while distributing responsibility to corporate partners.  Defence departments maintain intelligence and firepower while directing private armies in the field, thereby reducing costs and their own human risks – official casualty figures drop away.  We cannot hold drones accountable, we should seek to hold companies and policymakers responsible and stop the passage of wealth and duty to corporate partners.  Otherwise we may very well witness the day when media must report a ‘war in Afghanistan as sponsored by G4S’ while the return of war dead is sponsored by Barclays.

If you have followed me this far allow me to venture a little more.  This reinterpretation of the significance of drones is an attempt to set the agenda on positive and progressive terms, although it does not mention so explicitly the killings of innocents, they are of primary concern but for many of us there is no direct way to help them now.  But would such devastating stories really not exist if there were no drones, as if Apache helicopters, high altitude surveillance, and bombs that drop without reply were not in use before?  We have seen throughout history such massacres go by without repercussions for imperial powers – drones are no different.

As we attempt to set our own agendas we must urgently find methods of opposition that do not mirror the system with masculine-driven militaristic parallels of war and violence.  There are existing and merging vocabularies to discover and utilise that oppose all war and hit home about the danger of corporate-government alliances.  Discussion on drones often accommodates a world where violence-war is normal and inevitable; as such policy adjustment is the outcome.  The concentration on drones may enable us to open up fresh vocabulary that does not simply request reform – for instance drones could be used to metaphorically highlight homonationalism, sexism and pinkwashing while simultaneously hitting home about this most pressing issue.  Militaries are expanding their own concepts in light of drones with medals and ideas of ‘bravery’.  Thereby we might appropriate the symbol of a drone for the future; indeed in some instances we can steal directly from drone propaganda to highlight the future of corporate-government wars with “imagination, passion, persistence”.

I have attempted to bypass existing dichotomies of pro/anti-drones as highlighted by Chris Cole in favour of remembering Audre Lorde’s point that ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’.  I am convinced that it is too late to ‘ground the drones’ but I am hopeful that debate and action can be refocused from tools to relationships between corporate and government.  Unbelievably despite mass killings with impunity and the gross amounts of revenue involved the Stop the War Coalition had no dedicated space to discuss the development and resistance to private-corporate collaboration at it’s conference to mark the ten year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.  Seasoned politicians love drones, their lies confirm this while hiding the reasons.  As UN experts recognise “providing security to its people is a fundamental responsibility of the State and outsourcing security to private military and security companies creates risks for human rights, hence the need to regulate their activities.”  Drones do not generate risks for human rights abuses but corporate-government collaboration does.

Peace…

The Shape of the Beast Come September

“Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century. Flags are bits of coloured clothe that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead”

Arundhati Roy, Come September

Arundhati Roy has consistently engaged with people and in issues to unhesitatingly question power. And she does not start from the position of acceptable western middle class standards. This has become more apparent as she seeks to question fundamental principles around subjects such as democracy, justice, the accumulation of capital, and non-violence.

Roy is at ease engaging political realms while simultaneously addressing complacency in her craft as well as in personal areas. And she does so with more acumen than established corporate media commentators. All of this was obvious from her Come September speech ten years ago and in her most recent publication she states explicitly, “my language, my style, is not something superficial, like a coat that I wear when I go out. My style is me – even when I’m at home. It’s the way I think. My style is my politics”.

To me she demonstrates most clearly that you can and should take a stand for something: assume a polemic but avoid being polemical in thought and action. And she gives those willing to listen a boost to do likewise, “I’m not here to tell stories that people want to hear. I’m not entering some popularity contest. I just say what I have to say, and the consequences are sometimes wonderful and sometimes not”.

The interviews of her latest book have all been published before, but this does not stop them reasserting something that is fresh in a world where mainstream politics stinks of decaying flags waved impotently by empire, in nostalgia as much as hope. Collectively the interviews shed light on what a critical persona can aspire to be while escaping the muck of corporate media in a necessarily penetrating yet poetic manner.

“To expose things is quite different from being able to effectively resist things. I am more interested now in whether there are new strategies of resistance. The debate between strategies of violence and non-violence.” Such points sound like self-criticism as much as accusation or provocation to impotent and incidental groups opposing empire. “I think that no one form of resistance is going to succeed. Like you cannot have a monoculture forest, you need a diversity of resistance… because non-violent resistance is a form of ‘theatre’, sometimes an effective form of theatre, but it needs an audience and a sympathetic audience”.

I am grateful for this collection of interviews but wait to see how many commentators remember her excellent writing presented 29th September 2002, Come September. Or indeed if Arundhati Roy will provide a ‘ten years on’… but unfortunately I know not enough has changed. A repeat listening exposes Empire and we do indeed require new ways to act.

It is all too true that none of us need anniversaries to remember the unforgettable, so I choose not to drench myself in the horrific but to celebrate the alternative.

Peace…

Come September was presented on 29th September 2002.

The Shape of the Beast is available out now.

The Wind of Change (1961)

Trying not to give too much away but banging on walls, sharing the newspaper, and those doorknobs are surely things that have almost come to past. But this is more than pointless nostalgia…

The charms of The Wind of Change only contribute to the gritty subjects that are handled in a manner that were surely ahead of their time. Moments that are filled with nostalgia simultaneously raise questions of the past and of the present. Although the film generates its own pace, as the characters undertake a journey of self-examination the audience can either join them or remain in ignorance with Frank, the main protagonist.

Somehow the film extends beyond its historical setting to contrast starkly with what has become the stereotype of ways to handle such topics; hip hop, digital technology, and Technicolor. This last point is not isolated to the film’s black and white presentation but also the cast with its lone role played by a black man. For some this is a distraction, for me it is a central attraction – the struggle with racism, with all its contradictions, is often spoken of and experienced first and foremost in the home and while hanging out with peers. No ariel shots of housing estates which sometimes seem like the cinematic metaphor for the racist language of ‘mixed race relationships’. Let’s get straight into the frontroom and people of action and dialogue. How does a family adapt to economic, political, cultural and intimate changes around them?

To my mind the father takes centre stage but not in any stereotypical way I’ve witnessed on film before. He is contemplative without any clear intelligence, complex without any direction, and nice without being likable. Ultimately he is passive; moments of wisdom are drowned out by tensions and outbursts of strength are overcome by sterner stuff. Even his retreat to care for his beloved rabbits presents an opportunity for a complex and uncertain metaphor. This places too much emphasis on the man of the house perhaps because the daughter and the mother are also in excellent positions to present some of the difficulties and abstract empathy in dealing with racism, forced to make a call without making a judgement.

Structured with the expertise of art and academy the film attempts to make sense of the contradictions of racism through everyday language and everyday sense. Everybody in the film contributes to layering complexity to the situation and it is uncertain how each impacts the other. The result is film that doesn’t seek an oversimplified happy ending with all knots firmly ironed out. Is the family broken or fixed? However it is clear that such dichotomies don’t work. To those who know something of the backdrop of the 1950 riots, the film even acknowledges economic hardships and unemployment as factors, more than most media reports will acknowledge even today; such reports are happy with the idea that intimate relationships between black and white people are primary factors to rioting.

Prime Minister Harold Macmillan may have been referring to the country’s conquered colonies when he talked of ‘the wind of change’ but Vernon Sewell makes clear that such a wind was already underway in the ‘motherland’. The Wind of Change can come like a storm in the lives of many but at the same time seems like an impotent breeze when viewed with the luxury of historical perspective.

We will be screening the film Sunday 7th October.

Now Joseph Kony has killed Simba!

Wow, this week we witnessed Africa return centre-stage as Uganda and Joseph Kony became the embodiment of what we are supposed to think of the continent; black people in need, black people in conflict, black people are primitive, and black people sure are poor – morally and financially.  If that isn’t clear enough for you just say “damn those niggers be at it again”.  But where there is black there needs to be white, right?  Because white is the colour of our saviour, white is powerful, white is justice, and white tastes like sugar.  If that isn’t as clear as a black shit on fresh white snow just think of some Pope holding out his hand to some snotty-faced rag-tag, diseased-riddled nameless black child from that dark continent.  But the professionalism with which this racist myth continues to permeate is not the polarisation I want to address here. To concentrate on this is to allow the debate to stagnate from fifty years ago and not to bring it to where it needs to be in the contemporary world.

The crudeness that I have just used is therefore meant to reflect that utilised not just by the Kony2012 campaign but also that of the many who saw through that viral video enough to actively criticise it.  Many came across as knee-jerk reactions that while valid in terms of immediacy perhaps might also have lacked consistency and concentration at the same time.  These reactions often didn’t seek to engage Invisible Children on their terms, and where the video was weakest, what are Ugandans and those affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army saying.  Take Marcel Cartier for example, to those who are new to the issue and rarely tread here he might come off as a rambling fool; providing valid but all-encompassing international commentary which is not restricted to the specific topic, with few suggestions, if anything, on what should be done about the case at hand.  Likewise, David Leon’s excellent piece is somewhat overcooked and therefore feeds into the dichotomy of ‘help us get Kony or fuck you’.  If the Kony2012 campaign is creating wristbands of arrogance we must steer away from demonstrating the same trait with our responses.  Elizabeth Flock’s interview with the photographer who captured Invisible Children holding guns was a thoroughly more grounded affair; it stood out because it knew what it wanted to accomplish and had the means to do so.  An equally grounded piece comes from establishment favourite John Pilger but was published last year, way before this debacle of popularism and polarisation.

As some have highlighted the Kony2012 campaign has displayed profoundly the power the Internet has in connecting people and ideas but this has been at the expense of relating accurate and relative information.  The campaign also displays the weaknesses of well-placed counter perspectives from within Western countries; overwhelmingly they react to the mainstream and have no dreams of doing anything else.  Getting too worked up about the system and clearly valuing their own opinion on the world at the expense of those concerned.  The Guardian’s datablog is a poignant condemnation of Invisible Children’s finances, and should definitely throw doubts into support that particular charity, but that’s not my primary focus.  Of course I won’t bother too much with conspiracy theorists that provide a jumble of information in much the same way as the viral video; yes the USA has growing interest throughout Africa, yes the CIA, FBI and government have expanded their influence on university campuses but correlation is not causation.  Although at least some of some of the grand theorising remained grounded with a sense of humour.  Still nobody stated the obvious; that the Advertising Standards Agency would, in all likeliness, never have accepted the promotional stunt on numerous grounds.

Luckily enough we do have the Internet and are not restricted to dominant views of left or right persuasions.  The best pieces that responded to Invisible Children’s campaign came out of Uganda, and came from people on that continent.  Their focused voices took a variety of positions on a range of issues, from inaccuracies in the campaign to how it might affect tourism in Uganda.  They included younger and older people as well as those in diasporic communities and at least one from a man who was formerly a child soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army.  Let’s not forgot the man’s own voice.  There are plenty more out there that deserve more attention than they are currently getting.  One Ugandan pointed out that such a weak campaign, followed by ambivalent discussion, would never have occurred in regards to the Middle East but because this is Africa we can all speak down to it.  But as Kambale Musavuli demonstrates real dialogue must be made possible and highlighted – is this about imperialism?  It is as if a single, Lion King-like, narrative informs every void of our mind.  As Adam Branch points out this campaign and reaction to it isn’t about Uganda, this is about the USA and Americans.

So let us return to Simba, it is not Joseph Kony who killed him, though displace him as the popular vision of Africa perhaps.  It is not even Invisible Children with their evangelical advert who can take credit for this.  Nor is it the rhetorical reactions of those opposing the campaign.  Those of us with access to the Internet but rely too heavily upon being told how to use it, and therefore click too quickly on that share button all have a hand to play.  Because these children are not invisible and many have surely grown up, and some can relay there own opinions on Uganda, Africa and what peace means.  All we have to do is search, listen, and share… As has been proven.

The story was jump-started with the violence of Tony Kony, with ‘invisible’ children.  Wouldn’t the conclusions be so very different if we had bothered to start the story with the powerful Betty Bigombe, with visible children, with artists not the campaigners of politricks?

Peace…

I’m Surprised they didn’t call it ‘J.K.2012’

“There is a balance in the community that cannot be found in the briefcase of the white man… The real issue for the International Criminal Court is that the USA is out of its yoke.  It should deal with that and leave us alone… We are forced to kneel. Where is the justice in that?”
– A Ugandan based in Gulu for Human Rights Watch, 2005

Until very recently most people had never heard of Joseph Kony, the International Criminal Court, or Invisible Children.  To highlight what an impressive accomplishment it is to have so many people pressing a button that demands Joseph Kony be brought to ‘justice’ I can remember trying to talk with a group of humanitarian workers during 2008 – they were experienced experts in areas of conflict yet they didn’t have a clue who Joseph Kony was or the significance of the issue facing the International Criminal Court.  Unbelievable!  Of course it’s a good thing that you know about the Lord’s Resistance Army but a YouTube video is much like a ten o’clock news item; it is designed to stimulate certain emotive impulses with the aim of agreement.  As such they can only ever serve as introductions to issues.  Even this brief sketch can take us a little deeper and perhaps suggest reasons we should question why numerous issues were neglected by Invisible Children.  

The International Criminal Court (ICC) was set up to prosecute the most severe human rights abuses and war crimes – to go after those ‘most responsible’.  It’s very new and consequently could be a great success or another international failure.  UNICEF first suggested that the ICC should prosecute the Lord’s Resistance Army during 1998; four years before the Rome Statute, which created the ICC, was signed.  International agencies like Amnesty were pleased at the prospect.  But as investigations began to draw closer, around 2005, those on the ground questioned the prospect of investigating and arresting the leaders.  Some from Save the Children Uganda suggested it would increase the danger to children under captivity as well as those already escaped.  These are not empty fears, the Lord’s Resistance Army has indeed attacked, hacked to death in fact, those that have escaped their grasp and increased an already fierce discipline amongst their own ranks.  Similarly seeking arrests without a peace agreement in place would increase the violence to the wider population, this view is echoed by many Ugandans who suspected their President of seeking to harness international credibility.  For instance the Vice-President of Acholi Religious Leader’s Peace Initiative told a UN reporter “this kind of approach is going to destroy all efforts for peace.  People want the war to stop.  If we follow the ICC in branding the Lord’s Resistance Army criminals it won’t stop”.  Even the spokesperson for Uganda’s Amnesty Commission, which is able to grant amnesty for rebel groups except leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), suggested the ICC was making it hard for the violence to cease; what’s the incentive if they get arrested?

In short the ICC was accused of trying to make a name for itself based upon the suffering of a people who were engaged in an ongoing peace process – both sides have broken negotiations in the past and President Museveni has a number of reasons for allowing the violence to continue.  Senior officers in the Ugandan People’s Defence Force were involved in cattle rustling, removing the livelihoods of the very people Invisible Children want to help.  As Amnesty and many Ugandans in displacement camps acknowledge the ICC is demonstrating huge bias by investigating only members of the LRA – members of the Ugandan government stand accused of kidnapping people to use as soldiers and of arbitrary killings.  Is a popular hunt and trial needed or something more akin to a Truth and Reconciliation hearing?  If the hunt for Joseph Kony intensifies the situation further is it worth it?  For whose benefit? 

A Ugandan Human Rights Watch group also had reservations and such antipathy from those the ICC expected to work with on the ground placed it in a difficult position; justice for who? for YouTube viewers? for Invisible Children? for Ugandans? for the Acholi? for the LRA?  Even the Rome Statute states that the ICC should not only work in the interests of justice but also in the interests of victims.  What’s best for the victims? to stop the violence?  To hunt Kony down and place him in prison?

I don’t know but a judge-mental YouTube video that seeks to popularize and polarize the crimes of one man as if he is so ordained to take all the problems of criminality and suffering away doesn’t seem to fit.  It doesn’t acknowledge what came before Joseph Kony, who he learned from, the networks around him, or what the situation is now on the ground – and just what is the current situation, is Joseph Kony still active (though this is no reason not to seek justice in itself)?

Since the Patriot Act the USA has steadily been increasing its interest in Northern Uganda. But the USA is not a signatory to the Rome Statute and have ardently opposed ICC involvement elsewhere in the world, so what are their interests in the conflict; simple people power doesn’t seem to add up given the huge resources they are only willing to utilize when there is oil involved?  The arrests warrants were ‘under seal’, secret, in order to help protect communities that might be attacked. This was until the Ugandan government, apparently in error, made them public. Have Invisible Children thought about the consequences of such a public campaign?  Forget their financial issues it seems incredibly naïve of Invisible Children to be photographed holding guns with the ground troops – if the ICC is to be called biased surely Invisible Children are in danger of demonstrating extreme bias.

Under Article 53 of the Rome Statute the prosecutor can decide that to proceed with a prosecution is “not in the interests of justice taking into the account all the circumstances”. In April 2005 the Chief Prosecutor agreed with this point but highlighted that if that was to happen “I would stop but I will not close. Timing is possible but immunity is not”.  I’m not saying don’t go after Joseph Kony but shouldn’t those affected by the LRA lead the way, no matter how slow or different their methods?  Surely a distant international group who do not have to face the ramifications should not lead the way?  So what are the current opinions of Ugandans and those in LRA-affected areas, especially direct victims?  We cannot assess this from the Invisible Children video which is more of an evangelical advert than a news item; it’s certainly not a documentary.  I am not providing any routes forward but in light of that viral video I thought it useful to have some idea of the previous debates.  It is quite complicated and as one senior person from Amnesty International said to me, “publicly I would support the ICC but privately I would support the local resolution methods”. 

I started with a quote and it is well worth ending with some more to acknowledge the victims and that these crimes are horrors worthy of the often too easily used title, Evil, too often used to describe some distant Other and of course never our own Western leaders.

“They also forced me to kill… So many times I cannot remember… If you refused to do the killing [with a club or panga] they would cut off the head and make you carry it… None of us wanted to carry the head, so we all had to kill…”
– a seventeen year old boy in Atiak displacement camp

“We had only moved a short distance away and I was asked to kill my mother. I first refused but I was told my mother would be asked to kill me. They kept insisting. They tried to force my mother to kill me, but she refused. They said they would kill both of us, but my mother told me I must kill her to survive”
– twenty year old woman in Gulu town

Happy Days in Mixed Britannia

“Mixed-race children make up one of the fastest growing ethnic minorities in the UK”

–       George Alagiah, Mixed Britannia

That is a heavily loaded sentence with many assumptions; let’s break it down George.

‘Mixed-race’ is something of a dodgy term to say the least.  To me it sounds like ‘a mixing of species’ rather than loving relationships between people.  The traditions of the terminology make this clearer: Australoid, Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid.  In more everyday racism, these categories probably equate to something like chavs, chinks, natives and niggers, not people and inferior.  Some people try to be more considerate and talk about ‘cultures’ rather than ‘race’, all they are really doing is alluding to a taught racism.  ‘Genomics’ (genetics since the mapping of DNA) continues the ‘race’ debate scientifically acknowledging that there is a socially constructed basis but insisting that the 0.01% of DNA relating to skin colour can contain all the difference imaginable due to ‘bio-geographical ancestry groups’.  ‘Bio-geographical ancestry groups’ are categorised as Africans, Asians, Europeans… hold on I’ve heard this one before, haven’t I Sir Francis (founder of eugenics) Galton!  But ‘bio-geographical ancestry groupings’ have proven to be unreliable, bringing out similarities between ‘races’ rather than historical realities.  As biology proves there is often more in common amongst the mythological categories of ‘race’ than between them.  Just as ‘race’ is socially constructed so too is ‘mixed-race’.

Rather than enabling those not conforming to the tick boxes of statistical analysis to perhaps become a metaphor for the multicultural experience we all share, George encourages a neat label complete with tagline; ‘the fastest growing ethnic minority’.  Those of the civil rights movement such as Walter Rodney, Malcolm X and Stokeley Carmichael recognised that the power system decides who is ‘white’ and who is not (generally if you can trace both parents ancestors back to Western Europe you are accepted as ‘white’).  George is part of that power system, of course he is, rather than investigate how these particular people experience the world and define themselves he sets the framework and marches them into a tick box.  George the narrator could have taken a back seat and asked more open-ended questions in the hope of discovery instead of searching for a sense of comfort.  And how very comforting it was; the parents of these minorities helped us maintain our colonial power over global trade and helped us win the war; God Save The Queen!  Again Walter Rodney predicted that a non-white selected elite would help dominate the ‘natives’ in the UK and in the former colonies, and he was right, wasn’t he George?  We can see it in our councils, our ‘race development officers’, our police forces, parliament and the former colonies.

Tick boxes deny the diversity of experiences people go through, simplifying an entire lifecycle to something altogether alien.  In middle school I hung out with children whose parents were first generation migrants from India and Pakistan, we played at the Adventure Playground and ate together.  I did not see myself as any different.  At secondary school I hung out with ‘white’ boys from another area altogether, we played sports and ate in each other’s houses.  I didn’t see myself as any different.  As I left school I started hanging out with some boys whose parents were second generation migrants from the West Indies, like two of my grandparents; we played much basketball together and ate in each other’s homes.  Again I didn’t see myself as any different.  I’ve worked a variety of jobs, from those that needed little training to those in professional settings, I’ve completed two degrees and in no environment did I understand myself as significantly different from anyone else.  I learned from these experiences that not only are we all so similar but we all share a capacity for racism and can challenge ourselves both subtly and explicitly.  I’m not the only person that can negotiate social barriers, there are similar comments from people in Mixed Britannia but these are never expanded upon.  All this reminds me of Janie in Zora Heale Hurston’s 1930’s banned black feminist novel, Their eyes were watching God, who didn’t realise she was different from the ‘white’ children until she was photographed at the age of six.  She exclaims, “Aw, aw!  Ah’m coloured!”

There are some very beautiful moments in the Mixed Britannia series and archive the footage is a pleasure to see.  Likewise some of the historical details teach us much.  The second episode was stronger than the first but George has already given the impression that everything is gravy today.  Hence he will totally miss the issue of class difference and concentrate seemingly exclusively on the middle classes, or it’s aspirants.  Similarly he appeases the notion of the nuclear family; those that are not otherwise would be in ‘happy’ families if it were not due to external factors far beyond their control.  All this is perhaps summed up best when George hails D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms as a marker of changing views, forgetting Griffith’s other film Birth of a Nation that holds the Ku Klux Klan as heroes.  But the common thread running throughout is the familiar question, “Where do you come from?  Where do you really come from?”  As if I cannot be from England because I have a different skin tone.  I must not have the similar problems and joys as ‘white’ people, I must be a ‘minority’.

Peace…