Social Justice, Democratization and Social Movements

Photo by  : Jospeh Chan (Unsplash)


Is Indonesia’s Grand Experiment with Democracy Coming to an End?

A push to allow President Joko Widodo to run for a third term threatens to erode the foundations of the country’s multiparty system.

Almost a quarter of a century ago, in the midst of the Asian financial crisis in May 1998, Indonesia’s economy literally came to a standstill. The rupiah had crashed, tycoons were going bankrupt and losing their business empires. University students were filling the streets of cities across the archipelago demanding the resignation of then President Suharto, and after the tragic shooting of students in the yard of Trisakti University in Jakarta, protests became even larger and led to complete chaos. Indonesia was literally on the brink of collapse.

Suharto was reluctant at first to succumb to calls for him to step down. After more than three decades in power, he found himself surrounded by sycophants telling him that could ride out the wave of protests and manage to stay in office. Yet in his final days in the palace, realizing that if he ordered the military to come down hard on the protesters it could easily end in a bloodbath, Suharto came to his senses and realized he was playing the equivalent of a zero-sum game on a sinking ship.

On May 21, Suharto announced his resignation, and the New Order regime, which had overseen an economic success story yet was stained with violence and oppression, came to an end.

The only question at the time was, what would the next chapter look like? Would Suharto’s previous vice president and successor, B.J. Habibie, prove to be an authoritarian as well, or would he meet Indonesians’ demands for sweeping political reform?

As a former university student who protested against the Suharto regime in the 1970s only to find myself in jail, I waited with trepidation. Throughout his career Habibie was seen as a subservient acolyte of Suharto and his clan; his career offered no hints that he would end up becoming a reformist. And the fact that he was surrounded by men who had spent their years in power under Suharto as well made me pessimistic about our future.

What happened next came as a complete surprise to Habibie’s naysayers, including myself. Instead of clamping down on pro-democracy activists, Habibie announced that democratic elections would be held three years earlier than scheduled. He also liberalized the press, oversaw the lifting of restrictions on political parties and the decentralization of political powers, effectively granting local governments a much greater control over their affairs.

These sweeping reforms marked the beginning of Indonesia’s democratic transition. When Habibie’s successor, Abdurrahman Wahid, came to power in the latter part of 1999, he managed to negotiate peace agreements with separatist groups in the provinces of Aceh and Papua. Wahid, the former head of the world’s largest Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, quickly became a well-known figure on the global stage as a voice for moderate Islam, at one point even suggesting that Indonesia open up diplomatic relations with Israel.

Indonesia now held center stage as one of the world’s more prestigious democracies, ranking as the third largest and the largest in the entire Muslim world. It was held up as a shining example of what other Muslim majority countries could, and should, aspire to.

It was during Wahid’s stay in power that I served in his cabinet. Wahid made it known when he was first elected that he would prefer men and women who were previously staunch Suharto critics to serve in his cabinet. I was one of them, and after entering office my colleagues and I went about instituting economic and institutional reforms as part of our efforts to root out corruption in places such as the National Logistics Agency, and set out policies that formed the foundations for a quicker and sustainable economic recovery.

For the most part, we achieved our goals. Not only was Indonesia a vibrant democracy, it was now firmly on the path to economic growth and on a more equitable basis than ever before.

Wahid was not without his faults, one of which was an erratic leadership style that resulted in his earning a number of political enemies. Tycoons were unhappy as well since Wahid had no qualms about going after the rich and powerful. He could be fearless when it came to facing down those who he felt were on the wrong side of what he perceived as the nation’s interest.

The wolves were circling, and one early morning the military also made its dissatisfaction known by sending tanks to the palace grounds with its turrets pointed toward the president’s residence. As one conglomerate owner was overheard one day talking to his friends, “don’t worry, it is only a matter of time before we get him.”

Political elites and the military leadership decided to take action by calling for the president’s impeachment and dismissal from office after he issued a decree to dissolve the Indonesian legislatures and disband the Golkar Party, which was former president Suharto’s party and arguably still the most powerful in the country. In one fell swoop Wahid had managed to make mortal enemies out of nearly the entire political establishment.

Wahid saw this as an attempt to drain the proverbial political swamp, but rather than cleansing Indonesia’s politics it ended up devouring him. Finally, during a special plenary session of the People’s Consultative Assembly held on July 23, 2001, a majority of the legislators voted for Wahid to be dismissed from his presidency.

Wahid’s successors, first his vice president Megawati Sukarnoputri who replaced him and served for the remainder of his five year term, and then retired general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, continued with the reform of Indonesian politics. Political stability and democracy were firmly in place, and as Indonesia’s economy rose to become the 17th largest in the world, the future seemed incredibly bright.

That was then, but some things have gone horribly wrong since. With the ascent to power of Joko Widodo, better known simply as Jokowi to Indonesians, there has been a steady and dramatic reversal in our democratic institutions and norms.

As an indicator of Indonesia’s democratic backsliding, one need only refer to the Economist Group’s annual Democracy Index. In 2017, Indonesia fell 20 places in the index from 48th to 68th, making it the worst performer among the 165 countries surveyed, sliding from “flawed democracy” toward the “authoritarian” end of the scale.

Such a dramatic reversal is not only saddening. It is also a huge disappointment for me and the many Indonesians who voted Jokowi into office. When he first ran for the presidency in 2014, this former mayor and small business owner from Central Java came across as an easy-going personality and a man of the people. The fact that Jokowi didn’t hail from the Jakarta elite classes or the military as previous presidents had, led voters to believe he would prove to be a new and better class of politician.

They were wrong.

To be fair to Jokowi, he should not be entirely blamed for Indonesia’s ills. I had the pleasure of serving as coordinating minister in the earlier part of his presidency, and what I saw was a decent man with good intentions.

But decency and good intentions do not necessarily make for a good leader. Unfortunately Jokowi treats his coalition partners and cabinet members with kid gloves, and all too often they too easily get their way even when it is painfully obvious their behavior and actions cause harm to the national and public interest.

I was dismissed from my position in the Jokowi administration because more than once I spoke the truth when politicians were being dishonest or worse. Now I am back on the sidelines, much like I was during the Suharto years, and playing the role as an activist, public intellectual, and critic.

The freedom of speech, the right to express oneself and most importantly being careful to present the facts even if it means being critical of those in power and exposing hard truths is crucial in any democracy. When those rights are denied, democracy inevitably suffers. Unfortunately this is precisely what is happening now. Indonesians who post critiques of the president and the political establishment on social media are warned and must have the posts removed or otherwise face the consequences. Critics like myself are openly ridiculed by Jokowi’s henchmen and threatened with lawsuits for blasphemy. The truth is no longer treated with respect; it is considered the enemy.

To the dismay of many Indonesians, Jokowi has lately fallen into the practice of promoting family members into positions of power and influence. The dynastic excesses of Jokowi have gone beyond even those of former presidents Sukarno, Suharto, Habibie, and Wahid. Jokowi was, for example, successful in promoting his son Gibran to become the mayor of Solo and his son-in-law Bobby to become mayor of Medan. His sister is also married to the chief of the Constitutional Court. All of these are clearly conflicts of interest.

There is a risk that Indonesia’s democratic backsliding could become even worse. Right now there are party bosses lobbying behind closed doors to get a supermajority vote in a bid to amend Indonesia’s constitution that would effectively allow the president to serve three five-year terms in office. If it happens, then Jokowi could conceivably win and end up serving 15 years as Indonesia’s president.

So far these party bosses have come up short of securing the supermajority they need. But anything can happen in Indonesia’s transactional politics, so the possibility should not be entirely dismissed.

Extending the presidential term limit could prove the final death blow for Indonesia’s democracy. Enough damage has already been done, and if the men around Jokowi get their way there will hardly be any difference between today’s regime and Suharto’s New Order. For a country that was once admired for being one of the world’s best democracies, such an outcome would be extraordinarily tragic.


Dr. Rizal Ramli is former Indonesian Coordinating Minister for the Economy (2000-2001) and former Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs (2015-2016).


By    :    Dr. Rizal Ramli

Date :    June 03, 2022

Source:     The Diplomat


REACTION: Gustavo Petro Elected President in Colombia

The former rebel defeated Rodolfo Hernández in the June 19 runoff.

With 50.4% of the votes, Gustavo Petro was elected Colombia’s first left-wing president. His running mate, Francia Márquez, also marks the first time an Afro-Colombian woman will take the title of vice president. Runner-up Rodolfo Hernández—with 47.3% of the votes—conceded, saying his acceptance was a necessary gesture “if we want our institutions to stay strong.”

AQ asked observers to share their reaction.

Mauricio Cárdenas, former finance minister of Colombia, senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University

Petro’s victory was slim, which shows how divided the country is—Colombia is split in two, both geographically and ideologically. Although he started his victory speech in very conciliatory terms, inviting his more bitter opponents to a dialogue, he did not signal specific areas where he thinks a grand national pact can be built. If anyone was expecting a more pragmatic Petro, this is not what you saw on election night. He in fact doubled down on his more ideological messages, while using aspirational terms about justice, or the environment. It was a candidate’s speech, nothing pragmatic or specific, and filled with campaign-like points such as freeing the young arrested during the protests of last year.

Notoriously absent in his first speech as president-elect were: respect for the independence of the central bank and any mention of the importance of fiscal sustainability. He said however that he is NOT planning to expropriate, and that he supports capitalism, not wholeheartedly but as a natural step to end the long history of feudalism and slavery that, in many ways, is still present.

In short, he has not done enough to calm investors, local or foreign and the appointment of the finance minister is more important than ever before. Petro will need to convince people that did not vote for him. However, he is putting his bets on the Gran Acuerdo Nacional, an initiative based on a broad coalition as his priority in order to avoid a negative market response.

About the country’s relation with the United States, he only mentioned an opportunity to collaborate on environmental grounds. With respect to Latin America, the president-elect emphatically expressed his interest in collaborating with other countries in the region on a rapid energy transition.

Petro encouraged the region’s progressives to abandon the notion that social justice was achievable through gains from high oil prices, and instead imagine a “productive and non-extractivist Latin America.” His campaign documents promise a ban on new licenses for oil exploration, a stop to fracking pilot projects and offshore field development, and large-scale open-pit mining. These sectors make up more than half of Colombia’s exports.

The other half of Colombia is now leaderless. Hernández’s vote was consistently an anti-Petro vote, he is not likely to continue as the main opposition to Petro. This election showed that Uribe’s leadership is much weakened as well. What we might see now is a shuffling of people vying to lead the opposition to Petro’s administration.

Right now, Colombia is in stand-by mode.

Silvana Amaya, senior analyst in Control Risks’ Global Risk Analysis practice 

Gustavo Petro won the presidency yesterday in a historic victory for the left for the first time in the history of the country. He won by only 3% against his opponent, the anti-establishment businessman Rodolfo Hernández. This means that he will have to respond in a very precise way about exactly how he will govern, considering that more than 10 million people did not vote for him. 

In this regard, we are expecting to see some key messages in the next couple of days, and hopefully today he will send a key message by appointing the minister of finance. If he decides to appoint someone more conservative, more orthodox in the macroeconomic stance, he will send not only a message to the markets but to the private sector that his economic policies will not be extremely different, and this will calm the country. 

There are some concerns about how exactly he will support all the proposals that he presented during his campaign. His social and economic proposals cost between 60 and 120 trillion pesos, but if he decides to go for a very extreme tax reform, that will only gain about 25 trillion pesos. That means that we still don’t know exactly how he will deliver those proposals and how he will make those social and economic changes that everybody has expected.  

Expectations are very high, and people are hoping for substantial changes. If these do not come in the first few months, if people don’t see those quick wins quite fast, they are going to be disappointed, and the social disappointment could be worse than what we have seen in Colombia so far. So maybe we could even expect some social unrest in the next couple of years, maybe not at the very beginning, but later on considering that there are so many expectations that Gustavo Petro should meet.  

There are concerns about key reforms like health, pensions and the tax reform, and how aggressive they will be, and how much of his proposals during his campaign he will actually meet. And another factor, surprisingly, is how much he compromised with questionable political sectors, only because of the fact that he made some big alliances and big compromises in order to be elected. We will see how much that will cost him during his term in office. 

Tatiana Duque, editor, La Silla Vacía

I believe this is the beginning of a new era in Colombia where the left and the leftist parties are going to rule the country. Negotiations have started with the other centrist parties and politicians with whom Gustavo Petro had tried to get close in recent weeks. The Partido Verde and the Partido Liberal are really important for Petro to increase his coalition in Congress, especially in the Senate, where he only has 39 congresswomen and congressmen from his party, Pacto Histórico. Petro really needs to have at least 14 or 20 new congresswomen and congressmen, so those negotiations may start soon.

President Duque has already spoken to Gustavo Petro and invited him to the Casa de Nariño, so we believe it’s going to be a really peaceful transition.

We are starting to see how big of a change Gustavo Petro is proposing. Today is a holiday, so the markets will not be open, but markets abroad are going to lead the way in how Colombia’s market reacts to this win. We are going to see that on Tuesday, and I really believe that is going to be an indicator of how Petro’s government is being handled abroad.

I also believe that this is a beginning of a new era in Colombia because of the deepening of democracy and the fact that this is the first time that we are going to see a Black woman like Francia Márquez in the vice presidency. Seeing her in the Movistar Arena on Sunday was a really powerful image because of her background. We saw in that arena a new power, a new kind of politician taking over Colombia, in the way it always has to be, through voting and through democracy.

There are a lot of expectations. I don’t know how big the change is going to be, but right now we are seeing, at least symbolically, a different kind of presidency that Petro is proposing to Colombia. He already talked about social justice, a new Colombia, the “politics of love” (which is his catchphrase), so we are going to see how big the change is that he’s proposing and how big the change is that he’s able to do.

Brian Winter, editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly

A historic day for Colombia as the left won power for the first time, capping decades of strife and horrendous violence in which they were both perpetrator and victim. It feels like a step forward for Colombian democracy to see different visions alternating in power peacefully through the vote.

I spent much of 2021 telling people that Gabriel Boric was above all a committed democrat, and unlikely to try anything truly radical on the economy. I feel much less certain of Gustavo Petro. His economic platform raises many questions, and some statements over the years leave his commitment to independent institutions in doubt. But now it’s time to listen and understand how he plans to govern.

It will be important to see how Colombia’s right and business community react—whether they dig in and refuse to work with Petro at all. Chile is an interesting cautionary tale. During her second presidency (2014-18), Michelle Bachelet proposed many reforms that could have addressed Chilean inequality, but were rejected out of hand by the center and right. After she left office, Chile exploded in the 2019 protests, and the reforms now on the table, including a new constitution, are much more sweeping. Some in the Chilean establishment admit today they should have taken the deal Bachelet was offering. If Petro does pursue a relatively moderate path, Colombia’s establishment may want to consider the long-term costs of refusing to meet him halfway.


By     :      AQ Editors

Date  :     June 20, 2022

Source:   Americas Quarterly


Democracy entails conflict

Democracy is a system of politics that has disagreement at its heart. But how do we stop conflicts becoming destructive?

A cursory online search will provide you with nearly 100 million web pages concerning ‘the Left’s circular firing squad’. The idea of a circular firing squad is meant to evoke people so torn by their minor differences that they eliminate any possibility for solidarity or collective work. Rather than aiming our weapons at our enemies, we somehow get mixed up and begin to aim them at our friends. The supposed results of all this fighting: cancel culture, illiberalism, tribalism, hyper-partisanism. In other words: we become intolerant and start seeking to exclude anyone who presents us with any different ideas at all.

This exclusion of difference arises, according to the political philosopher Robert Talisse, due to too much democracy. He argues that political polarisation is a ‘loop’ such that, once we are in the ‘trap’ of politics taking over our lives, we struggle to escape from them because it leads us to polarised beliefs – like the 40 per cent of Americans who at one time believed that Joe Biden was not the legitimately elected US president. The result, as Talisse puts it, is that ‘[w]e become enamoured with the profoundly antidemocratic view that democracy is possible only among people who are just like ourselves’. After all, democratic choice gave us Brexit. It’s well known that democratic decisions can be catastrophic for minority populations and can enact brutal policies toward their elimination. At base, it is claimed that the fault of our dysfunctional politics is a democratic urge to overly agitate conflict, combined with a tendency toward in-group bias, or a preference for people like ourselves. Implemented where it shouldn’t be, democracy causes the very thing it is supposedly meant to solve: too much disagreement.

Talisse is not alone in identifying conflict as a problem for politics. Most forms of political organisation find ways to manage and mitigate conflict among the members of the polity. In this is the recognition that disagreement is a feature of human social life that is more or less permanent. This means that democracy must also find a way of handling our conflictual tendencies. So, what types of conflict does democracy require and how can conflict threaten democratic practices?

To accommodate conflict in a theory of democracy, we first have to stop thinking of conflict as simply one thing. The idea of conflict may raise the spectre of violence, shouting matches and general name-calling. These things certainly can form parts of conflicts. However, that doesn’t tell us anything about the character of the conflict itself – what is the conflict for and why do we do it?

According to Lewis Coser’s Continuities in the Study of Social Conflict (1967), conflict comes in two sorts: realistic and non-realistic. Realistic conflicts are when something undeniably real is at stake. This is when there is a substantial element to the conflict, such as a disagreement over something in which two individuals or groups cannot both have their way. When a union and management conflict over the content of a contract, there is something very real at stake. On the one hand, there are the working conditions, the living conditions, the concrete life-possibilities of the worker; on the other, there are the profits of shareholders, the prices of goods and services, and the pay of managers and executives all on the line. Real conflicts are not limited to wages but they arise from any way that someone’s demands can be frustrated. A real conflict occurs because one demands what the other refuses to give, be it wages, voting rights, healthcare, respect or recognition.

Non-realistic conflict, on the contrary, has a psychosocial function. It’s being quarrelsome for the pleasure of annoying or, as it may be, annihilating, your enemy. Many popular types of trolling are versions of non-realistic conflict. There’s no specific disputed content to it. Rather, the content is just reflective of a desire for psychological satisfaction. When people mob others, call each other names or generally participate in what some political commentators contemporarily call ‘tribalism’, this is the type of conflict they are deriding. It’s thought to exist purely for the satisfaction of determining an in-group and out-group, and places those who deploy it in a hierarchical relation to those who are targeted. Yet no demands are made, and so no one’s aims can be frustrated.

When we think more carefully about how conflict operates in our society, we can see that it isn’t always something we should avoid, even if we could. It’s reasonable to believe that non-realistic conflict is at the heart of much of the unpleasantness of our social lives. You may even think that these sorts of conflicts, driven as they often are by forms of identitarian prejudice, ought to be fully eliminated. It would be good, all things considered, for a society to have no more racist name-calling, an end to degrading treatment of women, and no desire for members to dominate each other by virtue of morally arbitrary characteristics like religious belief. But, often, a push to eliminate the sort of conflict that is bound up with historical systems of domination can also affect another sort of domination by excluding some participants, concerns or means of conflict from democratic life.

Conflict’s role in democratic social life, though it seems heightened now, is not new. Enlightenment-era thinkers posited that human beings have an ‘unsocial sociability’ – a social tendency toward conflict. As Immanuel Kant theorised it in ‘Idea for a Universal History with Cosmopolitan Intent’ (1784), this tendency is part of the natural aim of perfection in human beings. In conflict, we wear away at each other, making each other more perfect in the process. Left alone to our own devices, truly unsocial, we fail to fully develop because we do not hit up against each other in conflict. Of course, we cannot have this form of unsociability without also engaging in sociability itself. To come into conflict is to participate in sociability. For instance, when we don’t wish to engage in social bonds with others, we often just refuse to participate in conflict with them. We may believe them wrong or misguided but, unless we see ourselves as participating in some kind of collective project, we may as well leave them alone. Addressing our differences is a way of showing that we matter to each other in some way.

However, there are other ways of addressing differences that flow through conflict that do not involve the type of disagreement alluded to above. Historically, this includes the expulsion, exclusion or extermination of people who either hold politically marginalised views or are members of marginalised classes. When we think of conflict, we should think of its importance but also its dangers, via the thought of Carl Schmitt. An unrepentant Nazi jurist, Schmitt developed a political theory based on a political structure called the ‘friend-enemy’ relation. According to him, writing in 1932, the friend-enemy relation is conceived as fundamental to politics, which is itself the form in which human beings live out conflict. On this account, to be political is to be in conflict. Agonism, the notion that conflict can be helpful to politics, is drawn from Schmitt’s writing.

The agonistic view of the world, though, also relies on the notion that we live in an irreducibly pluralist world – we simply will continue to disagree with each other concerning things that are of central importance. Yet this risks making it appear as though we should agitate as much conflict as possible. If conflict is both inevitable and beneficial, then even more conflict must be even more beneficial. Often, it is this view of conflict that is depicted as incompatible with democratic politics and ways of life, for instance by Talisse above. Whatever else democracy requires, it is fundamentally, at least a little bit, about coming to agreement. Democracy seems to be about organising ourselves when we disagree fundamentally about values, tactics, policies and what a good life may be. This means that, while conflict is fundamentally an impetus for democratic processes, these processes are also about ending it. But, alongside these agreements, we must be willing to hold disagreements, consider dissensus, and allow for conflict.

So, conflict isn’t going anywhere – because, when our disagreements are substantive and concern real demands, over which there is broad disagreement, we cannot simply eliminate conflict. We can try to exclude it from our thinking about democratic value or our idealised theory but, to the extent that we do, our theories are a fundamental misfit with the reality of everyday political life. Because we cannot hope to do away with conflict, we have only a few options. One is to theorise conflict out of existence. Another is to minimise conflict by dismissing those who agitate it (to the extent that we are able to do so). The last is to build both a theory and a politics capable of handling this seemingly ever-present feature of our social world.

Traditional means of eliminating conflict are either liberal or authoritarian. Often, the liberal response to conflict is a form of exclusion. If you disagree, your position must not be rational. This allows liberals to dismiss many forms of conflict as non-realistic. In part, this exclusion relies on the presumption of what types of conflict can be agitated and how complaints must be leveraged.

Authoritarian means of eliminating conflict are what we would more generally consider classic forms of state repression: banning books, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, freedom of thought or belief. But authoritarian means of eliminating conflict don’t stop at attempting to control people’s behaviours (something that all governments do via laws, to some extent). Authoritarian means of eliminating conflict include not just forms of suppression but also extermination, expelling and annihilating those who are viewed as the source of conflict.

In both liberalism and authoritarianism, conflict is diminished in order to streamline a process of legitimation – making room for agreement that can serve as justification for the use of state power. One can imagine a situation in which all those unwilling to go along with a political order are jailed, deported or killed. What remains would be an order capable of democratic legitimation, by most people’s understanding of it – this is the specifically antidemocratic threat that Talisse identifies. However, the process for achieving that order would betray the horror and injustice of the intentional exclusion, expulsion and annihilation of dissent. It isn’t so much that democracy requires creating conflict, but that it requires actually dealing with the already existing conflict in our world. We cannot simply pretend that we all agree, or that if we were rational (and not quarrelsome) then we would.

Whatever means we have for avoiding, minimising or eliminating conflict cannot put the cart before the horse by determining which conflicts arising from whom are legitimate for a democratic society to discard. Which conflicts are considered to be necessary and which are superfluous themselves requires a democratic hearing. In the same way as it is clear that members of a polity shouldn’t be expelled for their inconvenient beliefs or identities, the question of who is excluded and what views are up for debate is fundamental to a democratic order. This means that we will have first-order conflicts about the actual content of political decision-making, but also that we will have second-order conflicts about the process, content or subjects of the first-order conflict. If we aren’t careful, this easily becomes infinitely regressive.

As Amy Allen in The Power of Feminist Theory (1999) and Catherine Eschle in Global Democracy, Social Movements, and Feminism (2001) argue, domination can arise through what sorts of reasons are broadly accepted into public discourse and from whom those reasons can be heard. That is, what reasons are accepted and who is understood to be the proper person for providing those reasons are both ways that organisations can affect domination. Take, for instance, an imagined feminist organisation composed solely of cis women. If the organisation specifically excludes trans women, then it is imposing a certain kind of domination. Similarly, if the organisation’s members refuse to hear concerns about the relationship between anti-trans, patriarchal and homophobic political tendencies, there’s a kind of domination operating. When a group structures who and what will be considered part of its legitimate political processes, it can unjustly exclude. It comes as no surprise that these unjust exclusions often replicate their society.

To agitate a conflict, from within an organisation, can be an attempt at making the organisation more democratic in so far as it ceases with unjust exclusions. In the absence of a conflict, the organisation would fail to fulfil its values and probably fail to achieve its goals – lacking, as it does, a clear view of the nature of the problem at hand. Conflict, then, can be about ending unjust exclusions, or it can be a substantive disagreement about the goals or tactics that a group aims to undertake. In either case, the conflict isn’t just about a psychological draw-and-repulsion relationship with other human beings (as it is so often dismissed), but rather it is about something concrete with real stakes for those involved. If they lose the fight, they lose something substantive, not just a psychological sense of success.

It is this realistic type of conflict that is fundamental to democracy, understood not just as a structure for political institutions, but as a social and political process. When people come together in groups to achieve some goal, democracy functions where people can contest their own exclusion, the formative values or substantive goals of the organisation, and the means by which the group intends to achieve such goals. Substantive conflict is necessary because of the inescapable pluralism of human beings, but also because of a history of the structure and influence of systems of power designed for structural domination. This makes it likely that groups will reproduce systems of domination that exist in the wider world. In that way, conflict becomes part of the process of building a future world that is less exclusionary and less dominative.

People believe conflict will tear a group apart specifically because they run together realistic and non-realistic forms of it. We struggle to separate out name-calling from more substantive demand-making. Often, this is because substantive demand-making also comes along with at least the appearance of name-calling. The name-calling, then, becomes a reason to deny the demand. White Americans, for instance, tend to see ‘racist’ not simply as an accurate identification of a feature of the world, but as a coded slur for white people. Attempts at racial justice, then, come to be seen as non-realistic conflict where people just want the pleasure of smearing someone as racist, rather than an end to a specific iteration of racist subjection.

The way that realistic conflict functions in democratic life is that it can eliminate exclusions, hone and develop positions for the group, and bring about the change to individuals that makes them suited for living among each other. Excluding conflict from democratic life, then, not only risks giving into authoritarian tendencies to exclude, expel or annihilate, but also fails to recognise the subjective changes that are part of participation in democratic life. Fundamentally, atomised versions of democratic life fail to see how participation in the collective project of democracy also affects changes on us, via the process of conflict. One cannot simply remain unchanged by one’s experiences with others (who present new challenges and new information). This feature of conflict is the function of integration that is necessary for democratic legitimation.

One of the positive features of conflict is that it changes us, shapes us, moulds us. Participating in conflict over the things that matter to our shared lives gives us an investment in each other and the project of living our lives together, rather than living them merely near each other. While there is nothing necessarily democratic about conflict, there is a clear antidemocratic tendency, in both liberal and authoritarian thought and movements, to eliminate conflict.


Rochelle DuFord is assistant professor in philosophy at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. They are the author of Solidarity in Conflict (2022).

By              :     Rochelle DuFord

Edited by   :     Sam Haselby

Date          :    June 13, 2022

Source      :    Aeon


Brazil’s invisible victims of state violence

A year after Rio de Janeiro state’s deadliest police operation, bereaved mothers fight for justice

Every day since 6 May 2021, Sandra Gomes dos Santos has waited for a familiar sound: the front gate being unlocked and the call, “Mum, I'm here!” Every morning since that fateful day, Adriana Santana de Araújo has found herself checking her phone for a “good morning” text from her son.

Both women wait in vain. Their sons were among 28 people killed in the deadliest police raid in Rio de Janeiro state history. Heavily armed police stormed Jacarézinho, one of Rio’s largest favelas, in pursuit of drug traffickers. The attack occurred just a few days before Dia das Mães or Mothers’ Day. Santos and Araújo were just two of the many mothers who spent Dia das Mães burying their sons. 

That was just the start of their ordeal. There was also the enervating business of simply living. “We have to survive every day,” said Araújo, as Santos nodded in agreement. Our interview took place in a samba school, just a few metres away from the entrance to Jacarézinho. Santos, who still lives here because she can’t afford to rent anywhere else, says she is in constant fear of the police on guard nearby. They are part of the Cidade Integrada, a programme that has police permanently posted within a favela, supposedly to protect residents from financial exploitation by gangs. But some of the policemen in Jacarézinho were part of the operation in which Santos’s son was killed.

Many of the bereaved mothers suffer with anxiety and depression. Araújo has not been able to grieve for her oldest son because she is consumed by the worry that her youngest will also be taken from her in the same way.

There is little in the way of compassion for the women’s losses. Instead, the mothers are vilified. “Do you know what we were called?” asked Araújo. “A criminal depository or criminal-making uterus. I am no depository nor do I have a uterus that produces criminals.”

The mothers of the Jacarézinho dead are largely invisible to the Brazilian state. Their children, direct victims of state violence, make up the statistics, but there is no accounting for the mothers, fathers, sons and daughters left behind. The relatives of victims bear deep scars that go mostly unseen.

“Having sons, partners and brothers killed in this battle with armed groups is a form of suffering that particularly affects women,” said José Claudio Souza Alves, a public security expert and professor at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro. ”These women fall sick and eventually die."

This claim may not always be an exaggeration. Jozelita de Souza died in 2016, seven months after her son Roberto was killed in Costa Barros, another poor neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro. Four police officers had fired more than 100 bullets at a car in which the unarmed 16-year-old sat with four friends. Nevertheless, the police tried to make the chacina or massacre look like self-defence. Jozelita’s cause of death was described by doctors as cardiorespiratory failure but a local news story said at the time: “She couldn’t bear the death of her son… The hairdresser died of sadness.”

A history of violence and failure

Violent police operations are not new to Brazil and, more particularly, to Rio de Janeiro. According to data compiled by the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety, an NGO, Brazilian police killed 6,416 people in 2020. In the state of Rio they killed 1,245 in 2020, according to data by the Network of Observatories on Security. Police killings nearly tripled between 2013 and 2020.

Alves believes that Rio de Janeiro is marked by “criminal politics”, with armed groups flourishing because of their direct relationship with the state. In the name of the ‘war on drugs’, police carry out operations in favelas controlled by drug rings. Experts have long pointed out that this strategy does not solve the problem, as those killed and arrested are most often low-level dealers. What’s more, police operations can merely lead to a change of hands: a territory that was once controlled by one faction or narcotrafficking group is taken over by a rival group, allegedly with the complicity of the police, who ‘clear the area’ to allow the rivals to step in.

The modus operandi of these operations is one of annihilation: special operations teams, outfitted as if for war, storm into communities in military vehicles, in pursuit of suspects. 

These densely populated neighbourhoods are treated as laboratories for public security initiatives, many of which have been proved to fail in the past. The state government’s testing of Cidade Integrada in Jacarézinho is a case in point. The current programme is inspired by Pacifying Police Units (UPP), which pioneered the placement of police units in Rio favelas 14 years ago.

However, the police presence has created a state of permanent war, which is escalating as both sides acquire more powerful and lethal guns. Dani Monteiro, an elected member of the Rio de Janeiro State Assembly, explained, “This is something I always hear from public security agents: ‘We bought rifles because when the criminals had rifles, all we had were pistols. Then they had rifles and we also had rifles, but one day they showed up with 762s [a more powerful rifle]. So we bought 762s as well, but then they came in with long-range machine guns, so we had to buy those too’.”

Pro-gun policies

Experts suggest that the intensifying state of permanent war in Rio’s favelas is a reflection of the rising number of guns in civilian hands in general. This is the result of policy changes, not least President Jair Bolsonaro’s pro-gun agenda. Since taking office on 1 January 2019, Bolsonaro has introduced more than 30 legal changes that make it easier for civilians to gain access to firearms. But the removal of controls facilitates the diversion of weapons to organised crime groups. 

"The federal government, exemplified by Bolsonaro, argues that pro-gun policies will help citizens fight crime, but in reality it’s crime that benefits from these policies," explained Cecília Olliveira, a journalist, public security expert and executive director of collaborative digital database Fogo Cruzado. The database, which means ‘crossfire’ in Portuguese, collates data on armed violence in Rio de Janeiro and Recife in north-east Brazil. She added that easier access to guns had been matched by a loosening of control and oversight, without a corresponding expansion of the police’s ability to investigate gun crime.

In her April 2021 decision to suspend some parts of the presidential decrees to expand access to weapons, Supreme Court Justice Rosa Weber said that 55% of all firearms apprehended from criminals had been legal before they were stolen or illegally sold. This was according to data from the CPI das Armas, a 2006 congressional parliamentary commission that investigated arms trafficking. 

Alves, from the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro, described the result of easier access to weapons as an “arms build-up… insecurity in all areas”, in which those who can afford it, “even if not involved with armed criminal groups, will arm themselves for self-protection or to profit”. He added: “This [situation] expands the justification for the use of firearms because it creates a war zone. And in war zones, the logic is one of armed self-protection.”

The police justification for the 6 May 2021 Jacarézinho raid is an example of this ‘war zone’ mentality. According to the police, the operation was part of an investigation into underage recruitment by drug trafficking groups. But many of the victims’ families say their sons were innocent, and even though Araújo admitted that her dead son, mototaxi driver Marlon Santana de Araújo, was involved in crime, she said he was no more than a varejista, slang for people at the lower end of the drug trafficking hierarchy. Marlon was also a victim, Adriana believes, because, as a young Black man from a favela, he suffered from structural racism, which excluded him from many opportunities. 

Racial bias

The statistics on deaths at the hands of the police point to a clear racial bias. In 2020, according to data compiled by the Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública (FBSP), an NGO that works on public security, 78.9% of all victims of police intervention in Brazil were Black. That number has stayed constant for decades. According to the FBSP, this shows “the deficit in fundamental rights [of] the Black population”.

And if a young Black man is jailed for a minor felony, there is always the chance he will be lost forever, transformed both by the violence to which he is subjected and the exposure to organised crime networks that operate inside Brazilian prisons.

Rio human rights activist Monica Cunha saw this first hand with her son Rafael. Arrested at age 15, he spent five years at a correctional facility for minors. It transformed him. “I saw Rafael’s changes. I saw how he went into the system and then who he became,” she recalled. “On 5 December 2006, when they laid my son’s bullet-ridden body on the ground in front of me, that Rafael was no longer my Rafael. He was transformed in the five years he was inside the system.”

Cunha subsequently founded Movimento Moleque, an NGO that helps mothers of victims of state violence to organise. She also urges them not to let people call their dead children criminals. “I didn't give anyone a blank cheque to speak of Rafael,” she said. “I’m the only one allowed to speak of him. I birthed him, raised him, breastfed him. I saw when he began changing. No one can speak of him but me. This is what I tell these women: don’t let anyone say your son is a criminal. He might be a varejista, because all we have here [in favelas] are varejistas, but not criminals.”

After the Jacarézinho raid, Bolsonaro took to Twitter to vilify the bereaved relatives and to congratulate the police for killing “drug dealers that rob, kill and destroy families”. At the time of his declaration, a police inquiry into the real involvement of the men killed with criminal activity had yet to begin. The president was also pictured with a plaque that bore the words “CPF cancelado”, slang for people killed in a police operation.

The number of bereaved mothers and relatives of victims of state violence continues to grow. In May, a year on from the police operation in Jacarézinho favela, there was a shootout that left 23 dead in Vila Cruzeiro, a favela in Rio’s northern zone.

No action, no investigations

Meanwhile, the bereaved mothers of Jacarézinho remain haunted by the authorities’ inaction. The Public Prosecutor’s Office has closed inquiries into 24 of the deaths, charging officers with homicide and tampering with evidence in just three of the killings. Santos’s son, Matheus, is one of those whose case has been dropped. She says he was killed sitting, unarmed, in a plastic chair while he had an epileptic seizure. “[He] had no drugs on him and they killed him.” 

Olliveira, of Fogo Cruzado, said the Public Prosecutor’s Office should be holding police accountable. “It has the responsibility of overseeing the police. The omission of the Public Prosecutor’s Office means the maintenance of a status quo for a police force that kills and dies a lot – in this case, kills more than dies.”

In fact, she added, a unit within the Public Prosecutor’s Office meant to oversee police actions had been depleted of staff and resources, resulting in a backlog of cases awaiting investigation.

The Jacarézinho raid was an outlier. It attracted national and international attention and actually led to an investigation. Many victims of armed violence never have their deaths investigated. Worse, their bodies are never found. This burden is then transferred to the victims’ relatives, usually women, according to Adriano de Araújo, a sociologist and coordinator with Fórum Grita Baixada, a social movement fighting for human rights, public security and justice in the Baixada Fluminense region of greater Rio.

“It is normally the women who get involved in searching for the victim. They are the ones visiting hospitals and morgues, putting up posters, gathering friends to search together. They are the ones going inside crack houses, speaking to the militias,” she said. “Then there is double violence because – besides not knowing where their sons, grandsons or brothers are – they have to hear that they have been negligent, that they are not good mothers or good spouses.”

The blame and shame contributes to the women’s suffering. Many of them already have prior health issues for lack of healthcare. “They stop taking care of themselves, they stop going to doctors’ appointments, forget to take their medications because this search for justice drains them emotionally,” said Araújo.

They also suffer the additional financial burden of losing a source of income for the family, something that matters in families where the woman is already the primary breadwinner.

No right to memory

One year on from the Jacarézinho operation, it remains an open wound. Every time there are attempts to heal, the wound is ripped open again. On 11 May 2022, less than a week after the first anniversary of the massacre, a simple memorial put up by relatives of the victims and other favela residents was torn down by police. In a scene heavy with symbolism, the small memorial plaque bearing the names of all the victims was pulled apart by a caveirão, an armoured vehicle. “No death shall be forgotten, no chacina shall be normalised,” the plaque had read.

"Memorials like the one in Jacarézinho are proof of life and a demonstration of the hope that brutality and arbitrariness will be remembered to not be repeated,” wrote prominent journalist Flávia Oliveira in her column in O Globo newspaper after the memorial was removed. “All this was taken away from the relatives of the ones killed during the massacre by the same public power which provoked it,” she added.

Meanwhile, the mothers of the Jacarézinho dead and other victims of police violence are doing their best to prevent the story from being rewritten, or erased altogether, by the state. In Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere in Brazil, collectives or groups of mothers and relatives of victims of state violence serve as support groups as well as living memorials to the young lives lost.

Cunha of Movimento Moleque says the mothers have a role model – the mothers of Acari. Those women from Rio’s Acari favela set out to discover the circumstances of the kidnapping and murder by police of 11 teenagers in July 1990. “They are a compass for us,” said Cunha. “The women who make us see that we cannot afford to stop.”

For these mothers, grief and memory are disputed territory, but one for which they continue to fight. To the state they are invisible – the collateral damage of armed violence – but to each other, they are lighthouses in the dark.


This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.


By        :           Laís Martins

Date     :           June 19, 2022

Source :           Open Democracy


Students Should Refuse to Go Back to School

Despite the hopelessness after Uvalde, we’re closer to understanding the kind of social movement that might actually affect gun reform.

It’s baffling. How can there be so much consensus among Americans about the need for stricter gun laws—63 percent want an outright ban on assault weapons—while we seem locked in this house of horrors, a schoolroom of slaughtered children around every turn, with no way out?

Yet moments of such misalignment, when the ideals of a critical mass clash with the rules that govern our collective lives, can also give rise to effective social movements. Most of us are unwilling to bear this American ritual any longer. The faces of those children. The unfathomable anguish of those parents, of those broken towns. The cruel inaction of politicians. At the same time, overwhelming evidence from countries such as Australia and Britain shows that reducing the number of guns in a society diminishes the possibility of mass shootings—and, I repeat, this is what a majority of Americans want.

The argument that we’ve been here before, that the gun lobby has a generation of politicians in its pocket, that our political system, and particularly the structure of the Senate, will always give outsize influence to Second Amendment absolutists—all of it is true. And yet, as awful as it is to say, we’re learning with every killing. We’re moving closer to the kind of movement that might actually make a difference.

Today, I’m left with one conclusion: The children and parents of our country need to take the summer to organize locally, build a set of national demands, and then refuse to go back to school in the fall until Congress does something.

Let me explain. Social movements need two elements to be successful: narrative and tactics. Borrowing from the political scientist Joseph Nye, we might think of these as soft power and hard power, respectively. Activists need to tell a compelling story that brings people along to a new way of thinking and emboldens them to act. But that isn’t enough. There is also the hard work of mustering actual political power to elect different representatives, change laws, and leverage lobbying.

When it comes to narrative, those whose lives are most at risk in mass shootings make for the best storytellers. This has been a strangely hard-won realization. Dave Cullen, who covered the Columbine shooting in 1999 and later wrote a book about it, has said that in the days and even weeks after the attack, none of the survivors wanted to talk about gun control. Though a common right-wing talking point is that speaking about new regulations immediately after a shooting is “politicizing” the tragedy, few people pay this much heed anymore. “Everybody keeps telling us that it’s not the time to be political,” Kimberly Rubio told The New York Times, two days after her daughter was killed in Uvalde, Texas. “But it is. It is.”

It’s one thing for public figures like Beto O’Rourke and Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr to vocalize the emotions many Americans want to scream out loud: Why does this keep happening? Do something! But it’s quite another to hear this sentiment from young people or the parents of the victims. We saw this after the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. How different the accusation sounded in the sobbing voice of Emma Gonzalez, a high-school student and one of the survivors: “They say that no laws could have been able to prevent the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS,” she said at the time. “That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works. We call BS.”

The Parkland kids, as they became known, built one of the most forceful movements around gun control to date, including the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., among the largest youth protests in history, held just a month after the shooting. They also helped persuade Florida’s governor to sign a bill that raised the minimum age for purchasing a gun to 21 and extended the waiting period to three days.

But another promising—and clearly agitating—action they carried out after the shooting was a national walkout. On March 14, 2018, they asked students to leave school at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes (for the 17 victims at Parkland). The protests were moving but happened haphazardly and only for a brief, emblematic period of time; they were repeated a month later on the anniversary of Columbine, and there were even some separately organized student strikes last week. The walkouts of 2018 may seem forgettable now, but they did point to a tactic that, used more aggressively, could genuinely get under the skin of some grown-ups.

And here is where hard power comes in. One thing we’ve learned from the pandemic is that when children aren’t in school, society strains. This would make a strike an extremely powerful form of leverage. A walkout with enough students involved and taking place over days, not minutes, puts concrete pressure on officials, from the municipal level all the way up to Washington. When students aren’t in school, parents have difficulty getting to work. Suddenly understaffed services—hospitals, subways—suffer the consequences. Politicians and local officials have a mess on their hands—children falling behind in learning, parents overloaded—and a strong incentive to accede to a demand.

I’m not looking forward to having my own children at home or seeing them pay an unfair price in lost education. They’ve suffered enough during the pandemic, and they shouldn’t be on the front lines solving a problem their elders created. But history tells us that successful movements always demand difficult trade-offs. Take the classic example of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott to protest segregation in the mid-1950s. For 381 days, at great burden to themselves, the Black citizens of the city walked and carpooled and otherwise put in the hard work to organize themselves so they could avoid taking the bus. This kind of self-sacrifice not only built an enormous sense of solidarity; it also allowed them to win.

The other thing movements need is time. This might be the reason the 2018 walkout failed to make much of an impact. It was a rushed response to the Parkland shooting that felt more symbolic than strategic. Acting in moments of heightened feeling, such as the one we’re in right now, can be good for soft power and not so good for the long-term accretion of hard power. It’s all too raw. Whatever emotion emboldens people in these moments tends to wear off as the frenetic news cycle turns its attention elsewhere. This might seem counterintuitive, but time is necessary to plan and to cohere as a movement. Luckily, summer vacation is just around the corner.

What if students, parents, and teachers took the next three months to mobilize? They could create thousands of local committees supporting the strike and decide on what the national demand might be—say, an assault-weapon ban. They could figure out the mutual support and child care they would need to get through the days and maybe weeks it would take for Congress to act. They could bolster their commitment to one idea, one tactic. For the youngest children, parents would have to take the lead. But Parkland showed us how committed teenagers could be to the cause of securing their own safety and futures. The movement could take time to coil its energy until the new academic year, when it would attack all at once.

This is all hypothetical, of course. I have no idea if such a dramatic action, demanding widespread dedication and sacrifice on the part of millions, could ever actually happen. But I do know that we are at a crossroads. The unbearable history of these shootings has exhausted us, but it has also given us a hint of a way forward. Have we suffered enough sorrow to consider it?


Gal Beckerman is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is the author of The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas.


By           :         Gal Beckerman

Date       :          May 31, 2022

Source   :          The Atlantic