[This roundtable is part of a special bouquet on the interrelationship between the COVID-19 pandemic and social mobilization in the Middle East, North Africa, and the United States. Click here to view the entire listing of entries.]
Are there trade-offs between protest and public health in your context? How are these being addressed, and by whom?
In early April, writing about the strike by graduate student workers at the University of California and the academic boycott against UC that some of us had launched in solidarity, I assumed that strategies that involved either mass mobilizations or mass withdrawals of our labor had been made difficult, if not impossible, by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Then came the popular uprising that followed upon the murder of George Floyd, which followed upon the murder of Breonna Taylor, which followed upon the murder of Ahmaud Arbery—in other words, following upon the almost uncountable number of Black people murdered by the police.
We’re living in the continuance of that moment of uprising, the most powerful movement against racialized state violence in the U.S. in my lifetime. While the forms of racist state violence that are being fought in the street are centuries old, there’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic, and the extent to which Black and brown communities were disproportionally victimized, had everything to do with creating a historical conjuncture in which these resistant energies were set free.
One student of mine who was in the streets here in New York City put it this way to me: As a young person growing up in this country, I’ve always known that the state didn’t give a shit whether I lived or died. The pandemic was only the most obvious example of that. So when people talk about the “risks” of protesting, how exactly is that riskier than everyday life in this society?
That said, I’ve been struck by how organizers and protesters have taken care of each other. In the protests I’ve been a part of, people have been scrupulous about following precautions of social distancing. Similarly, there’s been a great emphasis on making sure people make it home safe after a protest—since the police prefer to pick off individual protesters when they can—as well as on the importance of self-quarantining afterward if possible.
By contrast, the police seemed to take pride in flouting preventative practices and making demonstrations as dangerous as possible. It’s a raw show of power: We decide if you live or die—which is precisely what people of color in this country have experienced all their lives.
In many ways, protests in Iraq are not only targeting the foundations of the post-2003 regime, but also the post-1991 context that witnessed the collapse of the state and its vital social and health institutions primarily as a result of the sanctions. Iraq has been experiencing waves of peaceful protests, mostly youth-led, since at least 2011. It grew from a critique of the muhasasa system in 2015 to more radical demands targeting the political regime and elite as a whole. Protests turned into a massive uprising in October 2019 demanding a country: “Nerid Watan.” Political violence is central in the dynamics of revolts in Iraq; all protests started after unarmed protesters were killed mostly by armed groups and militias associated with the political elite. Protesters put forward what they call al-madaniyya, by which they mean a refusal of sectarian or identity based political system; party nepotism and political violence; and a functioning state that provides services to its citizens such as water, electricity, health, housing, education, and jobs.
In the beginning, the protests targeted the muhasasa system put in place by the occupation in 2003, a system that determines political representation and power based on religious, ethnic, and sectarian belonging. For protesters, the muhasasa is at the core of the system of nepotism, sectarianism, corruption, and political violence. “Bismil din baguna al-haramya” ("In the name of religion, we were robbed by thieves") was one of the main slogans of the 2015 protest, denouncing the use of religion and sectarian identity by the Islamist political elite to hide its monopoly and theft of Iraq’s rich oil resources. While the post-2003 political elite enjoys a comfortable life in the capital’s Green Zone, most Iraqis are deprived of electricity, running water, and basic health infrastructures, as well as decent housing, education, and jobs. Moreover, peaceful protesters, journalists, and intellectuals who stand up against this system are threatened, attacked, kidnapped, or killed by militias and armed groups affiliated to the Iraqi political elite.
This situation is most visible in Basra, a province from which most of Iraq’s oil wealth is extracted, while simultaneously lacking basic water, electricity and health infrastructures. Basra is dominated by political groups that deploy their power through their militias that enjoy total impunity. In summer 2018, protests grew more radical with slogans such as “Kela, kela lil Ahzab” ("No, no to political parties") and “Nerid Watan” ("We want a country"). Protesters attacked the provincial council building as well as ruling parties and militias’ offices, revolting against unbearable living conditions as well as militia violence.
These waves of protests as well as various forms of social and political activism happening in Iraq at the grassroots level developed into a massive uprising in October 2019. The protests are led by the youth and the disenfranchised, including many women and tuk-tuk taxi drivers from lower-class neighborhoods, but its ranks have also been joined by Iraqis from all backgrounds and regions across the country. Unions, syndicates, and students of all levels have been on strike and calling for civil disobedience. Protestors also demand the investigation and prosecution of the ones responsible for the killing of unarmed protestors and the end of the rule of militias and armed groups tied to the political elite that have been attacking journalists, civil society activists, and protestors.
The uprising goes beyond narrow political demands, as protesters are not only questioning economic and political oppression exercised through corruption, nepotism, and discrimination, they are also questioning the system’s social and societal norms imposing a normative and conservative way of life. Protestors are not only asking for change—they are enacting it and living it, proposing new codes of conduct, and building an inclusive sense of belonging in the squares that they occupy since October 2019 such as Tahrir Square in Baghdad.
In August, many universities across the United States are opening on what most call the “hybrid” model, in which classes have any combination of face-to-face and remote components. Direct action protests regarding the opening of these universities have been relatively quiet, overshadowed by the incredible summer-long, country-wide social mobilizations protesting systemic racism against Black people, police brutality, and the security state. Across all protests, concerns regarding the spiking rates of COVID-19 have caused obstacles to organizing. In the case of the university system, despite widespread fears that opening campuses would cause mass infection events, workers have been worried about being fired and losing their insurance in a pandemic. Given that insurance in the United States is generally tied to one’s employer, many justifiably fear that protesting the university overtly will trigger university punitive counteraction and mass firings (following the example of UC Santa Cruz’s firing of striking TAs in March 2020—although forty-one of the fifty-eight have now been rehired as of August 2020). Given this dearth, the more accurate question is, therefore, “what is the tradeoff between a lack of protesting and public health within the sphere of higher education?” The answer is that the vast majority of public universities have decided to dangerously rush ahead in opening for the fall semester because university workers have been fundamentally unable to protest. The lack of resistance has allowed several interlaced capitalist logics to play out unfettered, encouraging universities to see reopening as beneficial to their financial and reputational health. This is despite the clear and overwhelming mortal risks of doing so and the evidence that these universities are not prepared (and at times have barely tried) to prevent widespread infection, negatively impacting public health across the entire communities within which the universities are embedded. It is especially clear now that UNC moved to make all undergrads remote how truly unrelated their decisions have been to cultivating any kind of common good or quality education.
The first and probably most obvious factor driving the decision to reopen is the expanding imperative of austerity. In justifying campus reopening, most universities have either implicitly or directly stated that they cannot afford to make the university remote (whether or not this is true), as it would repel student interest in enrolling in the fall (and thus repel their tuition, fees, and campus housing rentals, which the university relies on). As graduate student workers, campus workers, and contingent and non-tenured faculty—who represent the most vulnerable swath of workers at universities—considered how to agitate to make universities go remote, institutions like my own University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) counter-reactively levied the threat of austerity. In the case of UNC-CH, for example, administrators announced in mid-July they were considering up to fifty percent budget cuts across UNC’s seventeen campuses if the financial losses posed by COVID-19 were not in some way recouped. It is impossible to see developments such as this as anything but a direct warning against workers taking action to keep the university remote.
Austerity threats, of course, are not new to the safety and well-being complications introduced by COVID-19. Excuses of institutional financial insecurity have also, for instance, been made to explain why universities cannot increase graduate student worker stipends to levels that would make them livable even prior to the pandemic—from UNC-CH, to the University of California system, to other public universities across the country. Austerity is a well-refined, quick-use, and unaccountable weapon that universities have frequently invoked to break worker collectives. Austerity in any case is always already being borne by the poorest campus workers. This is especially the case now, as these workers are the ones most at risk of contracting COVID-19 given they are the ones teaching in person, sanitizing the buildings, and being present physically at the university. This is opposed to tenured faculty, whose classes across the United States are mostly being brought online because of classroom size limitations imposed by COVID-19 social distancing provisions, and also as opposed to high-level administrative bureaucrats, who have the benefit of either working remotely or having more spacious offices sequestered from students or other administrators.
The next factor is the deeply-held anti-labor sentiments embedded in academia. The university’s increased reliance on adjunctified labor is mirrored by its impulse to strip workers of protections, emblematic of neoliberal economics that extend beyond its borders. In a right-to-work state like North Carolina, university administrators have the most advantageous set of tools at their disposal in order to make unilateral, unaccountable decisions that are not reflective of the needs of their workers, students, or the community in which they are embedded. After all, public sector employees attempting unionizing and organizing direct action are engaging in fire-able offenses according to the law in right-to-work states.
The final factor is the fact that the university system in the United States in general puts an emphasis on commodifying the “experience” of the university—its amenities, sports, social atmosphere, and brand—which has often superseded its interest in providing quality education. That has been made especially obvious now in the aftermath of UNC moving undergraduates remote after one week of classes. How can faculty and teaching assistants be expected to impart a quality education in environments where students must sit at a distance, wear masks, and be worried about the infectious possibilities posed by their students? Students face exactly the same worries from the other side of the table: with anxieties around catching the infections within the close quarters of classrooms, how are they expected to learn and participate meaningfully? In actuality, they are not. Rather, teaching and learning are evidently not the priority of the coming semester, or else classes would be held entirely online, where students and teachers alike are the safest. It is clear here that the students in their capacity as consumers are being prioritized: they rent a dorm room, pay tuition, buy campus food, and act to create a collegiate social milieu that attract other student-consumers and enhance the university’s social brand.
All of this is to say that even if there are trade-offs between protesting (in the traditional, direct action sense of the term) and public health, it pales in comparison to what the university will do and has done to us in the absence of protest. The public health crisis of COVID-19 may be bringing into sharp relief the failures of the university system, but we cannot let it conceal how the university has been systematically stripping away the ability of students and workers to hold the university accountable for decades, a crisis that is coming to bear in this moment of multiple unfolding disasters.
I think that there are always trade-offs when you are mobilizing people to the streets in the middle of a pandemic to confront an occupying police force. We did not know if mass protests were going to lead to further outbreaks when we took to the streets, but we knew that the daily violence against Black and Brown bodies needed to be confronted.
Things just got worse for a lot of folks because of COVID-19. Weeks before the protests, there were a series of exposes on how Black and Brown people were disproportionately dying of COVID-19. On top of that lots of folks were losing their jobs, not being able to pay their bills, struggling to put food on the table, and facing evictions. The only thing that felt certain in that moment was that cops were going to keep killing us unless we did something. What is a pandemic to the everyday violence of poverty, homelessness, hunger, and racism in the United States?
We mobilized as street medics in Oakland in solidarity with those taking to the streets to reduce the harm of the pandemic. We walked around passing out masks and offering hand sanitizer. We told people to slow down the stampede when cops began launching flash grenades so people did not get trampled. We flushed out eyes from tear gas. And when people went home, we encouraged them to self-quarantine and get tested. It was harm reduction in a moment when we did not know what to expect. Now we have studies showing that the fact that the protests were outdoors, the fact that people were wearing masks, and the fact that people often self-quarantined afterward really prevented these mobilizations from spreading COVID-19.
My first brush with protesting in the COVID era came when a friend and comrade was doing off-site support for the Justice for Tony McDade and Nina Pop action at the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan on June 2, organized by Decrim NY and Queer Detainee Empowerment Project. Another friend who for a variety of reasons could not take the risk of getting arrested, and was therefore hesitant to participate in any demonstrations given the brutality of police violence in response to mass protest, felt safe to attended the rally at Stonewall and reported back: “The queers know how to do a protest - there were marshals and ppl handing out water, etc.”
I am inspired by this fiercely abolitionist feminist approach to organizing that foregrounds the safety and care of the most marginalized people. A margin-to-center approach, as articulated by bell hooks, affirms that centering the most vulnerable exposes the multiple indices of structures of oppression. As Black trans activist Raquel Willis recently suggested, we misstep when we make the conversation about only one specific type of violence and the specific demographic most directly facing that violence. She explains, “We can’t only talk about state violence because even if we abolished all the things we know we need to abolish, and I don’t have a police officer coming after my neck, if I go home and my partner is still coming at my neck? Or if we are having kids with parents coming after their neck with homophobia, with transphobia, all these restrictive notions of gender and sexuality, we’re still experiencing violence. ...This needs to be a movement that is tackling violence and harm on all its axis and it needs to hold that we’re all being hurt.”
As the founding activists of the Black Lives Matter movement Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza, and Patrisse Khan-Cullors made clear from the beginning, Black movements need to center Black queer and trans people in both advocacy and leadership. Black feminist theory and praxis has informed my own commitment and approach to organizing. I take from Black feminist scholar-activists that when we don’t foreground that ALL Black Lives Matter, we risk maintaining complicity in some structures of domination. We must acknowledge, organize, and mobilize knowing that none of us is free unless all of us are free. An abolitionist feminism understands we must get to the root of social problems and affirm that solutions are only solutions to the extent that they do not simply remake institutionalized oppression in new forms.
The national uprising was for many, myself included, their first venture ‘outside’ following stay-at-home orders. The global pandemic, which has exposed structural vulnerability with devastating acuity, brought to the foreground questions of public health and safety. However, as Black feminism makes plain, any ‘general’ public policy will have intersectionality significant effects on intersectionality distinct peoples. Despite not having measures to counter the pandemic, such as mass testing, a vaccine or treatment, and continued promotion of social distance measures, as the national uprising gained energy and brought thousands of people across the country to the streets, a number of public health experts and medical practitioners argued that NOT protesting was a greater risk to public health. Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at UC San Francisco, states: “Racism is a public health crisis,”. And as the multiple murders of Black trans people in the past few months again makes clear, the pandemic was and is not the most deadly threat to our poor, trans, and gender non-conforming Black family. Thus to be attentive in our organizing to concerns of health and safety is to foreground all forms of harm and all forms of violence - from state violence, to more generalized transphobia, classism, respectability, ableism, and more.
In those first few outings after social distancing due to COVID, paradoxically, public protests felt the safest place to be. When I joined demonstrations in New York I was regularly approached by others with the offer of snacks, water or facemasks, marshals blocked traffic so demonstrators could move safely, and I knew of the massive off-site support of folks on standby to do arrest and jail support. On a ride with the weekly Black-led Street Riders NYC protests, recognizing that I am most safe when my non-white humanity is recognized, I’ve never felt so safe as when I did with 10,000 other cyclists chanting Black Lives Matter while riding down the West Side Highway. Abolitionist feminism helped me reframe my understanding of safety to understand that safety is about the collective minimization of harm.
We are living a global moment of open hostility towards the neoliberal systems that rule us. We can no longer co-exist, so our antagonism becomes survival. When it comes to the geography of Lebanon, I look at it as an accumulation of decades of corrupt exploitation of resources across the board, including human, from a ruling elite. It is a system that feeds on fear-mongering sectarianism while exempting itself from its scope. Oligarchs seldom sell each other out. In 2015, the garbage crisis was met with a wave of protests. In the past year alone, the worsening of labor conditions and the economic crisis ignited a revolution in Palestinian camps, followed by large protests from October 17 onwards that spilled over to many cities and regions. Since then, we have been sucked dry by hyperinflation and the devaluation of the Lebanese Pound by over 80%. Banks have been applying severe capital control for months, and the explosion of the Beirut port on August 4 brings to light a pattern of dispossession, theft, and complete disregard for wellbeing and human lives.
The protests, from a “public” perspective, had quieted down since the beginning of the pandemic. They were revived by the explosion. While different strategies, if not political goals, had been adopted by non-partisans in previous years, there is a clear shift towards wanting to do away with the system from its roots. In order to do so, we need movements that center refugees, migrants, and workers, who deal with police brutality on a daily basis and are most hit by economic collapse and border controls. They are the pillars of revolution we need to turn towards, rather than merely “include” in our organizing.
What is the primary reason for which you are protesting? Put differently, what is motivating the protests in the context for which you are writing?
At my age, I’m more an observer of protests than the frequent participant that I once was. As an academic worker, my work has been in solidarity with anti-racist and anti-capitalist struggles (and, more specifically, their intersections), including the Palestine solidarity movement.
One thing I’m eager to see if whether one of the forms of political organizing with which I’ve been most involved—organizing by faculty in solidarity against the criminal exploitation of graduate student workers and adjunct/contingent workers more generally—can be linked more effectively to the ongoing uprising against racist state violence, especially in light of how the pandemic has affected both these contexts.
At UCSC, the university administration subjected non-violent student protesters to severe police repression, including beatings and arrests, before summarily firing more than 80 graduate student workers—all because students simply demanded a cost of living adjustment that would allow them to survive. Some were international students suddenly at risk of deportation; all were in danger of losing their health care in the midst of the pandemic.
Again, the message is clear and explicit: We literally don’t care if you live or die. The direct agent of violence is the police, but the larger forces at work involve what Ruth Wilson Gilmore has called the “organized abandonment” of communities through neoliberal policies that have simultaneously destroyed public institutions (especially education) and deployed increased violence. It’s time to connect the dots more effectively than we have in the past.
While I cannot speak for all people’s intentions in the context of higher education in the United States, I will do my best to summarize a couple of common themes.
Across many universities in which organizing is taking place against reopening, one primary reason is for class-conscious safety. This includes agitating for the university to provide better worker protections across campus, particularly for the most vulnerable (campus workers, graduate student workers, and non-tenured faculty). It also includes making campus safer for students, who are bearing the brunt of dangerous and hasty reopening plans both within the classroom and across campus more broadly. For instance, UNC-CH’s housing plan for on-campus undergrads falls within the highest risk tier according to the CDC. They are not being provided safe distance from other dorm residents and have very little recourse to prevent themselves from getting sick if one of their suitemates becomes infected. Meanwhile, campus cleaning, food, and facilities workers have been expressing concerns since the reopening plan was announced that UNC-CH has not provided them adequate PPE and that the safety guidelines are impractical to implement. UNC-CH is not the only university facing these problems—they are a pervasive issue across campuses planning to reopen. It is, of course, completely unacceptable that the lowest-paid and most-vulnerable workers are being required to shoulder the vast majority of the dangers posed by completely unnecessary plans to reopen.
Another key cause for protest, imbricated by the Black Lives Matter protests ongoing throughout the United States, are the racial disparities embedded within academia—at all levels of workers and students within it. Additionally, COVID-19 is again bringing in to sharp relief the racialized socioeconomic and health disparities that are present pervasively in the United States. Reopening plans are likely to impact BIPOC people most acutely according to US statistics. In North Carolina specifically, Latinx people are the population becoming most infected with COVID-19 because they disproportionately make up the population of essential workers in the state. There is no evidence that this would not be the case with UNC-CH’s reopening. Finally, led by the experiences and voices of BIPOC, the general public is becoming increasingly conscious that the brutality of the police state and the brutality of the university are implicitly tied together. As BIPOC scholars, peers, teachers, and activists remind us, these are not separate instances of cruelty, but rather align with the fact that police and university structures alike are held together by a deep bedrock of white supremacy. Why else would UNC-CH still invite UNC’s police department to station cops outside of residence halls to “welcome” students (although it seems they ultimately rescinded this choice) even after a summer of protests against police brutality?
In the Bay Area, we have had 110 people and counting murdered by police from 2015-2020. Police violence happens all the time. I was radicalized when the police held my dad at gunpoint for speeding on his way to the hospital. Working at the hospital, I witnessed the sheriffs who run security in our hospital beating one of my patients on inpatient psychiatry. I began showing up to protests, city council meetings, and police townhalls. I will never forget the night I went to an SFPD townhall for the murder of Jesús Adolfo Delgado, and on my way home I was confronted with yellow caution tape and police sirens because OPD had just killed Joshua Pawlik a few blocks from my house. I fell asleep to the sound of police sirens; it felt like there was no other choice but to organize and fight for abolition.
I am proud to be living in Oakland where there is a strong radical tradition of fighting against police from the Black Panthers to the Anti-Police Terror Project and Critical Resistance. I am a part of a coalition called Do No Harm that began as a group of healthcare workers accompanying the Frisco5 who were going on hunger strike after the murders of Alex Nieto, Mario Woods, Jessica Williams, Almicar Perez-Lopez, and Luis Gongora Pat. We have been supporting victims and families affected by police violence for the last few years. Along with friends at the Public Health Justice Collective, we conducted the Justice Study studying the health impacts of police impunity on the health and wellbeing of our communities. A few of us also worked as street medics at Standing Rock and saw the importance of training health professional students in preparation for continued confrontations with the state. When the 2020 protests broke out one our members Dr. Rupa Marya worked with frontline street medic Noah Morris to design a “Street Medic Bridge Training for Medical Professionals” that went viral. It was this groundwork that made it possible to mobilize healthcare workers for the movement.
Nadim El Kak:
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, protests have been rather limited in Lebanon, especially compared to the months that preceded it. In the early stages of the lockdown, the political and financial establishment increased their repressive efforts by cracking down on sporadic protests and removing tents from key squares associated with the uprising. In late April, large protests seemed to signal the start of a new wave of mobilizations, but ended quickly as security forces relied on increasingly violent strategies, traditional parties sectarianized the narrative, and demoralization and exhaustion were clearly felt amongst the ranks of protesters.
Essentially, COVID-19 provided the Lebanese oligarchy with a much-needed opportunity to regroup and deploy their range of counter-revolutionary tactics: They reinvested in their clientelistic networks, ramped up repression and securitization, and aligned their interests on the financial situation. With depositors being forced to withdraw money from their USD accounts in LBP at fifty percent of the actual market conversion rate, and with inflation reaching unviable heights, the primary reason why people are still keen to organize and mobilize is the ongoing (and looming) criminally unjust distribution of financial losses.
To put it simply, Lebanon’s elites recognized that if they are to address the crisis in a manner that is socially just, they would have to acknowledge the magnitude of their losses. This means coming to terms with the insolvency of most banks, and the fact that shareholders and the largest depositors would have to be the ones bearing the costs of financial restructuring. It also necessitates being open to forensic audits and other forms of transparency and accountability mechanisms, not to mention the obligation to implement additional structural reforms in order to unlock foreign assistance.
Recognizing that their political and economic interests are at stake, parliament and the Association of Banks in Lebanon (ABL) became a tool to protect the financial mafia by pushing for an alternative way of estimating losses—one that is diametrically opposed to the calculations of the Council of Ministers and the IMF. The main difference in the financial sector-sponsored plan is that it would essentially shield banks and shareholders from bankruptcy by having depositors and the state bear the costs of the crisis instead. Through continuous haircuts and taking over state assets, the neoliberal oligarchy hopes to survive the crisis unscathed, except that such a short-sighted and interest-driven strategy will undoubtedly backfire.
While many are disappointed in the outcome of the 17 October uprising, it is important to recognize that one of its major accomplishments is that it politicized a massive portion of the youth. With precarious socioeconomic conditions getting worse and unemployment levels continuously rising, it is only a matter of time until protests erupt anew. The forms they will take and the way protesters will react to counter-revolutionary strategies remains to be seen, but what is clear is that as long as political and business elites remain attached to their delusional hopes of avoiding accountability for their actions, they are ruthlessly postponing the inevitable.
As a newly hired scholar who strives to practice and teach an anti-racist anthropology, I only started organizing in the past few months at Brooklyn College - CUNY. In anticipation of state budget cuts in April, our college administration called on all department chairs to reduce course offerings by 25%. The most precariously employed teaching staff at the university, making a paltry $3,200 per course, were the first to be fired due to the “budgetary crisis” brought on by COVID-19. These cuts were proposed with zero transparency surrounding the budget, zero consultation with faculty, staff, or students, and zero cuts to upper administration. This was an egregious instantiation of the reckless and amoral “color-blind” and “precarity-blind” neoliberal maintenance of the corporate university. The administration’s approach, as against the dialectical margin-to-center organizing I’ve been involved in at Brooklyn College, exposes the inherent contradictions of the higher ed in this country: you can run a university as a (real-estate) business—ultimately accountable to maintaining capital, or as an institute of higher learning – accountable to a largely working-class student body—not both. Neoliberal global racial capitalism allows only for the former.
With over 250,000 students, 19,000 faculty, and over 25,000 staff, CUNY the largest public urban university in the U.S. CUNY also prides itself on its unique diversity and as one the best drivers of social mobility. All this is despite over four decades of systemic disinvestment. While the announcement of a 25% reduction of course offerings has sparked a groundswell of activism at Brooklyn College, CUNY has been in crisis for decades. It is no accident but rather by design that CUNY has experienced the greatest number of deaths of any university in the country. It is no accident but rather by design that already marginalized Black and brown students, staff, and adjunct faculty, many of whom risked their lives as essential workers through the worst days of the pandemic in New York, are the same ones to see their educational opportunities slashed. This groundswell of organizing has affirmed the urgency of the contemporary moment: “The house is on fire!” CUNY faces unprecedented funding cuts, and yet, for many, the house being on fire is all they’ve ever known. I say this to acknowledge that our current efforts are building on the efforts and mobilizations of those who came before us.
In June, when corporations started engaging in a groundswell of virtue signaling attempting co-option of the movement, university administrators jumped on board as well. After Brooklyn College posted a black square on Instagram on June 2, along with a re-iteration of the tired administrative slogan “We Stand Against Hate,” the activist student group Puerto Rican Alliance posted in response that the college’s post signaled a co-opting of a movement of struggle. “There is no ‘legacy of systemic racism’ when it is still a fully working thing. Begin by breaking all ties with the NYPD who come on the daily to use the bathrooms in the building where most Black and POC Clubs are housed in. This is not enough and the lazy town halls and teach-ins do not absolve your contributions to the systemic racism you so proudly ‘stand against.’ Brooklyn College is racist and no amount of ‘diversity’ will erase that.”
The Puerto Rican Alliance then issued a statement that explicitly called out years of inaction to systemic racism on campus and made a number of immediate demands to ensure the safety and equitable livelihood of BIPOC students on campus. The following week, faculty and staff groups at Brooklyn College issued a similar statement against anti-blackness, calling for systemic change at the college. Both statements made explicitly clear that systemic racism and the activism to counter it did not begin with the murder of George Floyd and the national uprisings that followed, but that structural racism has been actively fought against by invested members on campus for years. Both statements indict the administrative campaign of “Standing Against Hate,” recognizing that the liberal co-optive understanding of racism as limited to prejudice, bias, and individualized ‘hate’ does nothing to address the systemic racism at the root of all national institutions, including that of higher education.
On July 2, prompted by the non-reappointment of part-time employees that would leave 52 adjuncts cut off from their healthcare in the midst of a global pandemic, the Brooklyn College chapter of the Professional Staff Congress joined with these groups for a rally to call out the deadly, racist austerity measures implemented at the college. Recognizing the profound connection between austerity measures and systemic racism, and that any broad-based financial cuts will always impact those already most severely marginalized, activists called on administrators, as well as the broader Brooklyn College community, to imagine what a Black-life affirming campus might look like. Anti-racist organizing at Brooklyn College recognizes that our college community is first and foremost accountable to our students, and that further this community is made up of a whole range of hierarchically structured workers: from the most secure of the (predominantly white) tenured faculty, to the precariously employed adjunct faculty and precariously employed staff members.
We are working to build stronger alliances with unions that represent other college staff, as well as the communities surrounding our campus, who were forced off campus by gates put up in the 1970s due to increased calls for ‘law and order’. In concert with the unprecedented labor organizing happening nation-wide on college campuses, a forceful shift in this organizing is the centering of the call for bargaining for the common good - a framework for organizing that goes way beyond the traditional bread-and-butter model on union organizing. A successful example of this framework is exemplified by the organizing work taken up at Rutgers University. As Astra Taylor notes, “The coalition’s guiding vision of a university governed by and accountable to the community it serves is not only inspiring; it is also strategic and pragmatic, bringing otherwise distinct unions and constituencies into a formidable coalition.”
This is how the anti-racist organizing at Brooklyn College is attempting to move forward. The Anti-Racist Coalition (ARC) developed a six-part holistic demand that strives to address the needs, concerns, and safety of the broadly defined college community. We know our strength is in our collective power and the more we can help people see their own needs taken up by anti-racist organizing, the more possibility for the changes we need and deserve to see as CUNY. As the poet, novelist, and essayist M. NourbeSe Philip so eloquently stated in the early days of the pandemic in the US, “If we were truly in this together, we would not be in this together.” To call back a revolutionary taken before his time, we are not going to fight racism with racism; we are going to fight racism with solidarity.
Are "traditional" resistance tactics (e.g., demonstrations and marches) still relevant and effective today? What new types of tactics have emerged during the pandemic?
I love the point that Juan Doe makes in their contribution to this roundtable: “riots get shit done.” That’s just true.
On a different note, my colleague Nara Roberta Silva has made a really interesting point about how organizing unfolded in New York City (and, I think, in other urban contexts too): as the uprisings following George Floyd’s murder began to unfold, the pandemic made it difficult to follow the usual route, which would be to organize a large centralized protest/march in one place (usually Manhattan). Instead, you had multiple protests unfolding in multiple locations throughout all five boroughs; specific social media feeds began popping up just to try to keep track of the multiple forms of resistance that were happening anywhere in the city on any particular day.
This reminded me a bit of an observation that Mona El-Ghobashy had made during the first months of the Egyptian Revolution, about the praxis of the uprisings that unfolded in Cairo in January 2011, and how attempts to get around usual modes of state oppression led to a multiplicity of protests in different neighborhoods, rather than one centralized demonstration that could be more easily policed. It will be important to see whether this pattern of decentralized protests will continue (and this also goes for the “centers and peripheries” within the larger U.S.—the fact of major and ongoing protests outside the usual “centers” of resistance like NYC, Los Angeles, Chicago, DC, etc seems like an incredibly important development).
Finally, I’ve been incredibly struck by the extent of mutual aid organizing, from the first days of the pandemic, here in New York City. It’s likely that these community efforts of people coming together in the spring to take care of each other in the face of literal state abandonment fed, in turn, into the community nature of the uprisings against state violence in the early summer, and that the impulse toward mutual aid has, in turn, intensified the power of those uprisings.
Sadly, with a few exceptions, that form of mutual aid work is largely lacking from political organizing inside the academy; it’s sorely needed.
Riots get shit done. We would not be talking about defunding or abolishing the police without the mass mobilizations that both confronted police brutality and awakened people to the ubiquity of police violence. It is all the emergent relationships that come from protests, the collective action in response to police escalation, the autonomous mutual aid and medic groups that take care of crowds that make protests so vibrant and essential to resistance–solidarity is a practice, and it is best practiced when you are fighting together on the streets.
I also think that in the middle of a pandemic people are being more conscientious about taking care of one another. As a street medic, just going around offering hand sanitizer and masks helps us familiarize ourselves with everyone at the protest so that when they get tear-gassed or hurt themselves, we already have a relationship.
In the midst of a pandemic, I do think that people who cannot take it to the streets because of their vulnerability are finding new ways to disrupt police reporting systems, intercoms, and racist hash-tags on Twitter. We have friends with disabilities who could not physically be there, but who watched over us through the live-stream and coordinated check-ins on Signal after a long night of protests. I have also seen a lot of street protests tactics and medic advice being shared over Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in ways that de-centralizes this important knowledge and can be shared globally.
Nadim El Kak:
The Lebanese uprising, which began in October 2019, has gone through different stages that are shaped by the nature of mobilization strategies, shifts in counter-revolutionary tactics, and developments surrounding the country’s financial and economic crises.
The first phase of the movement was characterized by decentralized and generally peaceful collective actions across the country. Despite multiple instances of state- and party-led violence against protesters, resistance strategies typically maintained a commitment to nonviolence through the organization of peaceful marches and demonstrations in both urban and rural areas.
Around the time a new prime minister was appointed in December, a shift in the nature of the mobilizations was already being felt. By that time, the effects of the financial and economic crisis were evident across segments of the population, and the banking sector in particular was becoming the key target of an increasingly disgruntled population. With the political establishment unresponsive to the urgent need for structural reforms, and with people unable to withdraw their money due to arbitrary capital controls and a depletion in foreign currencies, protesters directed their anger at the Central Bank and the branches of commercial banks. The shift away from nonviolent tactics in January and February reinforced the already decreasing size of collective actions, leading up to the outbreak of the pandemic.
Due to the restrictions engendered by the lockdown that allowed for increasing securitization and repression, nonviolent and violent direct action took a backseat while mutual-aid efforts increased. These community-led initiatives have taken on different forms including Facebook platforms to exchange or sell basic goods at affordable prices, cooperative farming, shelters for the homeless, the documentation of housing rights violations, and so on. Limiting traditional parties’ clientelistic networks from taking advantage of the socioeconomic conditions they have created, mutual-aid initiatives serve as integral resistance strategies that foster communal bonds and provide short-term solutions to an increasingly ailing population.
The shift away from the national squares towards the local and neighborhood level should not be viewed as a forgoing of collective action, but rather as a politically savvy adjustment to the current context. Considering Lebanon is in the midst of a second wave of COVID-19, organizing mass protests is probably not the most effective strategy at the moment. While the momentum and conditions needed to organize effective demonstrations and marches have been lacking, people will undoubtedly resort back to these types of resistance tactics with time. Meanwhile, investing in grassroots organizing has its own merits and surely complements collective action efforts down the line. Alternative political groups that grew in prominence during the uprising are also sustaining their internal organizational efforts despite the limited number of direct-action initiatives, either through scaling up recruitment, elaborating their policy positions, or investing in their social media reach. Ultimately, in order for resistance efforts to succeed, they must be adaptable and capable of taking on different forms. Despite the fact that demoralization has spiked in recent months, faith, hope, and power can still be found through the ongoing work of activists of all kinds.
How is COVID-19-driven securitization affecting protesting?
Others would be better able to answer this question; my only observation is that the pandemic has laid bare some of the most violent aspects of the state in the age of neoliberalism. What Achille Mbembe has termed “necropolitics” is now pretty much the explicit face of state policy in the United States.
One important question right now involves the dialectical work of continually theorizing the new forms of knowledge being produced by these ongoing uprisings. Angela Davis provided a brilliant example of this sort of work in a discussion of the protests in Ferguson in 2014. The violent state response to nonviolent protests, she notes, revealed the extent to which the police had become a fully militarized force. That in turn requires a different analysis of resistance: police, in theory at least, are there to “protect and serve” citizens; occupying soldiers, on the other hand, simply shoot to kill. “We saw the way in which that manifested itself in Ferguson,” Davis concludes.
Theorizing the Ferguson uprising and the state’s violent response also led to a fuller sense of what Davis calls the “global context” of Ferguson: “What we saw in the police reaction to the resistance…revealed the extent to which local police departments have been equipped with military arms, military technology, military training. The militarization of the police leads us to think about Israel and the militarization of the police there—if only the images of the police and not of the demonstrators had been shown, one might have assumed that Ferguson was Gaza.” That theorization has, in turn, led not just to new forms of radical knowledge production—such as Palestine is Here, a research database tracking Israeli military ties to local U.S. government, police departments, corporations, and academic institutions—and also new forms of international solidarity, which have in turn become apparent as the current uprisings against racist police violence have taken on an international aspect.
I’ve become obsessed with John Berger’s statement, made during the heady days of 1968, that “mass demonstrations are rehearsals for revolutions.” What might that mean in terms of political organizing now—among other sites, inside and against the neoliberal university? We have the analysis already; the question is when, in Berger’s terms, we decide we’ve had enough rehearsals.
In Iraq today, militia violence is as deadly as COVID-19. The structural violence of the lack of basic infrastructures such as water, electricity, and functioning public hospitals in a country that reaches the world-record in summer heat is as harmful as COVID-19. Poverty and the miserable daily wages on which most households survive is as deadly as COVID-19.
As a result of the October uprising, the former prime minister resigned. The interim prime minister Al-Kazimi and its newly appointed government in charge of organizing elections next spring have put in place lockdown measures. While lockdown has been followed in certain areas of Baghdad, especially during the few weeks in which many main roads were blocked, the rest of the country cannot afford to stay home.
There is no such thing as COVID-19 securitization in Iraq, as the state is extremely weak—its institutions do not provide any substantial services for the population. There is absolutely no reason for Iraqis to believe that they should follow a state-imposed lockdown, as the state constitutes a problem more than a solution. Protesters denounce the state’s monopoly and theft of Iraq’s rich resources for the benefit of a network of rich politicians’ private bank accounts. Since 2003, not a single essential infrastructure has been rebuilt or improved, including the country’s health infrastructure, which was already very negatively impacted by the deadly sanctions of the 1990s.
COVID-19 appears as just one more risk among many other risks in Iraq. Protesters, journalists, and intellectuals are being threatened, kidnapped, and killed. While massive protests have stopped as a result of COVID-19, more sporadic demonstrations are still happening in Baghdad, Najaf, Nasriya, and Basra. These demonstrations’ focus is to demand the release of protesters arrested by the Iraqi security forces or kidnapped by militias, as well as to demand justice for the protesters killed during the October uprising.
More than seven hundred unarmed protestors have been killed and more than 25,000 wounded by government and paramilitary groups using live ammunition, machine guns, stun grenades, hunting guns, anti-riot tanks, and military-grade tear gas since October 2019. This violence can partly be analyzed in looking at the hyper-militarization of the Iraqi state and various armed groups following the Islamic State invasion. More generally, since 2003, weapons have been widely distributed among various actors such as tribal leaders, militia groups, and paramilitary forces. What makes this violence pervasive and generalized is that protestors are not facing a coherent regime, given that the Iraqi state does not constitute a strong centralized state or regime, but rather militarized fragmented entities in which various political groups compete for power.
The killings continue with the assassination of the scholar Husham al-Hashemi in Baghdad last month. There is right now a massive campaign of assassination against figures of the October uprising, in particular in Baghdad and Basra. While the attempts have failed in Baghdad, Tahseen Oussama was killed last week and Reham Yacoob last night, both shot dead by gunmen. As I am writing these lines, many civil society activists are hiding, one of them, a women’s rights activist in Basra is watching a car of gunmen circling around her house.
When the police announced that the protests were engaging in unlawful assembly and when they tried to put a curfew on us, the bay area news outlets often framed it in the context of the pandemic. That being said it’s hard to say on the ground how COVID-19 securitization has been affecting protesting. When I was tested for COVID-19 following my first weekend of protests, nobody asked me if I had been participating in the actions. I cannot speak to the threat of contact tracing if I had been tested positive.
One of the most frightening things in the Bay Area was watching police in San Francisco turn up to the May Day Protests with matching thin-blue-line masks. I am curious how the logic of contagion will continue to influence policing and protesting in the months to come.
When we first went into lockdown in March, the lockdown measures, such as a strict nighttime curfew, were disproportionate to the state of the epidemic; it was still contained back then. No longer fearing protestors’ direct actions and acts of resistance, the banks took the total lockdown as an opportunity to completely sever depositors’ access to their American dollars in cash, as opposed to a previously dwindling rationing of a few hundred dollars per month. Many accused the system of using the COVID-19 pandemic as a scarecrow to quell protests. Pre-explosion, it was still possible to have conversations about the public and the private spheres, about our bodies made visible. We could still imagine the ways revolutions permeate the many spheres we occupy, even and when they are pushed back into the private. But we are being killed, and our deaths are many.
After the port Beirut explosion and the destruction of the city, the open antagonism towards the system also extended to its institutions, such as the military, the police, and party militias. In the protest that followed the explosion, protestors were shot with live ammunition. The system’s institutions are no longer spared people’s anger. In fact, they have lost the benevolence they had benefited from. They are recognized not as mere “buffers” and bodies forced to do their jobs because their livelihood is on the line, but as active political agents that profit off of the maintenance of such a corrupt system. This discursive shift is aligned with the transnational movement that is unequivocally and unapologetically anti-police and abolitionist when it comes to prison and securitization.
Following the explosion, a state of emergency was declared, giving disproportionate power to the military, including the power to dissolve assembly, control public opinion, and effectively kidnap protestors from their homes without an arrest warrant. The state of emergency, supposed to expire on August 21, has been extended unconstitutionally for an additional two weeks following the resignation of the prime minister, and by extension, the cabinet. At the same time, the now-caretaker government (the same government that resigned) decided on a two-week lockdown to supposedly curb the spread of COVID-19, effective starting August 21. The merging of timelines can only be read as the concerted efforts of a securitized system that is surviving at the cost of its people’s lives.
What we know is that the sectarian oligarchic system does not care about our lives or health. Lockdown, however, conveniently drives people to isolate. And it is not about the public/private sphere as much as it is about isolation from organizing, whether among protestors or even transnationally, across borders – borders that are even less porous with pandemic restrictions. With the onus of containing the pandemic being put on individual “altruism,” what we also know is that both the explosion and the shooting of protestors saturated the healthcare system and hospitals to an extent that does not compare to COVID-19 healthcare demands.
The language of platitude and urgency shared by illness and revolutions, according to Johanna Hedva, is also shared by events of mass destruction. The discourse of unity of the “people” against a criminal system is marred by the following: the system as we know it is invigorated by our complicity, as it rests on layers upon layers of invisible economies of care. The question of who is allowed in public spheres becomes about who remains invisible, even as they occupy public spheres. While efforts into rebuilding the neighborhoods of Mar Mikhael and Gemmayze abound, refugees who share the city space are refused aid. Migrant domestic workers are protesting in front of their embassies, sleeping on the street with their masks on, demanding to return home. Deeming communities to be in perpetual confinement, therefore, says more about our unwillingness to change the status quo than about their revolutionary aspirations.
 Which there does not appear to be, as the alleged tie between protests and spiking COVID-19 cases has been also debunked by research and reporting.