There are a lot of people around the world grieving right now for a lot of reasons. Some of them, in many different countries, were friends, colleagues, or students of McGill University professor, Aziz Choudry. Other people who knew, knew of, read the works of, or worked with Aziz in various capacities, as writers, organizers, educators, musicians, and in myriad other ways, are grieving, too. I look forward to hearing from many of them as they eventually share their thoughts, as other people come to terms with Aziz’s death. I thought I’d share some of mine.
Aziz Choudry was a brilliant thinker, a social movement intellectual whose work around popular education and organizing involved the constant blurring of the lines that often exist between those who are considered the intellectuals, and those who we may characterize as the grassroots of a movement. In his capacity as a university professor, a writer, an editor, a traveler, a speaker, and an organizer, Aziz’s mission in life was about building a movement today, remembering movements of the recent and less recent past, and learning from them.
Everything that Aziz did as an intellect and activist basically summed up the motivations of what became known as the global justice movement, which rose to prominence on every continent by the late 1990’s. Whatever we called this movement, then or today, however we characterize it in terms of what it is and what it is not, for people like Aziz and many others, it was about understanding and overcoming the divisions between segments of society both within the Global North and the Global South, as well as between the imperialist countries and those the empires invade and colonize through means both military and economic. Examining the many intersections and contradictions around nations, classes, marginalized groups, social movements, the importance of these intersections, the ways they can be understood in order to bridge divides, or used to create division. Analyzing the ways the forces of the state like to use different forms of intimidation, and exploit the various fault lines in society to create more divisions, through so many different methods Aziz helped document, and experienced personally.
There are many people, I hope, who knew Aziz far better than I did. There are certainly many who attended far more lectures, and have read more of his writings. But there are a few salient moments in his life, and in the recent history of this world, that I want to share.
By the late 90’s, the global justice movement had gone from the Lacondan Jungle to the presidential palace in Caracas to the streets of Seattle. Whatever it was, it was global. Social movements around the world were fighting against the same secretive, ultra-corporate free trade agreements, and people fighting back against deforestation and those organizing for a living wage in the steel mills were realizing they were dealing with the same corporations, and fighting against the same international negotiations that were constantly going on.
When and where the movement was too influential to ignore, provocateurs of many kinds, and state repression, is never far away, in the most supposedly open and democratic of countries. Aziz’s home was raided by authorities in 1996, introducing him first-hand to various forces of state repression, and to state disinformation campaigns.
There are certain people who are able to participate in the global justice movement in a more sort of global sense than others. Fundamentally, of course, like with any movement, most things of importance are happening locally, on the ground in particular places and times. But with campaigns around transnational corporations and transnational trade deals, there are a lot of protests outside of international negotiations, and conferences at universities and other places, that involve some people more than others. This phenomenon of people who are in this sort of position and become viewed as leaders of a movement, with all that that entails, is also something that Aziz wrote about a lot.
In any case, he was often involved with conferences that were happening at the same time as protests that were all associated with the same global trade negotiations somewhere or other, and largely as a result, our paths crossed often over the past two decades or so. Looking at the dozens of email threads that began when I got my Gmail account a long time ago, they’re usually related to an upcoming conference or protest that we’re both involved with, or some other situation where we both realized we’re going to be in the same place at the same time, whether it’s Quebec, Ontario, England, or elsewhere. Our conversations around the espresso drinks often revolved around mutual friends, and places we had both recently traveled to. It can be a very special thing to talk with someone who is not only a like-minded radical, and a brilliant and compassionate one, but one who knows so many of the same places and people.
In a recent book Aziz wrote in and edited about state surveillance and repression around the world and how to try to understand it and deal with it now and historically, the various authors from different countries were often people he and I both knew personally, from our travels. In my case, they were sometimes gig organizers, in different countries. Aziz wrote about how brave these people often were, those who had faced these tactics from the state, such as many different cases of police agents becoming lovers with activists in different countries, later to be exposed.
But of course, as Aziz knew as well, so many people who face such tactics, though brave, don’t just become stronger as a result of the struggle. Some of them couldn’t bear to read the book, let alone contribute to it, or attend a panel discussion about it. I know because these are my friends.
The last time I saw Aziz in person was the last time I was in Montreal, in late spring, 2019. There are so many people I used to see around more often, who I largely lost touch with, partly because I never make it to wherever they live these days. But Montreal is one of those cities I’m usually able to visit at least annually, pre-pandemic. We met for coffee in the glass-and-steel city center, in a noisy cafe that smelled like bleach. I suspect he chose it because it was in the neighborhood and it wasn’t Starbucks, although a Starbucks was across the street.
I was glad to hear that Aziz had finally managed to get all the paperwork lined up so he could go to South Africa and teach there. I knew he was looking forward to that. But I had been very worried about him, as I’m sure many other friends of his were.
Aziz was found dead in his apartment in Johannesburg on May 26th. They say there was no evidence of foul play, though as far as any reports I have seen, the cause of death is unknown and if there are any autopsy results, I have not yet seen them. The obvious possibilities are homicide, suicide either intentional or accidental, or natural causes. Especially given the subject material of so much of Aziz’s work — which very much includes all sorts of underhanded methods of killing people to make their deaths look like something other than homicide — I’m sure his colleagues in South Africa will take his death as seriously as possible in terms of any efforts to figure out exactly what happened.
I have no idea how often Aziz spoke of his emotions to other people. Poking around on the web, it doesn’t look like he wrote about that sort of thing much, at least not publicly. I doubt I’m sharing anything particularly revelatory here, for people who knew him. But we talked about how we were really doing when we met up. Aziz was emotionally completely devastated by events of March 15th, 2019, and he was very open with me at that cafe in Montreal that he was not doing well.
I got the impression from our last series of emails, in the summer of 2020, that dealing with all the travel restrictions and other aspects of the pandemic were also challenging. As a fellow longstanding supporter of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions campaign against Israel, I can imagine how Aziz felt, as he watched from afar as Gaza was destroyed once again.
There is trauma after trauma for so many people in this world. I can wish now that my visits with Aziz had been more frequent, or that I had succeeded in convincing him to go out with me at night more often, rather than just to meet me for coffee during the day. I can wish for a lot of things, and I’m sure many others out there who knew Aziz are thinking the same kinds of thoughts right now. But sometimes the traumas add up and become unbearable.
I may be wrong, and I don’t want to make dramatic statements just for the sake of the drama, at all. But as we ponder the death of my friend Aziz Choudry at the age of 54, I think it is very likely the case that the most relevant thing right now that any of us need to know about him is that he was from Christchurch.