Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Are You Worthy of a Campaign?

There’s a problem with how we react to the arrest of a person we know either through personal relations or via the virtual world. It may be done in the best of intentions, yet this discussion needs to be brought out into the fore in order to generate evaluations and alternatives, something that can also be thought of as productive and beneficial to the larger cause at hand.

Who is “we”? It is a sweeping overview of friends, family members, armchair activists, activists who receive salaries for their activism, international activists, anyone who self-identifies as an activist, concerned human beings, sympathetic journalists, sensitive artists, etc all who have one thing in common once they unify their efforts into a fierce Facebook/Twitter battalion for a campaign of selectivity. 

The news of a friend’s arrest is never easy to stomach. That was a completely pointless sentence to write. Of course it’s hard, obviously it’s difficult, sometimes to the point where perhaps inadvertently the arrest centers on you, the friend, the mother, the fellow student, the peer. That’s the easy thing, turning the arrest of an individual no matter how close or distant you are to them into a personal issue for well-intentioned reasons (to raise awareness about the detainee) or for revolting motives (to score more activist credit points). The way we deal with arrests is indicative of just how constrained our actions have become—stuck in the elaborate and oftentimes tedious social media world.

And thus, the limiting reaction is epitomized in the routine steps, sometimes done all at once: the hashtag, the uninspiring graphic design poster, the Facebook page, the petitions, the tagging of photos, the tweets, and the statuses.

[This is the part where my slanderers double-check the author, roll their eyes and think: she always criticizes. Go on, I’ll pretend to give a few shits.]

The countering response would be that these social media efforts are undertaken for the pure purpose of raising awareness about the detainee. That would be perfectly acceptable, except therein lies the problem itself. First of all, it depends on who the detainee is, and second of all, what the “raising awareness” part actually entails.

Who is the detainee that deserves all this automatically warranted attention? The criteria is simple and straightforward: someone that is privileged, urbanized, known within the elite social circles, active on social media/blogger, secular, bilingual (or has access to English speakers), and in the words of an ignorant and oriental Israeli photographer, “young and hip.” In other words, someone the west can relate to. Someone who is easy to describe in the dreaded colonial rhetoric as “nonviolent” and “peaceful” yet reasonably passionate about their beliefs and actions.

These exclusionary standards are not only harmfully selective with regards to the majority of Palestinian arrestees, but also telling of the class and inter-city divide within Palestinian society (more specifically in the West Bank). What gives a young man from Ramallah who has been called up for a “little chat over coffee” with the repressive Palestinian Authority security forces and is released a few hours later the preference of loud campaigning (which in this case relatively speaking amounts to stirring a storm in a teacup), over the brutal Israeli occupation arrest of a teenager from one of the refugee camps? The young man from Ramallah is encircled with members of his social group cut from the same mold as him: tech savvy, employed, self-identified activists who are well connected in terms of media mobilization locally and sometimes, internationally.

The teenager from the refugee camp is not offered the opportunities in life in terms of university education and employment, and would rightly regard the term “activism” as an elitist one. His subsequent marginalization would be justified as him being “used to this” referring back to his social status, a sentiment that harkens back to the traditional racism the city folk held towards the refugees and the squalor they are forced to live in.

It is also expected that an arrest from Ramallah or a similar social circle with the same characteristics as the criteria mentioned above will garner more attention than the killing of a villager or refugee resident. Aida refugee camp located north of Bethlehem has witnessed almost daily raids and incursions by the Israeli occupation forces for the past few months, and "mum" has been the word from people outside the camp (although the role of the Palestinian Authority’s allowance for the limited reporting/media gag should not be ignored). Yesterday, a 40 year old disabled woman, Noha Qatamesh, suffocated to death as a result of the occupation forces firing tear gas canisters in and around her house. Her name will be forgotten, because she has no connections with the international community/activists, is not an active member on social media, and undesirably old.

The inter-city discrimination is also self-evident. Ramallah is the self-styled capital of Israel’s collaborating ruling class. It is the center, a once otherwise nondescript lovely town ravaged by the rotten fruits of economic development/neoliberalism into mushrooming concrete disaster. It is where many agents reside and make their living, including those who suddenly become photographers because they are handed cameras, or journalists who are given pens and instructed on what to write about. The protests against the high cost of living prices in September 2012 reached their thousands in demonstrators in Hebron, yet the spotlight was given to the hastily put together and measly protests of PA employees and high school boys let out early from their classes to chant obediently against then Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, without mentioning Mahmoud Abbas or the root cause of the problem, the normalizing economic treaty with the occupiers who have control over every aspect.

Raising awareness regarding a person’s arrest is problematic if the well-meaning party does not understand the arbitrary, colonial and racist Israeli prison court and “justice” system. With a conviction rate of 99.74%, it is apparent that a Palestinian could be jailed simply for who they are and not on what they did or did not do. Sharing information about the detainee including photographs of them participating in protests is potentially incriminating to him/her, as the occupation (although it doesn’t need to) will use and add on fabrications to whatever material is so readily available through the photos, tweets, or Facebook campaign page of the detainee. Even sharing seemingly harmless details from their personal lives may be used as fodder against them.

What can be inferred from the use of these tactics serve is that they primarily personalize the cause to a specific individual. We all recognize the importance of not treating the plight of Palestinians as a given normalized suffering, or through mass statistics (such as the prisoner deal swap back in October 2011, where Palestinian prisoners due to be released were referred to by the number they totaled, “1,027,” and the occupation solider was referred to by his name attached to his life story), yet when the Palestinian individual is given preferential treatment over others, therein lies the problematic nature of them receiving more attention than others.

It is also worthwhile to point out that the families of the detainees do not for whatever reasons obtain immediate updates regarding the situation and the probable consequences their child faces. Having to find out from the news is a sucker punch that is undeserving and unfair to the parents, as it only increases their trepidation, concern, and psychological stress. This is why public campaigns on social media need to be, if used at all, conducted with a decorum of sensitivity and common sense, as opposed to sensationalist news.

One last topic to touch upon is the positionality of those reporting, advocating, or campaigning for a specific arrested person. This can be regarded through two intersecting branches: the internationals’ positionality, and the Palestinians’.

Perhaps it can be chalked to naiveté, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that this is the only intention that exists. Observing statuses and tweets of people who have either briefly met or know of the arrested, a slew of ingratiating emotion is on display in a way that projects these people as subtly scoring points to appear as hardcore activists or in the trendy revolutionary crowd. It.Is.Not.About.You. It never has, and it will never be. What can be more cringe-worthy to read from these people who barely have any sort of relationship with the detainee than: “The Israeli occupation forces arrested my dear friend XY and I am heartbroken and wish for XY’s immediate release and safety”? By ignoring the wider context of systematic Palestinian imprisonment by Israel is to remove the single story from the reality; to consider it as something out of the ordinary, an abnormal occurrence and one that is not intrinsically bound to the technologies of Israeli occupation.

We (this time, "we" meaning the psychedelic like-minded people I call my friends) used to joke about the hypothetical reaction in case we got arrested. “Oh, there are plenty of pictures of you on Facebook. Imagine a nicely worded slogan beneath your chin, and a photo-shopped picture of a dove, all done in black and white…no no, sepia.” “Please, as I languish in my cell, don’t forget to lead a candle vigil at the Manara Square for me.” “Make sure you all include how peaceful I am and place special emphasis on just how terribly unjust Israel is.” We would all guffaw and grimace at the same time, but it no longer became funny when this is precisely what was happening. When this was the only thing happening.

Realistically speaking, is it worthwhile to create a Facebook page or allocate certain hashtags to everyone that gets arrested? No. So why do we do it for specific people? What is it about their appeal to warrant such an act? Against which standards are we measuring that to?

I don’t claim to have the solution to everything, and I’m against the tedious and totally insipid claim that in order to criticize you must present an alternative. Oftentimes, we need to step outside the circle of action we’re heavily involved in, to allow room for observance and assessment. Personally, I don’t believe that a media campaign or awareness will lead to any changes or “pressure” the occupation system into releasing a prisoner (although it might be nice to paper your walls with Amnesty International’s bland appeals and calls for release). It is however, extremely significant to stand with the detainee’s family, and in whatever way possible, get the message across to the detainee that they are not forgotten, that they have enough support from their people which will comfort and reassure them, and that as part and parcel of living under occupation, their experience is simultaneously exceptional, because everyone experiences incarceration differently, as well as predictable, because it is an inherent method of colonial population control.

And for that to materialize, we must in the words of some unknown poet or a graffiti spray-painted in one of Ramallah’s upscale roads, return to the streets and desist from hammering, that is, dependently utilizing only the social media world.

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