In Living Colour
June 4, 2008
An amazing social movement has been afoot for many years now. Women in Black, an international grassroots organizing effort by women who are committed to peace, social justice and ending the forms of violence wreaking through women’s lives — rape, war and militarism, to name a few.
WIB began in Israel in the 1980s when Israeli feminists who were against the occupation of Palestine wanted to introduce new strategies for increasing Israeli disaffection with its military and political domination over the lives of Palestinians. Since then, WIB has become a powerful, discomfiting presence wherever they show up.
To many, the women appear passive in the way that they make their presence and opposition felt: they wear black, and stand silently with placards on designated sides of the street in public places, sometimes handing out leaflets, holding vigils, blocking roads. Always educating and bringing awareness. Their message is clear.
But there is nothing passive in disrupting the casual way that people internalize the messages of violence around them and even condoning it. And the Israeli military, its many supporters — practically everyone has to serve in the Israeli military at some point — have retaliated against the WIB in direct and hostile ways. The stories these women can tell!
But, whether its accepting the popular explanations for justifying Israeli racism against Palestinians in the form of occupations, discrimination and harassment, or speaking in support of the war in Iraq, or turning a blind eye to violence conducted against people in conflict regions simply because “we” don’t like “them”, Women in Black challenges all to think and act differently about the problem of violence and what a just peace can look like. Check out the website for yourself.
Yes, there are problems and schisms in the WIB movement; some of the more radical analysis of Israeli and state violence has drifted out, and the efforts to include the voices of women on “the other side of the conflict” are always fraught with tension and drama. Some people argue that the WIB movement is being co-opted by a new age of activists who accept military intervention and some forms of state violence as a justifiable strategy for ending kinds of conflict. The longer the conflicts go on, the more intransigent each side becomes, the more some WIB women have become disenchanted with the non-violent strategies, and want direct confrontation with state agencies and actors, families, etc. responsible for prolonging the various wars.
One thing is clear though: WIB is an important political space for women doing peace activism, and it is not going away any time soon. Various chapters around the world have been recognized with awards from human rights organizations etc. Their work — no, the bravery, commitment, stubbornness of these women — is what inspires many of us to do what we do, or at least to consider doing something differently if we want anything to change. Somebody coined the adage “be the change that you want to see in the world.” In many ways, participants in WIB do that. I remember sometime last year, I had the opportunity to hear Simona Sharoni a seasoned Israeli feminist activist talk about her work with the resistance movements in Israel, and how her activism affects even the way that her family operates. I wept. It is rare that I feel and hear this level of commitment to peace and and an end to state violence around me from my fellow Jamaicans. Frankly, I have never heard or seen it. So if there is somebody or something I have overlooked, please point it out to me.
There are a lot of women-led movements against violence: in any country where there is the kind of violence that we are experiencing here in Jamaica, women have organized themselves in creative ways and made themselves heard. MADRE and Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo and Las Abuelas are organizations that are well-known.
No matter where in the world they are, women have worn white, black, pink, red, yellow, orange: head ties, arm bands, costumes, full attire, flowers; they have refused to have sex with men, refused to cook for men, refused to live with men, refused to vote for men, confiscated weapons, refused to have their children participate in organized violence, held vigils at the homes of gangsters, refused to participate in all the small and large conspiracies that enable state and civil violence.
When governments have told them to turn over their children to be arrested, to be conscripted into the military, they have agreed, on the condition that the government also turns over its ministers, military leaders, community thugs etc. who have been wantonly committing murders and recruiting their children into violence.
They have sat, slept, ate, marched, sang, talked and recited poetry in public space. They move from one place to the other but they do not disappear. They show up exactly where they are least expected, and they make their presence felt.
They bear witness, showing pictures and telling stories of all who have been killed, who have done the killing, and they demand accountability.
They take pictures and make movies and create scrapbooks and create art and record their voices and build archives and tell their children that it takes all of this and more to make change. And they tell themselves and anybody who dares listen that justice will takes years and maybe generations. But it will happen as long as these voices of dissent do not disappear and become buried like the ones who have been killed. It will happen as long as we don’t allow our democracy to be sacrificed for silence and “law and order”.
They marked themselves “present!” in the struggle for peace.
There are just bargains to be struck, but such bargains do not involve compromising the analysis: saying why the violence is wrong; outlining all the pieces that make the violence both possible as well as seem reasonable and necessary; refusing to excuse or side with the state knowing that violence is the ultimate display of its power. These women who are agitating for a better world have made it clear that the questions will change, and what justice will look like might also change: but the questions need to be answered as they are articulated, and we will know that justice is served when the outcomes speak directly to the questions being asked by those who have been hurt by the violence.
Where is this coming from, you ask? I read the story in the Gleaner today, and I felt such sadness, despair and a curious kind of anger, about how and why we choose to act.
Wear Black Today. Yes, only in Jamaica would we manage to distort a popular strategy of using one’s bodies as a canvas to make one’s stance against violence be known; instead, we can condense it into standing with the state against the citizens.
Apparently it is easier for us to act humanely when it is someone of value who has been killed. We can recognize wrong only when committed against one of “we” the law-abiding citizens, but not when committed against “dem” who, to us, only live to terrorize the body politic. And ‘we” are made uncomfortable that soon it will be one of us. And we don’t want that. And we only know to mobilize in support of the state, with the implicit bargain that the state – and its armies, the police and the military – will protect us from “dem”.
Never mind that such “acts of cohesion” do nothing more than shore up the retribution by the police against the citizenry and any efforts to transform policing from the inside: from wanton killings, to disappearing evidence, to go-slows when they are asked to be more accountable, to justifying some kinds of police corruption if it means avenging these deaths. Police stations – Denham Town or wherever – are not places of safety for us, and certainly not women. They never have been – not for women who have been victimized, arrested, or doing the arresting.
Never mind that we are being rooted in the exact problem that got us here in the first place: a dependence on the state/government to provide the parameters for justice; and when many of us who were excluded couldn’t get what we needed through the official means, and when many of us who had the power couldn’t do what we wanted through the official means, we created other forms of dependency. Safety and security was not to be expected by all; it was a privilege to be bought, fought over, traded and exchanged between those who had the ammunition and those who wanted it. Our lives as ordinary citizens were the pawns.
All our MP are elected Dons and Donnas. They war or strike criminal bargains with the ones who have been annointed as Dons and Donnas; kind of like the Anglican Bishop who belongs to a centuries-old institution, and the Pentecostal Bishop who belongs to the institution created by him and his congregants. The police run interference and are the mediators of that relationship, but mostly, police want to be dons too. And so they do what they wish, in a bureaucratic structure that is so loose, untidy and chacka-chacka, that it can’t possibly have been created by the ridiculously uptight British. This burdensome problem is ours through and through.
None of our police are innocent. They strike bargains with each other, with the elites who own the businesses selling and leasing boats, shipping and customs, scrap metal, foreign exchange, real estate, land development, car dealerships, banking, jewelry, etc. who finance, launder monies and pay off the various entities to make their wealth possible. One by one, these relationships need to be dissassembled and made obsolete.
Our police are not innocent.
When a woman watches her police husband gunned down in her driveway, she feels the loss of a husband and a companion. But she also knows in her heart that this day would come, just not like this, and not right now. Week after week she has listened to and carefully averted her eyes from the wrong that she knows that he does. “Be careful, you know. That’s all I am saying, just be careful.” Famous last words. One cannot be careful when one is participating in corrupt activities. One cannot be careful when one is a recipient of bandooloo property: the house that you can buy and furnish; the nice car that you got at a deal; the computer and cell phone; the goods you want for your store etc. They all have a higher price than you can afford. The most that one can hope for in these situations is to be lucky. And luck has an unpredictable expiration date.
None of our police are innocent.
So, well-meaning citizen, if you are going to travel all the way to a place to scrawl your name on a wall, scrawl it on a wall where all the people of Kingston can see it and register it everyday, not in the hallowed space of the police station where trigger-happy police can feel good that they now have the backing of the citizens to shoot first and ask later.
Recognize that speaking out for police is not the same as taking a stance against violence and demanding peace.
If we want peace, and an end to this circus of violence, then we — together and individually, in big groups and small — will have to start doing some hard thinking for ourselves, rather than have the media and the chatter on the airwaves frame what we believe.
We will have to recognize that each of us is responsible for the lives and death of others; not just for the ones we are told to hold dear – like police – but for the lives of those who we are told that we should not value. I really wonder what it will take for us – our government reps, our civic groups, our NGOs, our corporations – to take ourselves and each other’s lives seriously; to hold up the lives of poor people who we so gladly demonize and castigate for all social ills, as important and valuable and recognize how they are pawns in a system that too many of us milk the benefits from.
Until then, yes, we ought to be speaking out and wearing our colours; just make sure those colours symbolize the value of everyone’s life, not just some.