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Tears and Struggle: From Erica Garner to Ahed Tamimi

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Still from the video “Erica” produced by the Bernie Sanders campaign.

In many respects, 2017 was a miserable year for just about everyone but the one percent and the parasitic elites who serve its interests. Suffering, dislocation, and insecurity plagued large swaths of the planet. In the United States, Trump’s dystopian agenda deepened the economic pain of millions. Meanwhile the billionaire class extended its hegemony, dramatically expanding the landscape of social anguish.

As the corrosion of democracy accelerated, a dark pall enveloped the ranks of the opposition. Leftists and progressives continued to mobilize across the country. Yet as they scrambled to respond to the political onslaught, many people of conscience slipped into survival mode, devoting to rearguard skirmishes the energy needed to actually build a world beyond imperialism, oligarchy, and bigotry.

True to form, 2017 departed with a final act of cruelty. Late in December 27-year-old Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner, who New York City police choked to death in 2014 while he repeatedly uttered, “I can’t breathe,” suffered a heart attack that ultimately claimed her life. Though agents of the state had suffocated her father, Erica had helped oxygenate the resistance, becoming a visible participant in Black Lives Matter and supporting a host of other causes. She had embodied resilience and courage at a time when such qualities were desperately needed. Her death delivered a savage blow at the end of a year that had already unleashed a psychological and emotional barrage.

Of course, the waning days of 2017 brought other outrages, as well. Among them was the detention of Ahed Tamimi, the 16-year-old Palestinian girl who slapped Israeli soldiers as they arrived at her family home to resume a campaign of harassment following clashes with youths in the West Bank. Tamimi’s capture highlighted the vulgarity of colonialist occupation. By arresting the slight teenager, Israel once again revealed the depravity of its crusade to crush the spirit of the Palestinian people.

However, the case of Ahed also contained elements of hope. The girl’s brave act furnished a source of inspiration for besieged people throughout the world. Despite the hardship of occupation and the might of her adversaries, the adolescent had found the temerity to combat empire with her bare hands.

The juxtaposition of Erica and Ahed offers a useful framing as the left recuperates from 2017 and prepares to face mounting crises in 2018. Erica’s passing symbolizes the punishing losses we experienced last year. If we are to successfully regroup we must acknowledge the scale of those losses and the trauma they inflicted. We must channel into our political efforts our outrage at the indecencies of racism, an ineluctable factor in Erica’s life and death.

Like Erica, Ahed represents the tenacity of struggle. While Erica’s heroic fight is complete, Ahed’s has just begun. In their own ways, both women provide rousing models for the forces of resistancefrom campus antiracists to antifascists in the streetswho emerged from 2017 battered but undefeated.

Leftists may face even fiercer battles in 2018. However, a survey of some of the political assaults we have already endured underscores both the breadth of the conservative war on dissent and the power of our fighting spirit.

*          *          *

Attempts to manipulate reality and smother radical expression abounded in 2017. One such effort was the FBI decision to target as a counterterrorism measure what it labeled “Black Identity Extremists.” Though the phrase is patently absurd, its intent is deadly serious. Some observers saw the designation as a sign of the federal government’s desire to formalize its attack on Black Lives Matter and other movements. Surfacing amid a groundswell of white nationalist activity, the policy appeared to reflect the FBI’s willingness to function as an arm of racial reaction.

Of course, 2017 witnessed other efforts to criminalize protest. Scores of participants in the demonstrations surrounding Trump’s January 20th inauguration in Washington, DC were snared by police and slapped with conspiracy charges. The draconian punishments sought by prosecutors suggested a larger effort to stifle political opposition. It was late in the year before the acquittal of “J20” activists sidelined the strategy. By then, legislatures in states like Arizona were mulling equally repressive measures, including the expansion of racketeering laws to penalize organizers of political rallies found to “disturb the public peace.”

Suppressing internationalist solidarity was a further aim of the authoritarian surge. Some members of Congress moved to ban support for “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions,” the global campaign against occupation of Palestinian land. Meanwhile, in a phenomenon some dubbed “social media imperialism,” U.S. and Israeli officials pressured Facebook and other Internet companies to eliminate content seen as sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

Indeed, attempts to rewrite reality seemed to multiply in 2017. Reports that the State Department considered dropping the term “occupation” from its references to Israel’s presence in the West Bank, and that the National Basketball Association agreed to remove from its website a description of Palestine as “occupied territory,” illustrated this alarming trend. As always, disguising the facts of conquest remained an imperative of authoritarian rule.

Contempt for critical knowledge also led to an intensified attack on the academy. Here the mechanism of repression was a hodgepodge of right-wing sites. Their methods grew increasingly predictable. Aided by Fox News, outlets such as Campus Reform and Professor Watchlist targeted leftist faculty, culling fragments of political postings and tweets and using decontextualized quotes to engineer outrage campaigns and enflame their audiences. Inundated with hate mail and threats, embattled instructors were forced to recoil from the public realm or spend months defending themselves and clarifying their views. Either way, harassment crusades helped serve the goal of isolating the academic left and undermining challenges to capitalism and white supremacy.

Colleges and universities abetted that cause by yielding to offensives against individual professors or by engaging in repressive activities of their own. Eager to protect their images as purveyors of corporate values, several institutions took steps to marginalize student protest or to suppress programs and classes likely to offend financial and political elites. (The University of North Dakota, for example, rejected proposals for courses exploring critiques of the Dakota Access Pipeline.) In general, university administrators mouthed the rhetoric of academic freedom yet retreated to discourses of civility and relativism, even as white nationalists across the country embraced college campuses as fertile recruiting grounds.

*          *          *

Taken collectively, these and other maneuvers helped fuel a tide of reaction in 2017. Assaults on dissent intensified. Campaigns of intimidation and distortion sought to silence leftists and punish anyone who dared question the prerogatives of wealth and power.

The surge of repression constituted a form of psychological warfare. Erica Garner’s death underscored the toll of extreme political strain. Leftists and progressives everywhere combatted a sense of despair. The everyday stress of those on the economic and social margins increased.

In the end, however, the forces of opposition remained steadfast. Yes, 2017 was a wretched year in terms of our collective aspirations for dignity and justice. But the course of events also demonstrated that barbarism could not break our resolve. Indeed, the coerciveness of the governing apparatus reflected the anxieties of a ruling class that knows it has overreached and that desperately fears the reckoning that is underway.

The task of the left in 2018 is thus to reorganize, reenergize, and escalate. We need concrete mechanisms of struggle to help reclaim the social wealth capitalism has stolen. Yet we also need creative forms of self-development and self-defense. We need radical study groups. We need organs of collective healing and rejuvenation. We need fresh methods of exposing lies, fighting fatigue, and sustaining a spirit of defiance.

Any protracted fight will bring moments of triumph and pain. In this new year, we must prepare for both. As Palestinian activist Bessam Tamimi, father of Ahed Tamimi, told his daughter in a letter published on the last day of 2017:

Ahed, no parent in the world yearns to see his daughter spending her days in a detention cell. However, Ahed, no one could be prouder than I am of you. You and your generation are courageous enough, at last, to win. Your actions and courage fill me with awe and bring tears to my eyes. But in accordance with your request, these are not tears of sadness or regret, but rather tears of struggle.

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