Taking Haiti to the streets
Almost 3 weeks ago, there was a small protest in York calling for urgent debt relief for Haiti, and I thought that now might be a good time to write up my thoughts on the matter. I should say that I did a lot of the work on the protest, which meant criticism wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to hear at the time, but there’s a few loose threads of discussion worth picking up.
Emergency protests always bring with them certain advantages and disadvantages, and very often creating a protest in an emergency situation is a big moment of horror and other emotions requires diving in the hopes you can pick a path between the two.
My first challenge was to name a demonstration. “Aid Not Debt for Haiti” was an early selection, as it seemed to sum up a reasonably accessible message. I did come to regret not working with the title “No Shock Doctrine for Haiti”, but then, this involves a term that only Kleinistas like myself really understand. Still, within Klein’s appeal to not “let them shock again”, this whole thing probably wouldn’t have happened.
I got some criticism for not having a clear idea of what I wanted to achieve and how this particular protest would work towards it. Well, we sent multiple messages to Hugh Bayley our local MP and did our press work. Awareness isn’t going to solve an issue like this, but this was always about 3 different perspectives converging.
First, it was about Haiti’s history. People need to understand that Haiti is where it is because “we”, as in the West, put it there. By taking the streets in large enough numbers, we can turn heads and raise a debate. One of the local radio stations almost seemed to take it as read that cancelling the debt was the right thing to do, barely challenging myself on the subject when I was interviewed.
Second, it was about global debt, a topic that has sadly slipped and slipped from the international agenda since 2005. Its not gone away, in fact almost 75% of it still remains, and much of the debt relief thus far has involved conditionality designed to perpetuate the substantive effects of indebtedness long after the debt has gone.
Third, to develop understanding of the political impacts of disaster relief, to make people aware that America can and will use a disaster to silently invade another sovereign state.
Its on this last point that I have an outstanding question: I just don’t know whether I should have made the demo work around themes of imperialism more than debt relief. Much as there is a need to talk about the military incursion that has been facilitated by this disaster, a protest that doesn’t involve a physical target like an embassy or power station requires a message people can latch onto. We were stuck with a lobbyist framework because there wasn’t much else we could do.
The question that arises in my mind at this precise moment is “well, should we even act at all”. To me, this is an important question, and believe me, I did ask it. But its not the question which is important, its the answer. Acting breaks inertia, breaking inertia can allow other things to happen. Just because nothing happens as a result of one round of inertia breaking, doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth it, as it makes the breaking of inertia over future issues, future crises that bit easier. The only planning you can do for an emergency demonstration is to plan demonstrations and get better at it.
We were breaking significant ground on a number of different levels, it must be said. We took what could have been a completely depoliticised relief effort and held a demonstration, naming the white elephant of imperialist intentions, albeit in a restricted way. We moved the issue from a need for involvement to a questioning of involvement. Just as Medcine Sans Frontiers and the Red Cross have been trying to communicate the need for the right kind of aid, we can challenge other aspects of what might at first appear angelic charity from a more capable nation state.
Was the demo perfect? No. Was it the best that anyone could have done in the situation? No. Was it a commendable effort, worth the time and energy required? Yes, indeed it was. Learning is the next part of acting.