‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.’
–Martin Luther King, Jr., in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 1963
“When people ask me why I care so much, I respond, how could I not care?” Kohar Avakian, a student activist at Dartmouth College, told the Armenian Weekly. “Being an Armenian, Black, and Native American woman, this decision directly speaks to my existence. Michael Brown is representative of the Native American women raped by non-Natives who never receive punishment simply because the tribe lacks jurisdiction off the reservation. Michael Brown is representative of the black kids who never have the opportunity to go to college because they haven’t had access to a quality education. Michael Brown is representative of the descendants of the Armenian Genocide who will never see justice in their lives because this country so values its relationship with our oppressors—the Turks. The no indictment decision perpetuates injustice because it fails to combat the status quo. It justifies the killing of oppressed peoples.”
Avakian expresses sentiments shared around the country—justice continues to fail, racism is alive, and the heavily militarized police are a threat, not a comfort. In short, the justice system continuously abuses the already marginalized in society while protecting the robber barons of the country. Justice and accountability are absent.
Three recent victims of police violence—all unarmed black males—drove this message home. Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, after a confrontation between the two in August. The 12-member grand jury opted not to indict Wilson.
As protests continued across the country, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by Cleveland police officer Timothy A. Loehmann at a park on Nov. 22, shot down seconds after the police cruiser pulled up next to him. His crime: carrying a toy gun.
Then there is the case of Eric Garner, 46, who was killed when New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo placed him in an illegal chokehold in July. “I can’t breathe,” repeated Garner, to no avail. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, while the grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo, who reportedly had two pending lawsuits against him for racially motivated behavior. Garner, a father of six, was unarmed and non-threatening. His crime: allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes.
“Recent shootings of African Americans by police in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, and elsewhere come as no surprise,” said David Barsamian, founder and host of the Colorado-based Alternative Radio. “They are part of a pattern of violence. Despite the material success of Oprah, Michael Jordan, and Beyonce, racism remains deeply entrenched in the U.S. In fact, with recent voting restrictions there are signs that it is coming back with greater force.”
Economic conditions and the lack of access to equal opportunities are symptoms of racism embedded in the fabric of the country. “Blacks are often the last to be hired and first to be fired. There are high rates of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty plaguing African-American communities,” said Barsamian, adding, “There’s an old saying: If you’re white, you’re all right; if you’re brown, stick around; if you’re black, get back. Justice is supposed to be colorblind. Blacks know better.”
In the eyes of the law: from Ferguson to Istanbul
Cases like Brown’s, Rice’s, and Garner’s have jolted the country out of a stupor, mostly thanks to noisy activists and protesters from Ferguson to New York City, from Los Angeles to Boston, all the way up to Anchorage, Alaska. Simple truths like, “Black Lives Matter,” along with Garner’s last words, “I Can’t Breathe,” have been turned into rallying cries. In different cities, protesters from all walks of life raised their hands chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot!”
Activist Melissa Bilal joined the crowds in New York. “The murder of Brown and Garner are not the only cases where unarmed black men were killed by police, but they became emblematic of police mistreatment against black and immigrant communities,” she said. “I share the anger against racism and police violence in the U.S., in Turkey, and elsewhere. I feel rage when I see that everywhere in the world people who express their rightful anger are marginalized and stigmatized as ‘criminals.’ Racialized people, impoverished people, people who are target to violence because of their anti-establishment politics, people who are target to violence because of their sexuality. … We know that the ‘white’ public sphere both in the U.S., in Turkey, and elsewhere is not used to hearing the voices of those whose lives do not matter,” Bilal told the Weekly.
Bilal says that growing up in Turkey as an Armenian brought her closer to the African-American struggle for justice in the U.S. While studying sociology at an Istanbul university, she found herself immersed in black feminist literature, allowing her to make sense of her own experience and history of injustice. Her heroines were—and still are—the likes of bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Angela Davis, and Audre Lorde. Bilal, currently a Mellon postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at Columbia University, has gravitated towards the works of these authors, while also developing a keen interest in Native American history, where she has found strength and the words to express “criticism to the new corporate language shaped around ‘Turkish-Armenian reconciliation.’”
And so, when the protests broke out in New York, Bilal was there. “The motto ‘no justice; no peace’ resonates powerfully in me because as an Armenian from Turkey who has been engaged with Kurdish women’s struggle for justice and peace, I know that peace is a big lie if there is no justice,” she told the Weekly.
“I am aware that I am not black, not native, not a poor, undocumented immigrant. I am well aware of my relatively privileged position in this country. That’s why I can never claim that I understand what Mike Brown’s mother is going through. I am not white, either. Both in terms of history and in terms of politics, I denounce being white. What I can do best is to support, be in solidarity, and spread the voices of the black communities against racism. This is the least I can do.”
The grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Wilson reminded Bilal of the sham trial in the case of murdered Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. “I was watching the ‘Democracy Now!’ coverage where I heard black protestors saying, ‘Black lives don’t matter.’ Yes, no matter how much we say, ‘Black lives matter,’ they don’t. During the protests, on social media, a quote was being circulated: ‘A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect.’ This is so true for Armenians in Turkey. It was more horribly proven by the assassination of Hrant Dink and the whole murder trial process,” she said.
“My engagement with these protests is nothing special, it is just ordinary. It is what every person should be doing if she or he is concerned with the targeting of African-American and Hispanic youth from families impoverished by the racialized economic system in this country. Targeting a generation means killing a people,” said Bilal.
For Avakian, the Brown case spoke to her directly, and she believes Armenians have a duty to care. “We should join all oppressed peoples in solidarity to demand real change,” she said, and remembered the words of Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Racism in America
‘The decision not to indict Officer Wilson happened for the same reason that there are more black men in prison today than there were in 1850. It connects to the fact that American schools are more racially segregated today than they were in the 1950’s. It relates to the continued use of a racial slur for the name of an American football team. This country functions on injustice today because injustice and inequality lie at the core of its foundation. The example of Michael Brown speaks directly to this injustice.’
Racism in America has become a hot button topic in the media. Previously ignored statistics and reports that paint a starkly disturbing reality about being a black person in America have come to the fore.
According to the 2009 Bureau of Justice statistics, the incarceration rate for black males is six times higher than white males. African Americans constitute almost 1 million of the 2.3 million currently incarcerated in America (which happens to represent 25 percent of the world prison population), reports the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). And according to ProPublica, young black men are 21 times as likely to get killed by police as their white counterparts.
These are glaring facts that are observable with or without a footnoted report. They are simply realities for some; they lie in the bodies of Brown, Rice, and Garner. They thrive in the ugly truth that white-collar crooks that rob the American people of billions of dollars walk free, while a black man suspected of selling loose cigarettes is strangled by a cop.
“The decision not to indict Officer Wilson happened for the same reason that there are more black men in prison today than there were in 1850. It connects to the fact that American schools are more racially segregated today than they were in the 1950’s. It relates to the continued use of a racial slur for the name of an American football team. This country functions on injustice today because injustice and inequality lie at the core of its foundation. The example of Michael Brown speaks directly to this injustice,” Avakian told the Weekly.
When a friend asked Avakian how the no-indictment decision made her feel, “helpless, indignant, confused, and insignificant came to mind,” she said. The decision was “disappointing” but not surprising, she added. “We’ve seen this before, and not just in obvious examples like the shootings of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Tanesha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Vincent Chin, etc. Wilson killed a black teenager, who did not receive a trial. Not even a trial. This tells black and brown peoples that they are not valued, protected, or important in this country. Michael Brown is representative of all of the oppressed—the displaced, transplanted, forgotten, abused—peoples who must live with a system that relies on injustice. This system values the voice of a very specific group, yet forgets all others whether it be because of the color of their skin, their socio-economic background, gender, sexuality, etc.”
Police violence and the militarization of police departments
Activists say that racism isn’t the only issue at play. The heavy militarization of local police departments, and how police have responded to protests, has spurred a parallel discussion on the development of worrisome policing trends—noticeable especially during the Occupy movement in 2011.
“What Ferguson should make clear for all is that our police departments have become highly militarized and thus more lethal than ever. I first noticed this in Denver in 2008 during the Democratic Convention. The cops looked like Navy Seals in their armored personal carriers,” said Barsamian.
Nancy Kricorian, who has been on the staff of CODEPINK Women for Peace since 2003, has also observed this trend. Her organization launched a campaign earlier this year called Communities Organizing to Demilitarize Enforcement (C.O.D.E.), which links U.S.-funded wars and occupations abroad with struggles on the domestic front.
When Kricorian and Bilal arrived at New York’s Foley Square on Dec. 4, police helicopters were buzzing overhead, and hundreds of cops and dozens of police vans were positioned nearby. Already, a night earlier, Kricorian had found hundreds of protesters trapped between police vans and riot police a couple of blocks from her house. Then, she heard a voice: “Hey, Nancy!” It was her 22-year-old daughter and a friend standing on the sidewalk. They were being held by the police, and had been threatened with arrest just for being there. Eventually the protesters were allowed to continue their march.
“Local police forces are being ‘gifted’ with military hardware and equipment—there are now armored vehicles patrolling the streets of U.S. cities,” explained Kricorian. “While more money and equipment are flowing into illegal wars and occupations and militarized local police forces, our public commons are being pillaged by austerity measures and craven privatization drives. On top of this, systemic racism in policing, in the judiciary, and at large in our society has resulted in the need for public slogans and hashtags such as ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
“What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” Justice. Now. Time and time again, protesters have chanted those words. There is a hunger for justice, for change in the system.
For Avakian, the myth of the American Dream—that hard work pays off—fails to consider the real world power dynamics that by design keep some oppressed. “We can protest all we want, but real change won’t come until those in power acknowledge history and work to actually improve things. I’d like to see real structural changes, such as the improvement in police protocol, appropriate and equal education, and the creation of more economic opportunities within communities of color. Most importantly, I wish for reform in our ‘justice’ system,” she said.
Until justice reigns everywhere, we will hear these voices again. There will be Nancys and Melissas out on the streets of New York, or Istanbul. There will be Davids broadcasting their message on airwaves. And there will be Kohars reminding you of why—as Armenians, as people with conscience—you should join the struggles for justice.
“I am outraged. I am outraged by racism in policing and in our so-called criminal justice system. I am outraged by police impunity. As an American and as an Armenian I feel responsible to stand for justice for all—equality and dignity, from Ferguson to Staten Island to Amed to Gaza City,” said Kricorian.