Tag Archives: yavprotests

Immunosociology: Racism the virus, activism the immune system

As the citizens of Baltimore took to the streets in response to the death of Freddie Gray, I took to the bathroom in response to a nasty virus that had found its way into my stomach. I found myself noticing some similarities regarding root causes that inform my understanding of Baltimore and other sites of conflict in the world.

Let me be upfront with this, I am not comparing my suffering to that felt in Baltimore. There is nothing similar about my awful night and several nights of violence* born out of centuries of even more violent systemic oppression. If anyone needs further clarification, please let me know, because I do not want my metaphor to be lost in miscommunication.

Now that that has been said, I can move forward with a take that I have seen not in other commentaries on Baltimore.

Essentially, I find myself viewing more violent and destructive responses in Baltimore or Ferguson or Madison or Detroit or lots of other cities as symptoms to a disease.

Though I have not formally studied biology since 8th grade, I understand symptoms as side effects of our imprecise immune system. An immune system that is split into two parts, the innate, made up of white blood cells, and the adaptive, made up of learned antibodies that make sure you nip that virus in the bud the next time you encounter.

My innate immune system fought a virus through the complete upheaval of my digestive system. The bathroom was in shambles as I finally stumbled off to sleep at three, with plans to clean up in the morning. I awoke five hours later dehydrated and reeling. My host mother Isis had cleaned up the bathroom while I slept, but shrugged off my thanks and insisted I drink more fluids to recover.

All of those awful experiences were symptoms of my virus, but I did not (seriously) curse my body or my immune system. I cursed the unnamed virus. Just like when I have a cold, I do not condemn my runny nose, my cough, or my fever, I condemn the rhinovirus. After the biological violence is finished, my adaptive immune system remembers the virus should I encounter it again.

Now consider society in place of the human body, racism as the virus, activism and law as our innate and adaptive immune systems, respectively. Racism, as I have come to understand it, hurts society through disenfranchising people of color. Currently that disenfranchisement concretely manifests itself through the systemic and unequal use of force against blacks, which fosters a sense of fear.

Activism responds both nonviolently and violently, when law does not properly resolve an issue. Activism creates social discontent. Perhaps there are marches and people feel shame. Perhaps property is destroyed and cities are left in shambles. Perhaps there are riots and people feel fear. Social communities begin to fracture as we disagree. Sadly, and I think erroneously, people choose to alienate themselves from one another. Of course, these are all symptoms.

The metaphor comes apart in our reaction. Instead of condemning the virus, we condemn our innate immune system. We treat the symptoms by ignoring nonviolent protests and shutting down more violent protest responses instead of adapting to end society’s affliction with racism.

Of course, while this is an apt metaphor, we can aspire to be better than our hive-minded immune system. Medical professionals, or political leaders and scholars, diagnose the diseases of society. We can try preventative treatments like workshops on racism to foster a cultural conscience that rejects racism. We can develop antibodies, through structural legal change, to recognize and prematurely exterminate inevitable encounters with racism. Failing to adapt illustrates how we, largely the white descendants of a racist system, have fallen short.

Though we have fallen short, we can definitely all be more like my host mother and graciously help the recovery, even as we adapt moving forward.

*I struggled with how to characterize these recent nights in Baltimore. Chaos? Fear? Destruction? Each is politically weighted, so I chose the word I hear most often used in other non-shaming commentaries.

A little solidarity, a little confusion at the youth protests in Lima

Last Thursday, I attended the tail end of the fourth of a series of protests against Law Nº 30288, or the Youth Labor Regime Law. The government passed this law in December, which reduced the labor rights of workers between 18 and 24.

I hesitate with that statement because I am not grounded enough in Marxism to make a statement so aligned with class warfare. I think it is an easy way to create divisive debate that sidetracks a dialogue.

Despite my apprehension, I do not know another way to characterize the effects of this law. The law makes young workers ineligible to receive severance pay when dismissed. Also, businesses are only required to offer this age group half the vacation that older workers receive. Finally, Peruvian law requires two standard annual bonuses of a month’s wages for all workers. Under this law, workers from 18-24 are not required to receive that bonus.

There are about the pros and cons of these benefits for any group of workers, but that is another conversation. Instead, I found myself distinctly upset by this clear discrimination. We have a set of rights not allowed to a section of society based on demographic characteristics.

On principle, discrimination is wrong. In this case though, I paused because it just seemed so blatant. There must be some harsh, but pragmatic justification.

I do not see that in this situation. Supposedly the goal is to save money because young adults in Peru often continue to live with their families or receive benefits as university students.

Of course, that is largely inference as I have seen no clear defense of the law other than an intent to save money. That justification is weak and ignores that there are a variety of experiences.

Admittedly, this is a complex situation. Peru is divided between the provinces and Lima in a way that seems unfamiliar to me as a citizen of the United States. Workers’ rights and incomes are critical in Lima, where life is centered on monetary transaction. Money is used in the provinces, but there is a distinct difference in the infrastructure and workers’ rights. Beyond that, I do not understand the nuances that go into Peruvian politics.

I do not need that knowledge to understand that some (probably many) youth need these benefits. Some do not continue living with their families and depend on being treated like an adult. It feels somewhat unnecessary to say that, but someone had to get this wrong to get the law passed.

Thankfully, many of all ages have responded by marching against the law and crying to have their voice heard.

Five thousand marched last Thursday. I was heartened to see so many making their voice heard, yet while on the ground I was a little concerned at the disorganization.

The groups did not meet in the central plaza for a demonstration against the government. Instead they seemed to mill about in clumps, each shouting its own chant. At some point, a major group lit two effigies of some rats, which they waved around. I am assuming that was something to do with symbolism related to the government.

It was pretty disorganized. That is not to say that this stops progress. There were some youth who were able to enter the Congressional building to have their voices heard by the lawmakers.

Instead, disorganization can trigger various dangers. Sometimes, a few protestors become violent, warranting an exaggerated response from police. The disorganization compounds the dangers of non-lethal responses from police as people run in terror. It’s no stretch of the imagination to see trampling occur.

Of course, the police should not respond by launching tear and pepper gas as occurred Thursday night, but the reality is that this occurs. David summed that up best when he turned to me with uncontrollable tears streaming from his bloodshot eyes and shouted as we ran, “Welcome to the manifestations!” (Manifestaciones is the word for protests in Spanish. His English is pretty good, but I couldn’t resist sharing that little false cognate, which provided some humor amidst the controlled chaos.)

Whether in Ferguson or Lima, tear gas is a common response to protests. The issue is it can quickly create more chaos in an attempt to restore calm and order. Luckily, enough folks at the march maintained their wits.

That is just so frustrating to see. Oftentimes, the cause gets sidetracked as people defend their right to protest instead of maintaining the cause they mean to defend.

I saw exactly that happen Thursday night. Eight thousand police officers responded to 5,000 protesters pushing them away from the central plaza where they protested using tear and pepper gas. Traffic stretched back for miles. A mall closed its doors as protestors streamed away from the central plaza seeking shelter. Uninvolved folks were diverted from their lives as the police forced everyone to channel away from the mall.

It is disheartening to see a protest spin out of control like that. My hope is that people will not respond callously to being “inconvenienced” by these protests, but rather be moved to recognize the plight of this law on society. Having watched the #BlackLivesMatter protests and responses in the U.S., I am not overly confident.

I don’t make that parallel lightly. For whatever reason, I have been let down by the responses to popular protests in recent history. Governments answer protests by shutting them down. The general public bemoans being inconvenienced. Media focus on the occasionally blurry line between protest and riot. The protesting group is ignored and no further dialogue occurs.

As I bring this post to a close, I admit that I’m not sure what my larger point is. I suppose this all aligns Dr. King’s claim that “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

I have always felt he was referring to the need to organize and intentionally work for change. At the same time though, this quote explains why protests seem disorganized and ineffective. Progress is slow. A group of protests are not a magic bullet, but the sacrifice, suffering, and struggle of every protest are so necessary to creating lasting, progressive change.

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