During a health lockdown, the State uses its powers to contain the epidemic. At best, it uses powers like science (contact tracing, testing, isolating, treating) and persuasion (convincing people by means of logical argument on the best behavior required so as to quell the spread). If its powers of science or persuasion falter, it resorts to using violence. So, we start with the reminder that we, as the people, have to control the epidemic if we want to avoid state violence. Today, even as new Covid cases soar, this fact forces us keep on our agenda the dangers of the violence of the State.
In parallel, we watch on TV yesterday, as witnesses in the Criminal case testify against police officer Derek Chauvin, who killed George Floyd in Minneapolis last year. This is another grim reminder of the way the State maintains its monopoly on violence. It is a truly clear, stark and frightening lesson in the violence of the state. An officer walking to-and-fro with one hand on his gun on his hip prevents a little gathering of women, young girls and men, who had been passing by, from intervening to save George Floyd’s life – even though they clearly want to, need to, and are haunted by their inability to have done so. Another officer, Chauvin, meanwhile slowly kills George Floyd, with the help of two others, before the very eyes of the witnesses. Social control is thus stifled by state violence.
George Floyd for the first six whole minutes calls out for help. Again and again, he says he can’t breathe. The people watching call out to the officers to stop it, trying to reason, trying to beg for the officers to stop choking him, astounded – you can hear it – by their callousness, accusing them of irresponsibility of being the lowest. Even after George Floyd is motionless, not responding, clearly unconscious or dead, Chauvin persists in putting increasing pressure on his neck with his knee for another full three minutes. One witness, who knows martial arts, telephones some other police officers in the hope that they might come and stop the violence of these four policemen. Two young girls, minors whose faces can’t be seen in Court for this reason, filmed the entire murder. They bore witness. They also called out at the same time for the police to stop it – you hear their voices. They spoke up and yesterday, again, they speak up. Everyone present is clearly petrified of the guns bulging from the hips of those officers.
The arrest of Mr. Floyd on a minor charge began with one of the four officers pulling a gun on him. That is also on film. Everyone in America knows how often people are killed by such guns. Such is the systemic violence of the state. About 1,000 people are killed a year. And so scared are the bystanders that, although they are more people than the four officers, and although they are clearly in the right, they can do more than plead and film. Even as Mr. Floyd is murdered. If someone in that group had a gun – so many Americans justify the 2nd Amendment on the grounds of the need to be armed, presumably to be able to act against such autocracy – could he or she have shot Derek Chauvin? Should they have shot Derek Chauvin? To save George Floyd? When I write this, when I ask myself this, I am challenging the monopoly that officers of the State have to do just that.
I ask myself this, because seeing all this torture, cruelty and murder, now nearly year after it happened, forces us, especially during a lockdown, to look at what the State actually is. For us, in LALIT and in the association “Justice: Against Violence by Officer of the State”, we are accustomed to having to think deeply about what this impunity of state officers means. Now, is a moment as good as any for me to share some of our thinking, done collectively over decades – with help from everyone in LALIT, from all the brave men, victims who survived police violence, who testified in “speak-outs” we organized, and also from barrister, Jean-Claude Bibi, and from others as politically different from us as Ivan Martial and Lindsay Morvan.
The state is, of course, when push comes to shove, a band of armed men. (Still mainly “men”.) They, in the final analysis, and even on an ordinary day like 25 May 2020 in Minneapolis, assure that a small ruling class can maintain its wealth and wield its power over a vast mass of humans with little wealth or power (unless at some point we manage to come together in a political organization independent of this ruling class). Here in Minneapolis, we had four armed men, together, committing murder. They were against one unarmed man in hand-cuffs pinned to the ground by police officers in a mortal hold, a teenage girl caring for her 9-year-old girl cousin on the way to a little shop and armed with nothing but a cellphone video, two other teenage girls going to buy an auxiliary cord to play music on and also with nothing but a cellphone video, a martial arts specialist who happened to be going past and who could only use, as weapon, his cellphone to call the police and an off-duty woman fire-fighter. It is like a frieze of the monopoly on violence that the State maintains.
At the same time as this Court Case proceeds, I am rereading Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece, Hocus Pocus. It is a witty story, deeply tragic, too, about a character called Eugene Dobbs Hartke, named after the American socialist, but then, by chance, becoming a career officer in Vietnam. There he killed, “on orders”, more people than he could count, not including those killed from so high he could not see how many he killed by burning them alive, and amongst those he killed and did count were Vietnamese allies trying to scramble on board the US helicopters airlifting “Americans only” out of Saigon, when they fled in shame as they lost the war. So the novel Hocus Pocus is, in a way about the violence of officers of the state. When these officers get back home, it is as if they had committed these crimes off their own bat, the novel shows. It is as if no-one existed who gave the orders. The character Eugene later, by chance again, becomes a lecturer in a private college for the rich, and ends up, again by chance, being teacher in a privatized prison owned and staffed by a Japanese company. A close colleague of his at the prison was bombed, as a child, in Hiroshima by one of two American bombs that wiped out two whole cities – Hiroshima and Nagasaki, civilian populations and all – when the war was effectively over. How is that for violence by the officers of that same State? Violence still not processed by society.
And Mauritius is, today, militarily occupied by this same American State.
The US army has a military base on the territory for which we, as Mauritians, are democratically responsible.
We looked on, like the people in Minneapolis watching the murder of George Floyd, as B-52’s took off from Diego Garcia to bomb civilians in Baghdad, in Afghanistan, and we don’t even know where else. We looked on as the CIA officers tortured a man and his pregnant wife on Diego Garcia without so much as a cellphone video in our hands. The very least we can do, given how armed to the teeth the US State is, is to call out, to take a stand, and to testify, like the people watching George Floyd’s murder so bravely did, and are so bravely doing.
We call on people to take a stand, instead, as too many people in Mauritius do, of attending US Embassy events, and even accepting scholarships from the US State, itself, via the Embassy. It is an occupying power with its knee on the neck of Mauritius. It is preventing the Mauritian state and the people of Chagos from breathing.
Yes, this US State, together with the British State, when began its attempt to squeeze the life out of a whole people living on Chagos, the Chagossians, it first amputated Chagos from the rest of Mauritius illegally, thus preventing the complete decolonization of Mauritius, then proceeded to kill the Chagossians’ dogs in ovens before their very eyes, then literally forced them off Chagos in the holds of ships, and proceeded to pretend, for decades that the Chagossians had never existed.
Only a long struggle – petitions, hunger strikes, fights against the Mauritian Riot Police, Court Case, international conferences, articles, marches, Court Cases against Chagossian and LALIT women who held demonstrations in the streets of Port Louis, and even the beginnings of a whole flotilla to go to Chagos – a struggle still on today, makes us bystanders, who can be proud, like those teenagers, a child, and those adults who spoke up and testified at the time of the murder of George Floyd. This is why in LALIT we forced the Mauritian state to go to the UN system. This is why applaud the victories at the UNCLOS Tribunal, then the ICJ, the General Assembly and now again confirmed in January at the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea. And this is why we also, alongside workers’ unions, women’s organizations, consumer organizations and now a young peoples’ organization, too, call for the closing of the military base on Diego Garcia.
And this must be part of closing of all Mauritian ports to all war ships (Port Louis, Port Mathurin, Agalega, St Brandon and Diego Garcia), and more broadly, the closing down of all military bases, and the demilitarizing the world.
This must be part of building a society where there is no longer a State that is separate from the people. What we need is a truly democratic society. The “state”, given that it is a band of armed men assuring the reign of a small class against huge other classes, once there are no longer classes, will no longer have that raison d’etre. So, you see there is a logic to us, ourselves as the people standing up so that we can contain the epidemic with the help of the Health Authorities that we have to keep independent. You see there is a logic in us calling, until today, for the truth in how Kaya was killed in police detention. And how we, until today, have to denounce the senseless bombing of those two cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And how we have to get that military base on Diego Garcia closed down, and until it gets closed down, we have to remind the US Embassy that represents it, that the base must go. It is time for you to join us in getting this base closed, and in closing our ports to all warships.