Armed police in Ferguson – By Richard Pithouse In colonial wars the occupying power invariably reaches a point where it has to acknowledge that its true enemy is not a minority – devil worshipers, communists, fanatics or terrorists – subject to externa …
– By Richard Pithouse
In colonial wars the occupying power invariably reaches a point where it has to acknowledge that its true enemy is not a minority – devil worshipers, communists, fanatics or terrorists – subject to external and evil manipulation, but the people as a whole. Once this point is reached every colonised person is taken as a potential combatant and the neighbourhood and the home are cast as legitimate sites of combat.
This is the moment when liberal paternalism breaks down.
From its first stirrings liberalism has often managed the contradiction between this reality and its affirmation of liberty by limiting its reach in both spatial and racial terms. The rules that were understood to apply in England or France were not applied on the slave plantations of America or the Caribbean or, more recently, during the colonial wars in Kenya or Algeria. The same is true in Gaza today.
But as Aimé Césaire argued in 1955, in an essay first published in Paris, colonialism has a ‘boomerang effect’ – what is done over there will eventually be done at home, usually to a group of people that has been raced out of the count of who is taken as an authentic citizen with full rights to presence. On the 17th of October 1961, as the Algerian war against French colonialism was coming to an end, thousands of Algerians, between thirty and forty thousand men, women and children, dressed in their best clothes, marched in Paris in protest at a curfew on Algerians. Before the march Maurice Papon, the chief of police who had been a collaborator with the Nazis during the Second World War, informed his officers that “Even if the Algerians are not armed, you should think of them always as armed.”
The marchers were met with a savage police attack. People were thrown into the Seine, some dead, others bloodied but still alive. Some were taken to the police headquarters and beaten to the death in the courtyard. Others were taken to sport stadiums and left to die without medical attention. For years there was simply no discussion of this in France. One result of this long silence is that the exact number of people murdered by the police on that day is not clear. Credible estimates range up to 200.
Colonial powers have always shared what they have learnt about oppression. Some of the people that tortured for apartheid learnt their skills from the French who had made torture a routine feature of their attempt to contain resistance to colonialism in Algerian. Colonised people have also always shared their knowledge about how to resist oppression. In 1962 Nelson Mandela went to newly independent Algeria to be trained as a soldier.
From the eighteenth century it was, perhaps more than anyone else, sailors who spread revolt from port to port. In 1804 African slaves won their freedom in Haiti. Four years later slaves, ripped from around the world and thrown together in Cape Town, unfurled the banner of revolt in Cape Town. The docks in Cape Town would remain a site of subversive exchange until at least the early twentieth century when sailors bought anarchist, communist and Garveyist ideas into dialogue with more local experiences and ideas sparking the emergence of the Industrial and Commercial workers’ Union, which, as it spread from Cape Town, through the Eastern Cape to Durban and as far as what are now the independent states of Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia, became at various points, a trade union, a peasant movement and a shack dwellers’ movement.
Today the zones where enduring colonial power relations take their most extreme forms, places like Palestine and Haiti, are not solely sites of egregious oppression. They are also laboratories where new modes of oppression are tested. The Brazilian soldiers that were part of the United Nations occupation of Haiti and played a part in crushing the movement for democracy and justice in the shack settlements of Port-au-Prince returned home to occupy the favelas in Rio. The Israeli state sells the technologies it has tested in Palestine, and it and consultants linked to it train police officers, soldiers and private security companies from other countries. The lessons learnt in Gaza will be shared with the with the security apparatus from Johannesburg to Paris and New York as old forms of domination are modernised.
When the overwhelmingly white police department in Ferguson, Missouri, some of whom are Israeli trained, responded to protest at their murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, they brought in equipment first used in the Iraq war. The images that rushed around the world showed what can only be understood as a mode of policing rooted in contemporary forms of imperial and colonial power in the Middle East, as well as the long history of state violence against black people in the United States. Unsurprisingly people in Gaza started sending advice to people in Ferguson via twitter about how to deal with stun grenades, tear gas and all the rest. Messages of support were sent from Gaza to Ferguson.
— مريم البرغوثي (@MariamBarghouti) August 14, 2014
In South Africa it cannot be denied that police, equipped in part from Israel, approach fellow citizens as if they were the enemy in a colonial war. Nobody who has seen the footage of the Marikana massacre, or an eviction at the Marikana Land Occupation in Durban, can have any doubt about this. And as in Gaza, or Ferguson, the evident coloniality of some forms of contemporary state power is not simply a matter of the subordination of social questions to a military logic. Just as the same water cannons are used in Gaza, Port-au-Prince and Ferguson, as well as the shack lands of Brazil and South Africa, so too are the same ideological operations are repeated, albeit with different key words, around the world. The person who is always treated as if they are armed, whose life counts for nothing, whose home has no sanctity, is a terrorist in Gaza, a gangster or a criminal in Port-au-Prince, Ferguson, Rio or Durban. In Gaza the people are conflated with Hamas, in Port-au-Prince its Aristide and Lavalas. Here it’s the third force.
The impunity of the Israeli state, like the impunity of the American state, like the impunity with which the South African state increasingly uses murder, and legitimates the use of murder as a tool of social control, must be smashed. The militarization of social questions must be smashed everywhere. If not what is done in Haiti will continue to boomerang into Brazil. It will continue to become part of the standard mechanisms to police the urban poor from Bombay to Johannesburg. What is done in Palestine will boomerang into the suburbs of Paris, the ghettos of the United States and the places where striking workers gather, and the dispossessed occupy land, in our own country.
– Dr Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa. This article was originally published on the The South African Civil Society Information Service website.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.