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How the pandemic endorsed leftist politics – Al Jazeera English



The urge to predict the post-pandemic future is irresistible and it seems to often accompany major outbreaks.

As scholarly and literary works on plagues are making a massive comeback these days, I decided to open up Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. At some point Defoe takes aim at the “plague prophets”:

“Nay, some were so enthusiastically bold as to run about the streets with their oral predictions, pretending they were sent to preach to the city; and one in particular, who, like Jonah to Nineveh, cried in the streets, ‘Yet forty days, and London shall be destroyed.’ I will not be positive whether he said yet forty days or yet a few days. Another ran about naked, except a pair of drawers about his waist, crying day and night, like a man that Josephus mentions, who cried, ‘Woe to Jerusalem!’ a little before the destruction of that city. So this poor naked creature cried, ‘Oh, the great and the dreadful God!’ and said no more.”

The genre of post-plague predictions may have shed some of its past dramatic expressions, but it persists. The vastly divergent scenarios put out there all share the same realisation – that the world will not be the same. Most fear it will change for the worse.

For example, the Bulgarian philosopher Ognian Kassabov fears that working from home will spell the end of the eight-hour working day.

Others, like British academic Philip Cunliffe, offer bleaker scenarios, as if taken from the typical dystopian anime about the world after thermonuclear war: a powerful corporation lords over an atomised citizenry which works and communicates from home, while a wretched underclass staffs the unvirtualisable professions (deliveries, farming …) and exposes itself to contagion. Such an order precludes mass organising for progressive ends, cementing an alienated capitalist future infinitely worse than what neoliberalism had on offer.

This hinges on an understanding of the lockdown and social distancing as both temporally and spatially complete.

Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben fears it will usher in a state of exception and permanent curtailment of rights. Some authoritarian responses to the crisis certainly lend themselves to such interpretation: Hungary, for one, just completed its transition to fascism.

The left worries that the consequences of the lockdown will extend far into the future. Leftist scholar Anton Jager augurs the postponement of history in words connoting finality and death: “We will see little to no mobilization, and probably no ‘counter-hegemonic’ subject. The death of face-to-face sociability is unlikely to give a fresh impetus to new organizations”.

I, however, beg to differ. It seems to me the “old normal” is very much still present in various pleasant and unpleasant ways. It is also too early to despair and conclude that the emergency will be a permanent fixture of our lives. The lockdowns are neither so sweeping everywhere, nor do the ongoing mobilisations allow us to speak about the “death of face-to-face sociability” – for now.

Except for the exception, everything is normal

Throughout March most countries in Europe enforced hasty and little-thought-out lockdowns, issued state of emergency declarations and closed the borders.

However, it quickly transpired that in some places the panicked and supposedly draconian state of exceptions is less than exceptional.

In my native Bulgaria, the lockdown is enforced by exorbitant fines for smoking in the park, but one can go to work, go shopping for food and stop by the pharmacy. As a friend of mine joked, “Isn’t that where the majority of working people go during normal times anyway?”

In some German cities, park usage more than doubled since the introduction of the lockdown. In fact, Germany has already started relaxing restrictive measures and so has Austria. Sweden, on the other hand, did not even impose a lockdown.

In April, the pre-corona normality irrupted even more forcefully and demanded open borders for cheap labour. Harvest times approached for asparagus and strawberries and Western European countries rushed to break travel bans.

On April 2, Germany announced it would fly in 80,000 agricultural labourers, mostly from Eastern Europe via emergency “green corridors”. Shortly after thousands of Romanian workers from the country’s worst-hit regions crowded into buses and boarded charted flights for various German states. Many had to face appalling work conditions and exploitative, sub-minimum wages, and little protection from the virus. At least one of them has already died of a coronavirus infection.

The UK has also made overtures to the East and its endless reserves of cheap agricultural workers. It has gone as far as calling Bulgaria “our little beacon” – a country in that same Eastern Europe with its pesky “Polish plumbers” and “welfare scroungers” which the Brits were so eager to break with in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Unfortunately, Bulgarians like Romanians are also eager to risk contagion, hard pressed by the galloping unemployment and the fact that the Bulgarian state hasoffered workers no social protection during the crisis.

Austria has also looked East to fill in its pandemic-induced labour shortages. It has alreadybrokered charter flights for Bulgarian and Romanian care workers urgently needed to fill vacancies in nursing homes. In the free European labour market, sought-after medical workers go to the highest bidder. Not even a pandemic lockdown can upend the competition. It makes it all the fiercer.

The problem is that the East has haemorrhaged medical staff for so long that its capacity to cope with the COVID-19 outbreak may be seriously diminished. In Bulgaria, where doctors and nurses receive their education for free before they emigrate, the median age of the remaining medical staff is so high that a large chunk of them falls within the “high-risk” category.

Thus, these very partial lockdowns, under relentless (and successful) attack from capitalists, have left enough space for exploitative practices from the status quo ante to continue unabated. Radical changes after corona are not (yet) the problem; the rapid return of pre-corona normality is.

Exceptional exceptions

Be that as it may, it will be a massive simplification to claim that everything is going on as before between our porous lockdowns. But those who mourn the death of organising fail to register that a lot of organising has been going on already.

New terrains for class-based intervention are breaking open to address the abysmal failure of states not only to prepare for but also handle the pandemic.

In the US, workers in a General Electric plant walked off the job and demanded to make ventilators. In France, McDonald’s workers occupied their workplace and turned it into a free food distribution point.

Tenants facing eviction are organising, too. (See Kim Moody‘s excellent compilation of successful instances of class struggle.)

Polish women staged a pro-abortion protest from their cars – an ingenious way of protesting without breaching lockdown restrictions.

Even in self-isolation, some organisation is still possible. Macedonians and Serbs have turned their homes into factories and make personal protective equipment (PPE) with their 3D printers and distribute them for free to hospitals. A pizzeria in Chicago rekindled its ovens to make medical helmets.

Such practices reveal the extent to which the lockdown depends on mobilisation and consensus from below, which disproves a lot of the totalitarianism-inflected theorising.

The crisis has also upended the limits of the possible in neoliberalism. While austerity was the preferred “solution” of the previous great economic crash, today staple items from left-wing recipe books like direct monetary transfers, unlimited spending on healthcare, temporary debt freezing, rent and mortgage caps compete with traditional fiscal conservatism.

Socialist solutions are unceremoniously imposing themselves. Britain effectively nationalised the rail. New York City put an abrupt end to years of helpless hand-wringing that not much can be done about homelessness by housing thousands of homeless people suffering from COVID-19 in hotels.

Portugal suspended the byzantine asylum categorisation regime and afforded its refugee population residency benefits. California set up a disaster relief fund for undocumented migrants.

US cities are restoring water access to households falling behind on their bills. And who would have expected that Donald Trump, of all people, would roll out a variant of universal basic income for a few months?

Countries that are highly dependent on global trade like Singapore are starting to produce food locally. The staggering shortages and PPE bidding wars have made it abundantly clear that globalisation and free trade have failed us.

Developed countries realise they must bring the production of essential goods back from cheap labour destinations. The global reach of COVID-19 has incidentally imposed natural limits to neoliberal globalisation. Will this result in its rollback? It remains to be seen but the free trade regime, previously invulnerable even to the threat of climate change, has never seemed more dented.

So even though we lost important electoral battles over the past few years, to paraphrase American writer Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, reality itself has endorsed our agenda.

Capitalism has never looked more vulnerable. A few weeks of work stoppages proved enough to trigger a crisis which makes the Great Depression look like an economic upturn. Unemployment is at a historic high while the price of oil has tanked into unprecedented negative realms.

Capitalism is obviously ill-prepared to deal with external shocks which was hardly the case with state socialist countries’ efficient elimination of infectious disease. A temporary pause in a publicly owned economy could not trigger the cascading crisis of credit crunch, stock market meltdown and historic unemployment.

Despite its monarchist name, this coronavirus is a rapidly growing argument for socialism.

“Social class” – a vilified category of analysis is making a comeback, thanks to the outbreak. After decades of being told that we are self-help entrepreneurs and human capital, suddenly class categories such as “essential worker” become the main way the lockdown gets operationalised (while actual entrepreneurs ride it out at home).

Meanwhile, the violence and inequality created by the capitalist system has transcended obscure social theory seminars to become a major discussion in mainstream media and urban policy.

The Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev has argued that the crisis is wiping out nostalgic populism and is forcing us to confront the future. It is ironic that at the precise moment the neoliberal consensus takes a tumble globally, a leftist scholar like Jager prophecies the non-return of history while the liberal political scientist seems excited to see a crack through which history slips back.

I am tempted to indulge in the fantasy that the coronavirus “war economy” could dethrone the citizen-consumer and “ordain” the warrior-citizen, and thus embolden them to make demands on a state that explicitly admits how dependent it is on their labour and sacrifice.

This is not to sugarcoat the ugly reality of heavily pro-business skewed stimulus packages across the world’s major and lesser economies. It is not to deny that the coronavirus response can enormously buttress the repressive arm of the state.

But alongside the digital surveillance state arises the spectre of renewed class politics that puts welfare and healthcare centre stage. I doubt that healthcare budget cutbacks will be palatable any time soon.

All told, some progressive solutions have become possible in the pandemic, even if to shore up capitalism. And these new possibilities are the true exception in the state of exception. They are welcome exceptions to neoliberalism, if even in potentia. Can the left seize and make them more permanent? Can we radicalise them?

It is time to fight for food sovereignty which alone can loosen the chokehold of multinational agricorporations on food production and supply, and simultaneously end their role in proliferating deadly zoonotic viruses in the process.

As Walter Benjamin said a propos fascism, “the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule […] It is our task to bring about a real state of emergency.”

In the mobilisation against COVID-19, Benjamin’s injunction has lost none of its relevance.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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Remembering my father's Biafra: The politics of erasing history – Al Jazeera English



This is how my father remembered it.

The year was 1966 and he, a bright and ambitious boy of 13 or 14 (no one could be sure because the European missionaries did not issue birth certificates to children like him whose parents refused to convert to Christianity), lived in Akpugoeze, in Nigeria’s southeastern Enugu state.

It was a town of sprawling cassava farms and towering palm trees – not a wealthy place, but one where the townsfolk worked together to build new roads and widen existing ones, to construct schools, churches, and a primary healthcare centre.

My father had just won a scholarship to study at one of the country’s finest secondary schools in Port Harcourt, 200km south. But my grandfather was sceptical. He was scared that the city that opened its mouth to the sea, would swallow his first-born son.

Soon, school would be the last thing on either of their minds.

The writer’s father with his teacher, before the start of the war [Photo courtesy of Innocent Chizaram Ilo]

In the markets and on the way to the stream, people had started to whisper tales about pogroms in the north. They said Igbo people – the ethnic group to which my father belonged – were being rounded up and killed in Kano, Kaduna and Sokoto, some 600-1,000km away.

When Nigeria had gained its independence from the United Kingdom on October 1, 1960, a federal constitution had divided the country into three regions, each run by one of the main ethnic groups: The Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Yoruba in the southwest and the Igbo in the southeast.

Less than six years later, there was widespread disillusionment with the government, which was perceived as corrupt and incapable of maintaining law and order.

Then on January 15, 1966, a military coup overthrew and killed Nigeria’s first prime minister, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, a northerner. As several of those involved were Igbo, and many of those killed were politicians from the north, it was erroneously labelled an Igbo coup. Many northerners interpreted it as an attempt to subjugate the north, which was less developed than the south.

Army commander Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo, suppressed the coup but took power himself. His plan to abolish the regions and establish a unitary government further compounded northern fears that southerners would take over. A counter-coup in July saw soldiers from the north seize power as Aguiyi-Ironsi was overthrown and killed.

When news of the pogroms first began circulating in the southeast, people from the towns and villages started to trek to cities like Enugu and Onitsha, some 70km away, in search of telephones. They carried with them pieces of crisp brown paper on which their relatives who moved to the north had scribbled their numbers. They travelled in groups. Those who could not make it begged others to call the numbers for them.

They returned to their homes distraught, having learned that the telephone lines in the north were down.

Weeks later, mammy wagons began dropping people off at my father’s town – people with sunken eyes and blistered skin, some of them with missing limbs.

The homes to which these people returned erupted into squeals of delight – the relatives they had feared dead were alive. Most had nothing but near-empty bags with them. A few carried something else – the remains of relatives who had not survived the pogroms.

About 30,000 Igbo were killed in the pogroms and about one million internally displaced. Some northerners living in Igbo areas were also killed in revenge attacks.

Remembering my father's Biafra: The politics of erasing history [Photo courtesy of Innocent Chizaram Ilo]

A popular promotional snapshot of Odumegwu Ojukwu before the war [Photo courtesy of Innocent Chizaram Ilo]

In response to the pogroms, on May 30, 1967, Colonel Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu unilaterally declared the independent Republic of Biafra in the southeast of the country.

Then the war began.

My father and his family learned to take cover as the air rumbled with bombs, shelling, bazookas and, much later on, ogbunigwe, weapons systems mass-produced by the Republic of Biafra.

Like most boys his age, he volunteered to join the Biafran Boys – a group of child soldiers trained by the Biafran army. Few of them ever saw combat, but he never tired of telling me and my siblings about his mock wooden gun, morning drills and uniform of khaki shorts and shirt.

Decades later he would recall how he and the other boys would go to the market to bully traders into parting with their chickens and goats, groundnut and palm oil, with the same boyish excitement with which he had experienced it. He also remembered the jubilation with which they received the news that other countries – Gabon, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Tanzania and Zambia – had recognised Biafra.

Occasionally, he would wonder what his life would have been like had the war never arrived and he had made it to that school in Port Harcourt.

By another name

In Nigerian history books, that period between 1966 and 1970 is called The Nigerian Civil War or The Nigerian-Biafran war. But for those of us whose families lived through it, it is an erasure of truth not to name it The Biafran Genocide.

Estimates of the death toll vary – with some putting it at more than one million and others at more than two million. Some died as a result of the fighting but most from hunger and disease after the Nigerian government imposed a land and sea blockade that resulted in famine.

In The Republic, Amarachi Iheke gives a detailed analysis of the case for and against classifying it as a genocide, arguing that whether or not you believe it to have been a genocide, the conflict exposes “blind spots in our application of international human rights norms” and that “moving forward, as part of a national reconciliation project, it is necessary we embark on critical truth-seeking around Biafra’s genocide claim”.

But the foundations of the Nigerian government’s denial were planted on January 15, 1970, when Biafra agreed to a ceasefire and the war ended. Nigeria’s Military Head of State General Yakubi Gowon declared the conflict had “no victor, no vanquished”.

But there was clearly a victor – the Nigerian government, which had regained control of the oil-rich region – and a vanquished – the people of the now-defunct Republic of Biafra, on whose land the war had been fought, whose homes had been destroyed, whose relatives had died of starvation and disease, and their descendants who would have to navigate the world with the weight of their trans-generational trauma.

Biafra opinion piece

A Biafran child sits by a pile of yams, 1968 [File: Getty Images]

Erasing history

Still, in keeping with Gowon’s mantra, the government began to craft its own story; one echoed in school textbooks.

In school, I learned no details of what happened in Biafra. The reality was tactfully erased from the curriculum, while those responsible were depicted as national heroes who had fought to preserve Nigeria’s unity. I tried to reconcile the colourful pictures of these “national heroes” in my Social Studies books (history was removed from the basic curriculum in 2007) with my father’s experience of the war.

When I told my classmates my father’s stories, they would look at me, their mouths open in disbelief, as though they were hearing these things for the first time. When the topic came up in class, the teacher would gloss over it as though it was something from the distant past, then conclude with a tone of “happily ever after”.

The result is a new generation of Nigerians who are either unaware of the country’s true past or have normalised it as a small price to pay to maintain the nation’s unity.

This ahistoricism follows us around in the physical and virtual worlds. Recently, during a Twitter brawl, Bello el-Rufai, the son of Kaduna State governor Nasir Ahmed el-Rufai, threatened a user he perceived to be Igbo, saying he would pass the Twitter user’s mother around to his friends, while Bello’s own mother appeared to defend her son, declaring that all was “fair in love and war”.

But for Biafrans, it is not so easy to delink his words from history. After all, 50 years ago, Igbo women were being passed around in the military camps set up in captured Biafran towns, in open-air markets, on the street or in their own homes, as their children and husbands were made to watch.

Remembering my father's Biafra: The politics of erasing history [Photo courtesy of Innocent Chizaram Ilo]

The writer’s father sits with his mother and siblings after the war [Photo courtesy of Innocent Chizaram Ilo]

I often think of Mourid Barghouti, who in his autobiography I Saw Ramallah writes, “It is easy to blur the truth with a simple linguistic trick: start your story from ‘Secondly’.” By carefully omitting the real spark of the conflict in 1966 – the pogroms – we change the whole truth of it.

Yet sadly, this is how most Nigerians tell the story of the Biafran Genocide; disregarding its cause and pretending that it was a war to protect Nigeria’s territorial integrity instead of one fuelled by years of ethnic tensions and concerns over resource control.

But in Nigeria’s quest to erase and amend its history, it has forfeited the opportunity to learn from it – and this is something that continues to haunt us. Decades after Biafra, we have witnessed this past replicate itself in mini-episodes such as the Odi Massacre in 1991 and Zaria Massacre in 2015. And just like the Biafran Genocide, the memories of these gruesome incidents are forgotten quickly, erased and distorted, downplayed by the media, and the perpetrators are never held accountable.

But the truth is, it is impossible to erase the past, at least not completely. We may try to distort it, pretend that it never happened, but it will always be there. And for people like my father, the war will forever give shape to their lives – splitting it into a before and an after.

Immediately after the war, the Nigerian government made it a point of duty to instil a spirit of nationalism in the hearts of schoolchildren like my father. But these children had already seen first-hand what comes with challenging the notion of one Nigeria. So it was not a patriotism borne of love for one’s country but of fear. Unconsciously, my father passed this fear on to his children.

We have learned to perform our nationalism in public, to avoid speaking our languages, to show our most Nigerian selves.

My father died last year, after years spent battling health problems in a country where he could not access quality healthcare. But his life, and the memories he shared with me during years of conversations in our parlour, has left behind glimpses of a history we must never forget.

What he gave me with his stories is the knowledge that it is imperative to talk about the past, to teach it, to confront it. In that way, we learn from it, and can tell when it is being erased and distorted, or about to be recreated.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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Julie Van Dusen reflects on a career covering politics



Julie Van Dusen has been a journalist with CBC News for over 30 years. In that time she’s been Canadians’ eyes and ears in the halls of federal power, witness to some of the most important political events of the age. She announced this week that she is retiring from CBC to pursue other projects.

I came to the Parliamentary Bureau a little over 30 years ago. It seems like only yesterday

It was supposed to be temporary. I never left.

Actually, I did leave for two years in total — three surprise maternity leaves. (You try it!) Then I came back, pronto, to the peace and quiet of filing for a 24-hour news channel.

I consider myself one of the luckiest reporters in Canada. I have had a career on Parliament Hill — an exhilarating career, in a place I truly love.

Walking up every morning to go to work at Centre Block, the most beautiful Neo-Gothic building in the country, was a thrill on its own. Add to that the privilege of covering the hurly-burly of Canada’s democracy, and you can understand why I often wanted to pinch myself over my good fortune.

A childhood on the Hill

My dad spent 40 years on Parliament Hill, so it always felt like a second home to me. My mom, an artist, would often paint the Parliamentary buildings. She would load us into the station wagon and we would fight and swat at each other in the back while she tried to create in the front seat. One of her paintings hangs in the Speaker’s Hallway. I pass it often.

My Dad would take us kids to the Hill — all seven of us — for different events, including Christmas parties. I remember running around the Foyer as a toddler, screaming with excitement. Who knew I would get paid to do the same thing years later?

Making a living pursuing and scrumming so many politicians in that same venerable location. Never, ever getting sick of it, never getting bored, always learning. At one point, along with my dad there were five Van Dusens roaming about the Hill. So much fun!


Liberal leader John Turner (left) and Conservative leader Brian Mulroney point fingers at each other during a debate from the 1988 federal election campaign. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)


I have covered so many history-making moments in Canadian politics, starting from the day I came to the Parliamentary Bureau in 1988, during the “free trade” election. A series of seismic events in Canadian politics followed: the Meech Lake Accord, the birth of the Bloc Québécois and the Charlottetown Accord. It was one big constitutional roller coaster.

I moved briefly to Montreal in 1995 to cover the heart-stopping sovereignty referendum and watched mesmerized as Lucien Bouchard, who had recently survived an attack of flesh-eating disease, turned the whole thing on its ear over a Thanksgiving weekend. It is a time I will never forget.


Bloc Quebecois leader Lucien Bouchard wipes his brow as he is joined on stage with his wife Audrey Best after the defeat of the Yes side in the Quebec referendum in Montreal Monday night, Oct. 30, 1995. (Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson)


I’ve seen so many party coups up-close as leaders were handed their heads. As kids, we would get the inside scoop from my father about the mutiny against John Diefenbaker.

Sometimes a leader gets ousted with lightning speed (Stockwell Day, Stéphane Dion, Andrew Scheer). Sometimes the ejection unfolds in slow motion (the prolonged unraveling of Jean Chrétien’s leadership).

The end result is always the same. When enough people want you to go, they’ll find a way to make your life miserable.

I’ve seen waves of people flocking to the Hill to protest or to advocate for an cause, on the front lawn and in the corridors.

A society in flux

I’ve witnessed tectonic shifts in society, from the abortion law going down to defeat in the Senate, to the legalization of same-sex marriage, to the government giving the green light to recreational marijuana use.

I’ve talked to every Canadian political figure you can name over the past 30 years, and many famous non-politicians as well. (I can still hear Mother Teresa’s pithy comments on family planning.)


After more than 30 years covering politics from Parliament Hill, CBC reporter Julie Van Dusen announced this week she is moving on to other projects. Here are some highlights from her relentless work as a journalist. 0:55

I’ve seen politicians struggle behind the scenes with big problems, divorces, mental health issues, unruly kids and the angst of being away from their families. I feel so privileged to have known so many of these men and women.

They’re not just suits going in and out of question period. They are so much more than just names on a ballot. They are risk-takers, the ones who throw themselves into the emotional cauldron and brutal machinations of politics, and give up much of their personal lives, to make our democracy work.

The art of the scrum

I’ve loved covering Canadian politics for so many reasons — but especially for our method of buttonholing politicians. Thanks to the wizardry and agility of our amazing cameramen, I’ve been in walking-backward scrums, running scrums, elevator scrums, escalator scrums, and one flinging-myself-onto-the-hood-of-a-moving-car scrum. (My kids call me “scrummy mummy.”)

Like so many of us, I was jolted by the 2014 shooting on the Hill. Your workplace never seems the same after you hear gunshots and smell gunpowder near the scene of your last scrum, while lying on the floor of a nearby office for eight hours hoping some armed madman doesn’t storm through the unlocked, furniture-barricaded door that’s your only protection.


Prime Minister Stephen Harper hugs Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons on Thursday October 23, 2014, a day after a gunman stormed Parliament. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)


Over the years, I’ve been touched and gratified by how we at the CBC look after one another. Yes, we arrive every day to an adrenaline rush of deadlines. But when the chips are down, when a relative has died or someone is going through a hard time, we rally around, we embrace and nourish each other with good wishes, flowers and casseroles.

I am extremely grateful for the CBC’s team of professionals — so good at getting the news on the air and meeting impossible deadlines.

Thank you

So thank you, all of you — the bosses who became my mentors, the cameramen, editors, producers, reporters, researchers, resource specialists, sound techs and writers.

I have learned so much from all of you, shared so many laughs. (And I would like to officially apologize now for all the times my hair was in the shot.)


Julie Van Dusen, upper right, and other reporters speak to Chrystia Freeland, then minister or Foreign Affairs, in the foyer of the House of Commons in September, 2018. Van Dusen is moving off the Hill to pursue other projects. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)


I will never stop loving the CBC, public broadcasting and all that it’s taught me. Most of all, I will always cherish and be so grateful for the lifelong friendships I have made coast to coast to coast.

Je veux aussi remercier mes collegues a Radio Canada, pour votre amitie et patience envers “l’anglaise.”

And now, I’m off. I have deadline-driven projects that I want to tackle in the coming months. Keep up the rock-solid and compassionate coverage of the pandemic and all of the other news. I will be watching, listening and reading — and most likely pining for the action.

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Edited BY Harry Miller

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How Violent Protests Change Politics – The New Yorker



Examining the protests after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Omar Wasow says, gives us clues about the efficacy of violent vs. nonviolent protests.Photograph from Bettmann / Getty

On Thursday night, thousands of people gathered in the streets of Minneapolis, and other cities across the country, to protest the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Outside the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct, the protests turned violent, as people looted businesses, threw projectiles, and set the station house on fire; police in riot gear fired rubber bullets and sprayed tear gas at the crowds. On Friday, Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed Floyd, was taken into custody by Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and charged with manslaughter and third-degree murder.

I spoke by phone, on Friday afternoon, with Omar Wasow, a professor of politics at Princeton, who studies protest movements and their effects on politics and elections. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed which tactics worked best in the civil-rights era, what violent protests have meant, historically, for Democrats running for office, and whether Donald Trump is a figure of order or disorder.

How would you summarize your work on the political effects of protest?

I would say that nonviolent protests can be very effective if they are able to get media attention, and that there is a very strong relationship between media coverage and public concern about whatever issues those protesters are raising. But there is a conditional effect of violence, and what that means, in practice, is that groups that are the object of state violence are able to get particularly sympathetic press—and a large amount of media coverage. But that is a very hard strategy to maintain, and what we often see is that, when protesters engage in violence, often in a very understandable response to state repression, that tends to work against their cause and interests, and mobilizes or becomes fodder for the opposition to grow its coalition.

What we observe in the nineteen-sixties is that there was a nontrivial number of white moderates who were open to policies that advanced racial equality, and were also very concerned about order. The needle that civil-rights activists were trying to thread was: How do you advance racial equality, and capture the attention of often indifferent or hostile white moderates outside of the South, and at the same time grow a coalition of allies? And over time the strategy that evolved was one of nonviolent protest, which actively sought to trigger police chiefs like Bull Connor [in Birmingham, Alabama,] to engage in spectacles of violence that attracted national media and would, in the language of the nineteen-sixties, “shock the conscience of the nation.” So it isn’t just nonviolence that is effective, but nonviolence met with state and vigilante brutality that is effective.

The interesting thing to me that came out of this research was that civil-rights leaders were picking Birmingham and Selma specifically because they had police chiefs with hair-trigger tendencies toward violence. So there was this strategic use of violence by the civil-rights movement, but it was to be the object of violence, not the instigators of violence. At the same time, what was very hard about, with that strategy, is that you had images of people observing their kinfolk being brutalized on television, and that helped fire up a more militant wing of the civil-rights movement, which endorsed violence in self-defense and was much less committed to tactics of nonviolence. When we observed a wave of violent protests in the mid- to late sixties, those white moderates who supported the Democratic Party after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 defected to the Republican Party in 1968. So, when the state was employing violence and protesters were the targets of that violence, the strategy worked well, and when protesters engaged in violence—whether or not the state was—those voters moved to the law-and-order coalition.

What did you find in your research, specifically about the 1968 election?

There has been a debate in social science for a long time about whether there was a backlash to the waves of violent protest in 1967 and 1968. Commonly, people will say “riot,” but I am using “violent protest” and “nonviolent protest” as the two categories. I looked at a hundred and thirty-seven violent protests that followed Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s assassination, in April, 1968. There is a bunch of evidence that protests are sensitive to weather, and when rain happens it is much less likely people engage in protests. And so we should expect that when there is more rainfall there is less likelihood that people will engage in protest, and when there is less rainfall there is more likelihood. So we get a crude natural experiment—it’s as if some places were randomly assigned a violent protest and some were not.

And what I find is that, in the week following King’s assassination, when ninety-five per cent of those violent April protests occurred, if your county was proximate to violent protests, then that county voted six to eight percentage points more toward Nixon in November. But maybe there was something correlated with rainfall driving this result, and so to address the possibility of a confounding factor, like geography, I also looked at rainfall in periods where we should expect no effect of rainfall on voting—e.g., periods before and more than a few days after the assassination. This is called a placebo test. It is only rainfall in the one week after the assassination that predicts this conservative shift in November, and, in the absence of a plausible alternative story for why rainfall in April was predicting voting in November, the most obvious explanation is that the violent protests were the cause. And so we can then claim a causal relationship between violent protests and the shift away from the Democratic coalition.

What protest tactics would you recommend for people concerned about police brutality today? On the one hand, these current protests were already sparked by state violence, so they don’t need to incite more of it. On the other hand, we have had these viral videos of police brutality for years, and it is not clear all that much is changing.

If you are an activist and there is this outrageous incident (like a knee on a neck) and you say, “How can we advance our interests?,” it might be that both violent and nonviolent protests are legitimate—but it still might be more effective to employ nonviolence, if we get everything we would from a violent protest, plus we don’t splinter a coalition that favors change. One puzzle is, if you are an activist, are nonviolent tactics going to get you more of what you want, or are violent tactics? And what I found from the sixties is that nonviolent protest achieved many of the same sorts of outcomes that the more militant activists were fighting for without splintering the Democratic coalition. There was a pro-segregation media at the time, and there were all kinds of state and federal repression—and, despite all of that, the nonviolent wing of the civil-rights movement was really able to move the country from tolerating Jim Crow to breaking Jim Crow.

So I think there is a lot of evidence that nonviolent tactics can be effective. You saw this on the first day in Minneapolis, where the police showed up with an excess of force, and you had these images of children running away and police dressed like stormtroopers. There are a set of narrative scripts in the public mind, and I think we interpret the news through those preëxisting narratives. And so a nonviolent protest where we see state excesses is a very powerful and sympathetic narrative for the cause of fighting police violence. And as soon as the tactics shift to more aggressive violent resistance—and, to be clear, as best I can tell, police were shooting rubber bullets and there was tear gas. It seemed like an excessive police response, and so in reaction protesters escalated as well. That has an unfortunate side effect of muddying the story. Instead of talking about the history of police killings in Minneapolis, we are talking about a store going up in flames, and the focus in reporting tends to shift from a justice frame to a crime frame. And that is an unfortunate thing for a protest movement. It ends up undermining the interests of the advocates.

Your answers are making me think about the Régis DeBray line that “the Revolution revolutionizes the Counter-Revolution.” Because whether intentional strategy or not, firing rubber bullets and police violence against protests may have the effect of making the protests more violent, and thus hurting the cause.

It’s a great question, and, in cross-national studies, that has definitely been shown to be a strategy. We definitely observe politicians in other countries ginning up ethnic conflict before an election, to try and heighten people’s sense of in-group identification before they vote. The evidence in the United States I have seen points more toward a kind of racialized incompetence, where the police chief in Los Angeles can behave with a certain disregard—I am thinking of the uprising in 1992. [The authorities’] response was so ham-fisted and hands-off that it allowed something to escalate to an epic scale. And I suspect most of what we saw in Minneapolis was not a strategic effort to inflame protesters, but an idiotic and incompetent over-response that also had the effect of inflaming protesters.

And it was an idiotic and incompetent response tinged by race. You don’t see these kinds of overreactions to the armed white militias. So I don’t have evidence about these being strategic efforts. I do think there is a lot of evidence that there are overreactions when the protesters are black, and that this excess of force is deployed in ways that have precisely the opposite effect of what a police chief is intending. Instead of trying to bring order, they create more chaos.

Trump has run as a law-and-order candidate, and today repeated the looting-and-shooting comment that was made by the Miami police chief Walter Headley, in 1967. At the same time, it seems like Nixon was fundamentally selling stability, and Trump often tries to destabilize situations. How do you think this will or won’t have political ramifications?

On the first part, I have looked at polling data from the sixties, and the numbers are really surprising. It was something like eighty per cent of Americans said that law and order had broken down. We had King’s assassination, and two Kennedys assassinated, and these waves of violent protests. So it was more than just urban unrest. There was a sense that the social fabric was tearing, and I think Nixon was clearly appealing to voters for whom that was an anxiety. And I also found that, in the 1966 gubernatorial election in California, Democrats who thought Pat Brown, who was the Democratic governor at the time, had handled the Watts riots poorly were hugely less likely to support him. [Ronald Reagan defeated Brown by fifteen percentage points.] So it really was pivotal in the nineteen-sixties.

What’s often hard for people to see is that there are these white moderates who are part of the Democratic coalition as long as they perceive there to be order, but when they perceive there to be too much disorder they shift to the party that has owned the issue of order, which is the Republican Party. For some people, the idea that there are these swing Democratic-minded voters is hard to grasp, but there is pretty strong evidence that in 2016, and in 1968, that was an important and influential niche of voters.

You are absolutely right that Trump, to a lot of people, is an instigator of chaos rather than a restorer of order, so I think that potentially works against him. But if you are this white moderate, and perceive the disorder to be coming from African-Americans in cities, then turning to Trump, even if you see him as a rough character, is appealing: He’s a street fighter, but he is our street fighter. So the real danger for advocates of reform in Minneapolis trying to get better policing, and for those trying to pursue racial justice nationally, is that there are people who are turned off by Trump but who have a strong taste for order, and so if they are more concerned about racial disorder, then Trump is their racial order.

Yes, essentially, to view Trump as a figure who will bring order, in any rational sense, is to have a racially tinged view of order. The only kind of order he promises—even if he can’t actually deliver it—is an order based on racial issues. This is a guy who cheers on protesters showing up with automatic weapons to state capitols.

That’s right. There was a tweet that said something like, “Who could want four more years of this?” It’s got a sort of Rorschach-like quality. If you are exhausted by Trump’s chaos, you think about who could want four more years of Trump. But it could also be that, if this is how you perceive Democratic governance—letting a police station go up in flames—then who could want four more years of disorder and lawlessness, particularly if you are someone who has a bunch of stereotypes about African-Americans and Democrats in cities.

And so, to your point, I think it is exactly right that there are different kinds of chaos people are weighing in their minds. I might say the pandemic and economic dislocation are my top priorities, but if you are someone who has deep-seated anxieties about an unsettling of the racial hierarchy in America, about an egalitarian society where you might lose some status, or a society where there isn’t enormous state capacity brought to bear on controlling out-groups, then you might say, “I want Trump because he is promising to maintain the racial hierarchy. I want someone who is tough on crime. Those are my top priorities.”

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