A couple weeks ago, there was a lot of controversy stirred up when Mike Stark confronted Bill O'Reilly at his home, posted embarressing placards around his neighborhood, and provided his neighbors with transcripts of O'Reilly's sexually harassing 'falafel fantasy.'
My gut reaction was that harassing people at their homes is an unacceptable tactic. Still, I asked myself, is there some point along the spectrum of political activism in which this tactic might be acceptable?
Mike Stark and his supporters believe O'Reilly, by using his program to goad listeners into a potentially dangerous hatred for progressives, has already passed that point. I'm not convinced...and yet, a form of protest used in Argentina over the past ten years does have me pondering where my limits are.
Please join me below the fold for a look at the 'escrache,' in which young activists hold mass demonstrations at the homes of military and police officials who were responsible for--but never punished for--the torture and deaths of 30,000 people during the dictatorship of the 1970s.
The 'escrache' as currently practiced in Argentina was started by the human rights group H.I.J.O.S (Hijos Por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio--translation: Children for Identity and Justice and against Forgetting and Silence). The group was started by the now-adult children whose parents were among the 30,000 people 'disappeared' under Argentina's military dictatorship of the 1970s.
Since democracy returned to Argentina in 1983, only a very few of the highest-ranking members of the military junta have been prosecuted for the torture and murder of so many thousands of activists, unionists, students and anyone else who fell under their broad definition of 'left-wing subversives.' Most of the lower ranking military and police officials and free-lance death squad members have spent the last decades in freedom thanks to broad amnesties granted by the government under pressure from the military.
Such groups as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo have devoted themselves over the past several decades to ensure that those responsible for killing their children and grandchildren are brought to justice, but that generation is growing older and slowly dying out. HIJOS was started to ensure that the struggle for justice continues into the next generation.
One of their tactics is the 'escrache.' Here is how HIJOS describe it (my translation):
To 'escrachar' is to point out, make public and unmask the face of someone who hopes to remain unnoticed.Escraches are much more than simply noisy demonstrations at the home of one of the former assassins of the dictatorship. They are carefully deliberated beforehand, scrupulously planned, have rules regarding the limits of what can be said and done and regarding consideration for the rights of others living in the neighborhood.
Thanks to legal impunity, today all the assassins, torturers and their accomplices live in freedom. We pass them in the street, they are our neighbors....Thanks to the this impunity, these criminals, who every honest person knows should be in prison, instead live among us, often in anonymity.
Today, only a few of the most famous of these criminals are recognized by the public....But the majority of them are unknown to the general public, and thus enjoy a tranquil safe haven.
With the escrache, we want to make public the identity of these people: so their fellow workers know what they did during the dictatorship, so their neighbors know that a torturer lives next door, so they are recognized in the bakery, the bar and the grocery. Even if there is no justice, at least they will not have peace, and that in the streets they will be called for what they are: criminals. Nor will they be able to hold public positions, because the politicians and businessmen (who in general already know the truth of their past) must fire or hide them to avoid the shame--or perhaps simply the loss of votes or clients--that comes from having it known they hire assassins.
They involve written pamphlets distributed to neighbors and passersby, posting of signs, and a lot of street theater. Here are descriptions of two different escraches:
The light was fading on a warm Buenos Aires evening when one hundred brightly-dressed youths marched up the quiet streets of the Floresta neighbourhood, rigged out head to toe in bright jester outfits, carrying drums, paints and leaflets. The strange troupe came to a halt outside a large empty building, which was surrounded by dozens of riot police. Plainclothes agents strolled nearby, walkie-talkies crackling inside their neat blue suits. The building, el Olimpo served as a torture centre during military rule. The busy road was sealed off and a sound system was parked in the middle of the road, opposite the entrance to the building. "The Sadness-Killer is here, let the murga begin," said a lanky youth wearing a Metallica t-shirt. The murga is a popular carnival dance, once a feature of every working-class Buenos Aires neighbourhood, calling the people to sing their stories of resistance and dance away their poverty, even for a day. All murgas were banned during military rule.One side note of interest here, regarding El Olimpo torture/detention center:
The methods of torture used in the 375 clandestine detention centers were a systematic plan to terrorize victims and society. These methods were taught through manuals provided by the US government in places like the School of the Americas. Graciela Trotta testified that Simon made a group of nude men at El Olimpo form a pyramid, a method of torture used in US prisons in Iraq 30 years later. [My emphasis]Continuing the description of the escrache:
"Warning - Killer in The Neighbourhood" read one leaflet handed out to dozens of curious locals who gathered to watch the event, their children fascinated by the jesters, who took turns showing off their skills scissors kicking and cartwheeling along the road. Faces were painted with sun and moon symbols, expressing sadness or joy, their animated gestures breathing life into the story narrated from the sound system. The mood was festive but the police watched tensely and filmed the event from a nearby rooftop, a reminder that the state continues to track its dissidents....In another escrache, the police were not so reticent about using force:
The murga moved on noisily to its next destination, the home of former junta leader and navy admiral Emilio Massera, living in a posh avenue in the centre of Buenos Aires. The entire apartment block was in darkness, but silhouettes could be seen behind curtains, watching the loud, colourful procession below. The escraches have had a significant impact on the torturers, who have until now enjoyed relative peace, suffering only an occasional thump from an outraged citizen when confronted in public. Jorge 'tigre' Acosta, one of the regime's most brutal and unreprentant torturers, moved house two days after a visit form HIJOS while a former amnesia-struck police chief suddenly [recalled] the location of secret army archives after his home was targeted....
The escrache is an elaborate ritual with a set of work tools that include road signs, jail bars, paint, leaflets and posters. The road signs warn neighbours and passers-by of the danger ahead. The jail bars are symbolically placed in front of the torturer's home, fulfilling HIJOS pledge to "make of every torturer's home a prison cell."
Back at the Olimpo detention centre, the fiesta climax came when a group of youths approached the entrance to the torture centre, carrying paints and brushes, accompanied by a dozen mothers of the disappeared, easily identified by their while headscarves. The madres linked arms and formed a ring of steel to protect the youths as the police watched on, their superiors huddled in consultation. With the press, the crowd and the madres all there, there was nothing to be done. "We want our stolen brothers and sisters back," read one sign, painted in large letters on the road. The police generally wipe the paint off as soon as the escrache is over, but it was there three days later. "Trial and Punishment for the Repressors" read an orange and green sign, painted in front of the building. "Neither forgetting nor pardon," said another.
We went back to Buenos Aires in 1998, this time to work the children of the disappeared, HIJOS, and a group of young activists organized by my friends in the former Naranja. With them, Tamar and I worked on a collective process of creating a street performance for a demonstration in front of the home of a police officer, Miguel Osvaldo Etchecolatz, who ran several concentration camps in Argentina during the last dictatorship. He was also responsible for the disappearance of sixteen high school students. The kidnapping and disappearance of these children, who were protesting high bus fares, is known as The Night of the Pencils. We planned to carry out our demonstration in the tradition of the Escrache. The demonstration was called "Escrache a Etchecolatz'. Escrache is slang for exposé. Thousands of people get together and make a lot of noise to alert the neighbors that a mass murderer lives among them....By the way, I highly recommend reading the full link from which this second excerpt is taken. It's written by Graciela Monteagudo, an Argentine street theater activist who studied with Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont and has taken part in protests internationally. And for a bit more information on the notorious "Night of the Pencils" in Argentina, see the Wikipedia entry.
Their banner opened the march and immediately after came approximately fifty performers with oversized cardboard pencils, engaged in a dance in which ten characters with masks of Etchecolatz's face would put the performers with the pencils down. A little later, the performers with the pencils regrouped and used their pencils to make the Etchecolatz characters fall. The scene repeated itself over and over again. When the protest arrived at Etchecolatz's building, his bodyguards threw a tear gas grenade from the 10th floor and dropped some heavy objects on the crowd. Everybody disbanded. A little later, they regrouped and organizers made speeches. At the end, the police attacked the crowd with tear gas. Everybody scattered, some people seeking refuge at what used to be my school, because the police are not allowed to go into the universities. However, the police threw tear gas grenades inside the building and people got hurt when trying to break open windows for air. The pencils were lying all over the streets. A friend saw one of them being dragged away by a homeless woman, late into the night.
In these descriptions of escraches, it is not hard to see parallels with Mike Stark's action at Bill O'Reilly's home: the passing out of literature to neighbors, the placards, the loofah mitt waving. Indeed, I would have to call it an escrache.
But the question remains: was it justified in the O'Reilly case? The HIJOS activists in Argentina are seeking to bring to justice, one way or another, people responsible for tens of thousands of torture victims and extra-judicial murders, people the government has been unwilling or unable to prosecute. The HIJOS activists, in the absence of official justice, seek to "make of every torturer's home a prison cell." Mike Stark wanted to embarrass a delusional wingnut blowhard in front of his neighbors. While the tactics are similar, I don't feel the justifications are comparable. Stark's act was just upping the ante in forms of political discourse. Do we really want our arguments in print, on TV and online to be taken to our houses as well?
Still, I began this diary with the question: at what point would I feel it were justified. In the arguments over Stark's action, many made the case that O'Reilly was indeed already jeopardizing the lives of the people he rants against, by whipping his viewers up into a frenzy of hatred. Stark's peaceful act of public shaming could thus be seen as a legitimate act of defense, of attempting to nip in the bud what could easily escalate into acts of violence instigated by O'Reilly's followers.
I don't have an answer so far. But perhaps it is worth understanding all the work that goes into setting up an escrache. As Diego Benegas describes it, HIJOS activists first gather as much information on their target as possible. Most important, they do a lot of preliminary work in the neighborhood, not only describing what they are preparing to do, but also learning the specific political concerns of the neighborhood:
Working in the neighborhood involves tasks of many different kinds. Some of them include working with the children of the neighborhood in the public parks, calling the old people of the neighborhood to talk about their memories, contacting the different organizations of the neighborhood to talk about their current issues. All this different activities involve working in the public space of the neighborhood and in different ways, reconstructing the collective memory of the area. With all this collective work, when the day of the escrache comes, a multitude of groups, organizations, and individuals are gathered in an action that becomes entangled with their lives in the most immediate way.The escraches are well-publicized in advance, with posters and, more recently, with YouTube videos, so as not to surprise the neighborhood. Controversially, these promotional materials include the target's name, address and telephone number. One such YouTube video can be seen HERE; the subject in this case is a judge who has dismissed cases against police and military officials. Of course, this also means the police are aware in advance of the upcoming action.
HIJOS also sets strict parameters about what is and is not allowed:
They instruct the participants with a series of rules and regulations that maintain the performance very well defined. The participants are not allowed to shout slurs other than specific ones, i.e., genocida (genocidal criminal), assassin, murderer, or torturer. They instruct the participants not to damage the property of the neighbors. The only place that is painted is the pavement of the public street, with one exception: red watercolor will be splashed to the front of the house of the targeted person. This is the mark of the escrache.The effect of all this is not only to make the target a prisoner in his own home, but more importantly to involve the community, and to build in the minds of the community links between the murderous acts of the past dictatorship and the current political situation. It keeps history linked to the present rather than allowing it to disappear down the rabbit hole.
Many times the members of H.I.J.O.S. state that the post-escrache, the period that follows the actual demonstration, is the most important. They affirm that is when the escrache produces its effect. Recollections of what happens when H.I.J.O.S., always with the promise of return, leaves the neighborhood, include stories of the neighbors making the targeted person pay for the cleaning of the common building, or the story about the neighbors photocopying and distributing on their own, H.I.J.O.S.'s pamphlets, or neighbors refusing to engage with that person in different ways. This is regarded as the most important moment for a variety of reasons, but principally because that is the moment when memory and justice is not a question of H.I.J.O.S. only, but of the people in the community on their own.Benegas then writes this about the escrache:
The escrache aims the criminal, but its most important target is the community that hosts him, because it is the community that is allowing him, and certifying him too, as a respectable person, a good neighbor, and perhaps exemplary member of his community. This is the intervention the escrache makes on community ethics.Which brings my mind back around to Mike Stark. By taking the fight to O'Reilly's neighborhood, he changes the discourse from some rude yet abstract political entertainment on the airwaves to being a matter of ethical community behavior. O'Reilly is more than some blowhard on the tube, but a real person...a real person behaving in an unacceptable manner.
My mind still spins round and round on this. I still feel that Mike Stark went too far, and that is is both wrong and dangerous for people to take their political arguments, no matter how antagonistically and inaccurately expressed, to the homes of those they disagree with. Nevertheless, with an administration that is increasingly lawless, I don't dismiss entirely that this is a tactic which may someday prove useful. But most important, I think the escrache in Argentina demonstrates the need to combine creative messaging with genuine community activism. THAT is what I find most inspiring.
I'm interested in your opinions. Let me leave off, for devilment's sake, with two brief quotes from Paul Hawkin's book Blessed Unrest:
An aggrieved party would sometimes bring shame to an offending party by fasting in front of his office or home, a tactic to which Gandhi would turn at the most troubling moments in his later years.
"The Earth is not dying--it is being killed. And the people who are killing it have names and addresses." -- U. Utah Phillips