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Reflections upon Political Militants Facing up to Repressive Forces

14.01.2022

The recent arrest in Rose-Belle of Roland Fozoo and Rajni Lallah, two of our leading members, has prompted us, in LALIT, to begin a series of in-party Zoom sessions on the issue of police repression and how to continue to deal with it. We are putting our heads together to share experiences and to understand the phenomenon so as best to end it, or at least minimize its bad effects. The repressive forces are, together with the taxation authorities, the very definition of the bourgeois state.


We as active political militants have to learn to face three kinds of repression: “political” repression, “not-specifically-political” repression, and the insidious repression “egged on” by mainly the petty-bourgeoisie, including the press and radio, calling for “law-and-order”. The Jugnauth regimes have always relied on repression as an answer to social problems. This one continues to do so.


Repression as a Risk Factor in political action


The first type of repression, “political repression”, is the repression you get as a direct result of participation in political acts – we refer to political actions in general, not necessarily party political, not necessarily electoral, but actions that are part of a political campaign. Sometimes the repression may also come in response to the expressing of political beliefs – again, general political beliefs that are not necessarily partisan in any way. 


The repression that follows a political action, or follows the expression of a political opinion, tends to amplify attention accorded the original issue that you are trying to put on the agenda. This means it can have an unexpectedly positive effect. The police often lose face when they use this kind of repression, and it rebounds against the regime in power. Populists sometimes, in an opportunistic way, use this fact in order to get mileage out of an arrest, for example, by offering to be arrested in the middle of the night and getting the press to be present. 


But, in general, it is true that repression following a political act can have, as well as nuisance value to you or even severe consequences for you, also have the advantage of actually further advancing the cause you were already fighting for. Say, you are in a demonstration to draw attention to a housing problem. You take the risk of arrest or being beaten by Riot Police with batons. If you are arrested or beaten up, this repression can, in turn, draw attention to the housing problem you were originally demonstrating on. It is not your aim, but it is a risk worth running because it can promote your cause. (Leaders, by the way, always have the responsibility to make sure that everyone invited to a given demonstration knows the precise risks involved e.g. is the demonstration “legal” or is it not so clear, and what consequences may thus follow.) The police are aware of the dangers of what they call “turning someone into a martyr”.


Anyway, here are a few randomly selected examples from our own experience:


* LALIT militants, Ragini Kistnasamy and Lindsey Collen, suffered arrest, beating, detention and charges for demonstrating for the UK-USA occupiers to leave Chagos and for the closing of the Diego Garcia base – our women members took the risk, the police man-handled them, eight of the women demonstrators – Chagossians and LALIT women – were arrested, arrests that drew more attention still to an on-going hunger strike on the issue. The arrests and trial put the Chagos issue so firmly on the agenda that the first real compensation was offered to Chagossians, and we are until today in 2022 involved in the struggle to close this base, after any number of victories. In this case, the arrests were predicted, and turned out to advance our cause.


* There was police brutality against LALIT women and MLF members getting ready to start a demonstration in front of the then Police Station in Petite Riviére. The aim of the demonstration was to make sure charges were laid against two police officers accused of raping two women from the neighbourhood inside the Police Station when they had gone there for assistance; the women present were manhandled but never charged. Charges were subsequently laid against the police officers for rape, and the issue of rape was put on the political agenda.


* There was the arrest of five LALIT members (Rajni Lallah, Ram Seegobin, Lindsey Collen, Alain Ah-Vee and then in LALIT, Ashok Subron) during a candle-light demonstration against the Public Security Bill, which Bill never actually became law, though The Prevention of Terrorism Act did, despite further protest actions, including the resignation of a President of the Republic, Cassam Uteem – lalit kont lalwa represif kontinye ziska ler. We were held at Line Barracks for a few hours, but were never charged in Court.


 


*   Ram Seegobin and Rajni Lallah were arrested, charged and found not guilty of participating in an unlawful demonstration when 800 DWC workers were fired from work for participating in a perfectly legal strike – the fired workers eventually received compensation for illegal sacking, and the struggle for the right to strike continues until today. 


* Lindsey Collen was threatened under the Criminal Code for being a threat to public order because of her novel – there were never charges, and the banning turned out to have been illegal. In this case, there was the additional danger of the State allying with fundamentalist forces. However, the subject of rape again got put on the political agenda, as did freedom of expression. 


* Ram Seegobin and Lindsey Collen had trumped up charges slapped on them long after a confrontation with police officers, who our members found to be spying on a preparatory meeting for when George W. Bush was due to come to Mauritius (he did not ever come because he, meanwhile, declared war on Iraq). Both LALIT members were eventually found “not guilty” on far-fetched accusations. As witness we had the late Per Henri Souchon about whether police were supposed to be at the Centre Social Marie Reine de la Paix premises. Attention was brought by the trumped up charges to the dangers of the USA’s Africa Growth and Opportunities Act which Bush was to be promoting on his planned visit. This AGOA is an ever-present danger to all African countries, even now, and the charges brought attention to the issue.


There are dozens more such instances. All this to say that if you suffer repression while involved in overtly political actions, or while writing something eminently sensible like a novel or article and you suffer repression, the repression is both a risk you took, and also a possible advancement to the cause you were involved in promoting in the first place. The amount of repression used depends on the balance of class forces. Remember during the August 1979 general strike movement, there were more than a hundred demonstrations – all illegal, some huge – and there were no arrests for these, nor were there any court cases afterwards. The balance of class forces did not permit this. There were other forms of repression: sackings, and cases for individual acts of violence against a boss here or there. 


Let us also look at “non-political” repression. “Non-political repression” is both harder to cope with psychologically and politically, and also more profoundly important for understanding the nature of “the State”.


Repression that is Meted out Habitually against the Powerless Poor


The second kind of repression is the non-political repression. Political activists can also get arrested and/or brutalized, and/or then suffer trumped up charges because, for some reason, they fall into the category of people that the police habitually brutalize, “the powerless poor”, or the relatively powerless citizen. That is what happened in January 2022 to LALIT members Roland Fozoo and Rajni Lallah. 


In these kinds of case a political militant gets treated by the repressive forces in the same way that the repressive forces habituallytreat the poorer people in the working class, people in the underclass, or sometimes people in a lower class than the complainant. One of our members has charges against him for some kind of trespass on a big landowner’s property; the original charges, laid years ago, have been withdrawn, while the police look around for a new charge. He, though a teacher, writer and farmer, which is not part of the under-class, is in a much lower class than the “gran misye” who has made a statement against him. 


In fact, most cases of police brutality that reach the newspapers are cases where people not in the poorer segments of the working class, not in the underclass, get the same maltreatment that is habitually meted out to the powerless poor. 


When LALIT was amongst those that set up JUSTICE: Association against Violence by Officers of the State, we found out exactly how this habitual mistreatment works. In fact, after the 5-10 years of JUSTICE’s existence and actions unifying victims’ families and survivors of police and prison violence and torture, we in LALIT noticed that most cases that came to the forefront were cases of mistaken identity, or cases of someone not amongst the “powerless poor” ending up willy-nilly in this category. A “cause celebre” is usually one of those cases – where a single case is so “perfect” in its ability to help everyone understand the issues and in its capacity to inspire support from broad sections of the people against a more general ill in society. 


In JUSTICE, we found that people seemed to auto-selected themselves as “cause celebre” in their testimonies. Through this mobilization we can say that, in general, police brutality lessened somewhat. It was like #MeToo, in that men who were victims of violence would come forward and say “me too”. And this way, the shame was no longer theirs. We had changed the balance of forces against the police by sustained actions to expose the violence that is habitually, and invisibly, meted out to the powerless poor. However, with the weakening of JUSTICE as an association, over time, the police brutality has seen a resurgence.  


In LALIT, we have the advantage of having been in JUSTICE and seen how the brutality works. 


* The Municipal worker who, on the day of his marriage in Immaculée Church in Port Louis, has to go to the Port Louis market to buy a posy of flowers, and in a case of mistaken identity gets grabbed and beaten up by the Trou Fanfaron police, and then attending his own wedding with a black eye. He bore witness in public. This action is what JUSTICE was. 


* The woman witness, who was someone’s alibi in a high-profile murder case, gets taken to cane fields by the Raddhoa gang and tortured to try and make her lie. She stands up and gives evidence. She is what the association, JUSTICE, was.


* The LALIT member who identified to the police a smart door, stolen from his work-place. He had seen it at some second-hand dealer’s place, told his boss, and accompanied his boss to inform the Police. He then gets arrested, tortured and beaten up – the receiver of stolen goods that he denounced was, it became clear to him, part of a police protection racket. 


* Politician Cehl Meeah was tortured repeatedly, and had a few dozen police cases pending against him – all dropped in one day, as part of a political deal. 


* Then there was the lawyer, who was defending a man brutalized by a police team who was then, himself, brutalized so loudly in the Curepipe police station that the disturbance the police made with all their shouting could be heard from the Curepipe Courts. 


* There was the man, who was a possible witness, it seems, to the whereabouts of his nephew at a given time, innocent as he was, was arrested and murdered. The police were trying to find out where the nephew – accused of a grisly murder of two women in Lallmatie – was at a particular time, and the witness’s statement to the Police was “not coherent”, according to the police. So they arrested, tortured and murdered him. 


*Another man whose grown-up son was accused in a bank robbery, was stripped naked by the Police and tortured. He was exposed naked to his son, and was beaten with two telephone directories on both ears at the same time, and was given electric shocks. 


* Another man who was driving a newly acquired car on his way to meet friends to go fishing was stopped by the police as part of a routine check. The police officers, who found some minor discrepancy in the papers for his new car, then set about beating him to death.


And long before JUSTICE was set up, LALIT had begun to support victims of police violence, and their survivors. The first such case in 1979, was when the police killed Serge Victorine. Between the police and the press the dead man was branded a “rapist”, and it was only decades later, in JUSTICE that the man arrested with him in 1979 told us that the slur was just part of the police cover-up. He and his dead friend had in fact been charged for a hold-up.


All this to say, that police violence which is “non-political” is in fact deeply political. It keeps the class society we live in under capitalism, “in order” – with the powerless poor paying the brunt. 


Egged-on Repression


There is a third kind of repression that is whipped up by the petty-bourgeoisie, and by opposition forces, calling for “Law and Order”, and aiming at the Prime Minister who is also Minister of the Interior. This is sometimes against “banditism” and petty-theft, which become severe problems when there is unemployment. It is most often around not cracking down hard enough of drugs. This kind of repression has the curious nature of making police officers ingratiate themselves, at one and the same time, to the Regime in power and the opposition forces.


This was how the musician Kaya was killed by police officers. He was the star of a concert in 1999 organized by Rama Valayden calling for the decriminalization of gandya. The concert was a “success” in populist terms, and literally thousands of people openly smoked joints under police officers’ noses. This is a typical Rama Valayden populist action, which probably set back the struggle to decriminalize drugs for a couple of decades, a struggle that LALIT had been at the forefront of. Anyway, once the concert was over, ran headlines calling for arrests to be made, and accusing the police of being weak and ineffective at applying the law. (Please read Jean-Claude Bibi’s excellent analysis in “Law Keepers and Hypocrites” at https://www.lalitmauritius.org/en/newsarticle/414/booklet-on-kayas-death-lawkeepershypocrites-by-jean-claude-bibi/). In a brave editorial in 2019, to mark 20 years’ commemoration of Kaya’s death, L’Express in an editorial under the title “Mea Culpa” apologised publicly for its role. 


So, with the battle cry of “law and order” behind them, police arrested six people, who had been at the concert. Five chose to plead “not guilty” to the charge of smoking a joint – for which there was no forensic evidence, of course, in any case, and everything would have ended there. But Kaya pleaded “guilty”, as a political stand. The police insisted on him needing to raise bail before letting him free. The deadline to pay bail was short before the week-end came, bail was not raised in time, and Kaya was kept in police custody, where he was killed. Curiously, no-one ever held the then Prime Minister, who was the minister in charge of police, responsible. This was simply because everyone with any nous knew that he was not responsible. Elements in the police force in favour of a big Opposition Party at the time took the calls for “law and order” as an excuse to torture Kaya to try to get him to implicate Rama Valayden. He would not, and the torture went “too far” and he died from being shaken, probably by his hair. That is the best explanation of what happened. 


It is a sad case of repression that follows “egging on” or incitement to the police to “act”.   


Cases in the middle


In some cases, the repression is on the border-line, falling in-between the first two types, political and non-political repression. 


For example, once before, the police in Rose-Belle had arrested LALIT member, Roland Fozoo and a then-LALIT-member, Devianand Narain. The two activists, being members of JUSTICE, too, had gone to see someone at his home one evening because the man had asked for help as he said he was a victim of police brutality. Going to the person’s house, rather than meeting them elsewhere, was arguably a tactical error for the two militants to make, and sure enough, it turned out that way. More specifically, in LALIT we usually call for victims to make a formal complaint, then support them once they have shown the courage to stand up, themselves. the Rose-Belle LALIT members received wrong advice, and decided to go and interview the man at his residence. At the very moment they were going to the man’s house, a whole big outfit of police officers had organized to lie in wait in the dark to see who would turn up at this man’s house – because someone had disappeared and the man was under observation as a link person. So, when our two members turned up at the inopportune moment, the police arrested them, man-handled them and kept them imprisoned in police cells. All this even though it was a kind of “mistaken identity”. Then the police, finding they had no charges they could possibly lay, laid the default charges of Rogue and Vagabond, getting the poor man who was the original victim of police violence, who was in their custody, to give a false statement that he did not know the two men, the LALIT members, who came to his house. Our members were eventually found not-guilty. But the punishment had already been meted out – in the way that is habitual in police officers’ dealing with the powerless poor. 


It was a case of “sentencing first and verdict afterwards”. 


As the Queen in Alice in Wonderland famously put it in-between shouting “Off with his head!” and “Off with her head!” in the following dialogue: 


“Let the jury consider their verdict,” the King said, for about the twentieth time that day. 


“No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first–verdict afterward.” 


“Stuff and nonsense!” said Alice loudly.


History dies hard


Remember, we have the police descended from times of slavery, indenture, colonization, and a repressive post-colonial Capitalist State.


In countries like Mauritius, the police force benefits from powers that were those of the slave owner. Just as the Code Noir established the rule: “Article XXXIII. The slave who has struck his master in the face or has drawn blood (French original: effusion de sang) ... shall be punished by death ... ”. Study that phrase for the balance of forces of that time. If you strike a police officer in today’s Mauritius with “effusion of blood” you get a worse penalty. The present Criminal Code says so. The same defining idea of the “blood” of the powerful being so important remains. The culture of the institution of slavery remains. 


And not only that, but the previous article of the Code Noir reads “Article XXXI. Slaves shall not be a party, either in [criminal] court or in a civil matter.” And there is still the same feel to the law and its application today. It is as if the powerless poor “shall not be party, either in [criminal] court or in a civil matter”. So that, if you are poor, in a way, you are still not a “party” to the case in which you are the accused, not until you get into the Court Room, anyway, which may be a decade later, if ever. And you are not really a “party” if you don’t understand what is going on because colonization has left the proceedings in a foreign language. So, when you speak Kreol or Bhojpuri, you find all the legal arguments and procedural issues are conducted in tongues foreign to you and to 80% of the population. And you are not really a “party” if you haven’t got the money, either, for a lawyer to defend you, and so, as a layperson, you do not even know what’s going on. And the bosses had quite a wide exemption from bureaucratic problems from the police: The French Code Noir says at Article 43 “Enjoignons à nos officiers de poursuivre criminellement les maîtres ou les commandeurs qui auront tué un esclave étant sous leur puissance ou sous leur direction et de punir le meurtre selon l’atrocité des circonstances; et, en cas qu’il y ait lieu à l’absolution, permettons à nos officiers de renvoyer tant les maîtres que les commandeurs absous, sans qu'ils aient besoin d’obtenir de nous Lettres de grâce.” 


How was that for impunity?


And just a stone’s throw – as the crow flies across Grande Rivière from the LALIT offices – there is the “Vagrants’ Depot” where during indenture, workers found to be somewhere where they were not allotted to be (“perdi tablisman”, it was called), were captured by bosses and their cadres and brought to be handed over to the State. 


And police stations still smell a bit like that. They smell of colonial domination, patriarchal power, and the overwhelming power of early plantation capitalism. And that is what we are trying to change.


So, political militants, when we fall foul of the police by some accident or other, like all those examples from JUSTICE, then get the enlightening experience of what it is like “habitually” to be one of the powerless poor, when police officers just go about “doing their work” of supposedly tidying up society. We also get a very good idea of what the bourgeois state is – when push comes to shove.


Guidelines for Activists


Militants are encouraged to observe usual norms of politeness, as much as possible, even when being arrested, and to remember that the police officers, as well as being representatives of “the State” and all its power, are also individual people, whose humanity can be appealed to. 


Remember also, however, that the balance of forces is against you: the entire might of “the State” is being brought to bear on you, one individual, or each of you in a group, separated from the rest. Once you are arrested, put in a jeep, of in a police station, you are extremely weak. This part of “the State” – the police and allied forces – has a monopoly on violence. It is them that are at the cutting edge of what allows the 1% of the very rich owners of capital to rule over the 99% of the rest of us. 


The police, because of their monopoly of violence, can, for example, swear at you with impunity but can arrest you for swearing – whether you did or not. 


The police can beat you up, and can arrest you for “wounds and blows” on someone else, whether you did it or not. 


That is what the repressive forces are. 


They make you go and find bail money, and someone to stand for you. They make you have to go look for a lawyer. They have all the power. You, none. 


Even when they kill someone who is in their custody, they, so far, benefit from impunity – however many marks of beating are upon the corpse of their victim and however clear it is that no-one else had access to him (it is usually a “him” that is the victim). The whole of polite society knows all this, but pretends it is OK, pretends that is the price to pay for “lape ek larmoni”, and thus turns a blind eye. This police violence is one of the driving forces behind “The Avengers” – lawyers who have had to group together in order, inter alia, to face up to the violence of the police. They may be populists, but they were formed because of a deep problem. 


So, some advice: when arrested, or being manhandled, it is irrelevant whether you are “in the right” or “within your rights” or not within your rights, at that moment. To minimize the problems, keep this in mind. Remember that the police manhandle the poor habitually. Remember that the police are often more concerned about “internal fights” and showing off in front of junior officers, than about you and whether you are in the right or not..


Later in Court that may perhaps be able to be settled. 


But, on ground-zero, when in the hands of the police officers, do not get into the self-pity, self-important mode, of saying “Mo pa an-tor mwa”. Take that as given. Just work out how to remain calm and polite. 


The question of who is “right” will only be addressed, if ever, much later in Court – or, often for political cases or cases of police brutality, never. So, do not get trapped in the mind-set of “I am innocent”, or worse still “Why treat me like a vulgar criminal like this?” The police are not in charge of the decision about guilty or not guilty. So, by all means you can inform them you are innocent. But do not expect them to treat you as “innocent” because that is not their business. It is not their currency. They do not understand the concept. They arrest and manhandle only those who they believe they are entitled to arrest and manhandle. And this depends on the balance of forces in society, and in the end, on how strong the working class is, and how mobilized, and also on how strong women are and how mobilized. The stronger and more mobilized the working class and women are, the less the police will brutalize people. But that is in the long run.


In the meantime, it is important to remember that the police have a price to pay for any arrest that has a political element to it. In cases involving LALIT members, the police have ultimately always lost in the Courts, and in view of the public. Experienced police officers know this. 


It is equally, on the other hand, important to remember not to raise the stakes unnecessarily in an individual case, especially the cases that are of the police force’s choosing. Each case is different. We have to be able to decide on rational grounds, as far as possible, on the political value of raising the stakes in any one case. Decisions have to be made on-the-spot. It depends on a whole myriad of related facts, and even on how many members the party has in the area, how strong the party is, what other campaigns the party is involved in, and perhaps more than anything else, how strong the working class is, at that moment. Meanwhile, all the fairly tried-and-tested methods of passive resistance are important to keep in mind as the most effective riposte when the balance of forces is against the oppressed people.


The only way we will ever have police who really are under social control in the long run is when we no longer live in a “class society”. What is the definition of a “class society”? It is where one very small class controls all of the most productive the land and nearly all the other capital produced collectively over history. Today that class in power is the capitalist class – with the western imperialists that control finance capital at the very helm and plenty of local big bosses – and the police are their interface with the rest of humanity they exploit, dominate and oppress. So, the American narrative of “cops and robbers” is a hood-wink story. It is in reality “big-time exploiters (robbers) & their cops v/s small time robbers, who usually rob the big time-robbers”. The better narrative than “cops and robbers” is the perennial Robin Hood one – where the hero steals from the rich for the poor – in which the cops are not the good guys. 


All this, to expose the role of the police who work for the “capitalist class’s reign”, a tiny minority class.


It is this “class rule” that makes it difficult to stop the pollution that is wrecking the planet. It is this “class rule” that makes it difficult to halt the mounting dangers of war, including nuclear war. It is this “class rule” that makes it difficult to end the repression, too.  


LALIT


 


P.S We refer readers to the seminal document, another classic by barrister Jean-Cluade Bibi called “The Citizen and the Law” based on his excellent talk with the same title, published in 2013.


 https://www.lalitmauritius.org/en/newsarticle/1528/the-citizen-and-the-lawa-talk-by-barrister-jean-claude-bibi-in-kreol/