Monthly Archives: November 2014

In Ayotzinapa, It Was This State Too: #FueElEstado, #YaMeCansé, and U.S. Complicity in Mexican State Violence

“Se compran colchones, tambores, refrigeradores, estufas, lavadoras, microondas, o algo de fierro viejo que vendaaaaan!” So goes the distinctive call of the trucks that circulate many neighborhoods of Mexico City, buying such items as old refrigerators, stoves, and washing machines to sell for scrap metal. Waking up to the grating voice over the megaphone is an experience ubiquitous to life in the Distrito Federal.

Over the summer of 2014, which I spent living in Mexico City, my friends liked to joke that there was no way those trucks could make enough money for the gas they waste just by buying and selling old microwaves. “It’s actually state surveillance, spying on all of us,” they would laugh. Though they insisted that they were kidding, my friends’ suggestion carries undertones that reflect the sinister reality of life in Mexico today.

The implication that state surveillance has permeated every aspect of life down to the most mundane experiences takes on new meaning in light of the events of September 26th , wherein 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers college in the state of Guerrero were shot at and abducted by police then passed off to the Guerreros Unidos cartel. Thousands have mobilized in response, united by the slogan: Fue el Estado. It was the State.

Image from El País.

In the wake of what is now largely understood to be a massacre, it is crucial that the protestors’ response directly implicates the state. While it might be politically expedient for president Enrique Peña Nieto to blame the violence on individuals, like Jose Luis Abarca, the mayor of Iguala who originally ordered police to take action in Ayotzinapa, or the cartel members who have since confessed to murdering the students and burning their bodies the repeated assertion that “It was the State” rejects those individualizing tendencies. The slogan refuses to view Ayotzinapa as an isolated event, or as the result of a few corrupt individuals abusing their otherwise justly exercised power.

By proclaiming, “It was the State,” the protestors directly recall the relationship between the government and the violence that has racked Mexico over the past decade. The phrase “Fue el Estado” incisively levels the assertion that, in these repeated instances of repression, the state is at the root of the violence. Indeed, this proclamation points directly to the ways in which the Mexican government has been enacting low-intensity warfare (in ever more intense ways) in collusion with paramilitary forces and drug cartels against its own population over the past decade, littering its path with tens of thousands of victims of the “drug war.”

“Ya me cansé,” another phrase repeated by protestors and proliferated through social media, adds further dimension to claims about the state. By saying “I’m tired of this now,” Ayotzinapa is presented as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, not an exceptional occurrence that requires more of a response than the horrific—and growing—history of state violence that precedes it. In fact, numerous mass graves found in the search for the 43 students stand as a chilling testament to the impossibility of writing Ayotzinapa off as the exception.

Importantly, the protestors make no appeal to the Mexican government to find the perpetrators of this crime or to enact justice. Indeed, they already know who the perpetrators are. Rather, protestors condemn the government for its widely acknowledged complicity in the Ayotzinapa massacre. This condemnation is one of a system (not an individual) for its ongoing violence (not an isolated incident).

As claims of “It was the State” reverberate with mighty condemnatory force, we in the U.S. must ask: which state was it?

In an excellent op-ed in the L.A.Times, Rubén Martínez states that

 It has become something of a truism to point to how deeply the United States is implicated in the drug war. American demand, Mexican supply. American guns, Mexican bloodbath…What Americans can’t face is precisely that we’ve broken bad together with Mexico.

As Martínez suggests, the United States is deeply implicated in Mexico’s state violence. But it is not just through individualized modes of demand and the illegal arms trade that the U.S. is the second state with Ayotzinapa blood on its hands. Nor is it really a truism, yet, to point out that, through programs like the Mérida Initiative, Mexico has received billions of dollars from the U.S. in military and police aid. Thus, it is under the guise of combating drug violence that the U.S. has funneled capital and weapons into the hands of the Mexican state and, by association, drug cartels, in the process funding the repression of social movements and dissent.

This cannot be overstated: When Mexican protestors proclaim that “It was the State,” the U.S. is implicated, too.

It is convenient to blame what is happening in Mexico on drug violence without looking at where the capital behind that violence comes from. Yes, the disappearance of the 43 in Ayotzinapa was the state, but not the Mexican state alone. It was the capital-S State, the collaborative, neoliberal U.S.-Mexico State, the militarized and repressive State that ensures the continued flow of drugs, weapons, and money at any cost.

Peña Nieto—who, tellingly, travelled to Australia recently for the G20 summit (where protests followed him)—has said little about Ayotzinapa, though he pledges to bring to justice those who committed the crimes. The irony of this statement is not lost on those who shout “Fue el Estado”: in order to bring to justice those responsible for the disappearance of the 43, the Mexican state would have to implode. Perhaps, with mounting mobilizations against the government, it will.

But what about that other state?


Thursday November 20, 2014 is a global day of action for Ayotzinapa. Wear black in solidarity and join the protests going on around the U.S. And keep in mind that it was the state – the U.S. state, too.

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Seeking “Compassionate Disruption” on Oahu

On the island of Oahu, Hawaii, approximately 4,700 people are experiencing homelessness. More than a third of them are unsheltered. The city of Honolulu, along its deep blue ocean waves and bright, sandy beaches, has one of the nation’s highest homeless populations per capita.

© Joe Philipson 2012

For a community that relies so heavily upon tourism revenues, this doesn’t bode well. People don’t like to vacation alongside homelessness. In the state’s largest newspaper, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell wrote, “We can’t let the homeless ruin our economy and take over our city” (June 2014). “It’s time,” he said, “to declare a war on homelessness.”

In the intervening months, Caldwell has developed an approach he calls “compassionate disruption” to address this “crisis.” “If we let it be convenient to sleep, for example, on these sidewalks in Waikiki or parks around the island, it just means that those activities continue, and we don’t get people into permanent housing to be treated and made better,” Caldwell said.

This is the “disruption” part of the strategy: Police have stepped up enforcement of laws that already exist that restrict homeless people’s access to public space. They’re giving out tickets and arresting people for sleeping in parks at night and for being “sidewalk nuisances,” and they are seizing people’s unattended personal property. At the same time, Caldwell’s administration has passed new legislation (October 2014) that would make it illegal to sit down/lie down on public property, and that would attach a $1000 fine to public urination/defecation (a frequent problem for homeless people without 24-hour public restroom facilities).

This kind of lawmaking/law enforcement is not unique to Honolulu. Indeed, advocates have documented a trend toward “criminalizing” homelessness in the United States for some time. A similar trend has impacted people trying to alleviate homelessness. Just this week, several people were charged in Florida for serving food to homeless people in a public park.

It’s hard for me to think of these kinds of actions as “compassionate.”

To disrupt is “to break apart, to rupture, to throw into disorder.” The idea behind Caldwell’s strategy appears to be to make it so uncomfortable to be homeless that one would have to be “crazy” to not seek help. What Caldwell seems to be missing is that that’s already true of homelessness. It has never really been terribly convenient to sleep on sidewalks or in parks. It is also not as easy as one might think to find effective help. Homelessness is already often a state of disorder; it is itself a state of disruption. These efforts work to make already undesirable, chaotic conditions even more undesirable.

How, then, might it be “compassionate” to seize people’s personal property and make life on the streets even harder? How does Caldwell frame disruption as a positive strategy?

 Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Honolulu, HI.  © Ed Morita 2012

Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Honolulu, HI. © Ed Morita 2012

First, Caldwell’s rhetoric surrounding his “compassionate disruption” policies frame homeless people as pitiable, and in need of guidance. “I think it is incredibly cruel to just drive by homeless folks and ignore them as if they don’t exist – those who have mental challenges and addictions – and say let them fend for themselves,” Caldwell said.

Here, he reduces a highly diverse homeless population to people with “mental challenges and addictions,” calling into question their decision-making abilities. The problem, Caldwell continually implies, is not that there aren’t enough services (there aren’t), but that people aren’t choosing to use them. It is compassionate to help people get the services they need. It is compassionate to force people to do “what’s best for them.”

Secondly, the rhetoric of “compassionate disruption” portrays housed people who “help” homeless people as good citizens. It is what “civilized people do and it is what Americans do.” This, of course, implies that Caldwell’s policies are “help,” and that one should feel both civilized and patriotic for supporting these policies. As “compassionate disruption” makes the audience feel pity for homeless people, it makes them feel good about not “just driv[ing] by homeless folks.” Conversely, people who don’t support these policies (i.e., advocates working for alternatives), and homeless people themselves, are represented as less “American,” less civilized.

Third, Caldwell’s repeated turn to “compassionate disruption” is paired with policies that appear to reward homeless people for seeking help. Honolulu has begun to allocate millions of dollars to a Housing First plan that aims to house a fraction of the city’s homeless population (estimates vary). It certainly appears compassionate to provide housing to homeless people, especially housing with “no strings attached,” as the Housing First model demands.

But these apparent rewards work to mask other troubling policies. The number of tickets issued on behalf of “compassionate disruption” in just the first six months of 2014 is more than three times the largest estimate of Housing First apartments projected to be created in Honolulu over the next several years. Caldwell is also currently considering a plan to “relocate” a portion of the city’s homeless population to a camp on Sand Island, the site of a former Japanese internment camp, and former home to ash and solid waste dumps as part of his strategy.

The rhetoric of “compassionate disruption” serves as a reminder that rhetoric has very real material consequences. How we talk about homelessness, and about helping, influences the policies we establish to address these issues and the ways we respond to people living in states of disruption. Caldwell’s policies have been gaining steam in the public and in the legislature, even as advocates resist. As they do so, they help to define what “compassion” looks like on Oahu, and maybe even beyond.


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