Amnesty NZ have featured my earlier post on being a diaspora youth on their Human Writes blog, which is cool but also makes me want to immediately rewrite everything.
I’ve been thinking about — well, everything in that post — a lot since I posted it. A friend (hi Dumi) asked why most of the Tamil diaspora call for international intervention, and implied that this was just as bad as colonialism. I agree that after being ‘liberated’ from colonialism, wanting modern iterations of Western imperialism to intervene in Sri Lanka isn’t ideal. But what is less ideal is an uncooperative state that has shown blatant disregard for any semblance of democratic process. I am all for grassroots, civil society-funded change — but when many of us are prevented from even returning, this isn’t something we can meaningfully contribute to.
So for now we’ll keep speaking about our experiences, and engaging with the Sri Lankan state the only way that is currently feasible. It would be nice if the domestic situation allowed for more intimate involvement. But until then, policing the involvement of diaspora communities (in terms of our overseas lobbying and use of international instruments) further alienates us from an already inaccessible nation.
On Saturday the 11th of May, 2013 at about 1 o’clock in the morning, police pursued a carload of four South Auckland boys at speeds of approximately 100 kilometres an hour in residential Mangere. Seconds later, the boys crashed into an empty stationary vehicle on Massey Road; a collision that would eventually kill all four of them. I know this because the news media has scrambled to report every detail of the incident since, and I know this because on Saturday morning someone very close to me woke up to a text which shattered his universe, and this week he will bury his brother and his cousin.
Because this is the most recent in a spate of police chases that have resulted in a tragic and needless loss of life, it is attracting heightened media attention, and Police Association President Greg O’Connor issued a statement in response to the incident on Saturday. It’s a desperate, indignant fumble to absolve the police of the slightest shred of responsibility for the crash; an unflinching defence of the officers involved in the chase. O’Conner issues by-the-book condolences to the families of the deceased before launching into an icy indictment of one of their “reckless, selfish” loved ones:
Unfortunately, there would be those who, in the wake of this tragedy, again seek to blame police for the deaths. …The fact is, police did not cause this crash. The person who caused this crash was the fleeing driver, who chose to flee from police, not once, but twice. …In light of his clearly reckless, selfish behaviour and decision making, the fact that he has eventually crashed the vehicle - after pursuit had been abandoned - with tragic consequences, is sadly predictable.
O’Connor takes great care to note that the chase was abandoned; he is less concerned to clarify that it was called off mere seconds before the crash, a familiar and unreal coincidence. He goes on to say that it is “only fortunate that no innocent members of the public also became victims”, heaping blame and judgement onto the real-life, non-hypothetical victims of Saturday morning’s accident. Despite his professed sympathy for the families involved in this incident, O’Connor takes no care to remove the sting from his words, and underneath the veneer of caring is a response that lacks compassion or humanity.
New Zealand Police Association vice-president Stuart Mills is colder still. Days after the accident he has defended the policy of police pursuit, arguing that abandoning it simply “turns the roads over to criminals”. Criminals. Criminals. Your children: criminals. It’s a meaningless and inflammatory label, callously insensitive at this time; but it gets middle New Zealand snorting in indignant agreement at their Heralds, tut tutting over their lattes about criminals making our roads unsafe, before they fold their newspapers in half, wipe the muffin crumbs off their chinos, and whip down the Northern Motorway at 130 kilometres per hour to catch the last fifteen minutes of an open home in Milford.
The official position of the New Zealand police is that the driver should have simply pulled over. This is a common view. I know this because when I first heard the tragic news I blurted it to the person I was nearest, tears streaming down my face as my body began to shake with aimless despair, and her first response was “oh shit. He should have pulled over though.”
“Should” is a funny word. There are lots of shoulds.
The police should treat every person that they pull over fairly and respectfully, regardless of their race, age or class. They should always have solid reasons to stop a vehicle, and should not use “routine stops” as a catch-all excuse to harass certain groups. They should treat all demographics consistently, and there should not be over-surveillance of certain communities. They should take the registration number of speeding vehicles and deal with offending drivers later, rather than pursuing them at escalating speeds. Drivers from any racial background who are signalled to pull over by the police should feel confident that the justice system will treat them fairly if they do.
Shoulds are a matter of perspective. Shoulds are endless.
None of us should be speeding or driving while under the influence of alcohol; that’s a should we can all agree on. But let’s not pretend, like Mills, that this is an issue we can pin on “criminals” living over there, justifying an “us” versus “them” arms race of increasing police power. Let’s not pretend high-flying lawyers in their late fifties aren’t careening down State Highway 1 at 140 kilometres an hour to make it to their Whangamata baches before sunset, and that Country Road-clad real estate agents aren’t being quietly cleared of their excess blood alcohol charges after a few too many chardonnays at the Britomart Country Club. Let’s not pretend that there’s an even-handed approach to who gets criminalised for traffic offences, and who gets a slap on the wrist with a wet bus ticket.
And please, let’s not pretend that the police’s policy of chasing speeding drivers is doing anything to make our roads safer. It only makes dangerous situations more dangerous; it makes human lives the price of upholding orderly roads. That’s far, far too big a price to pay.
Very necessary commentary. I don’t have anything to add apart from this: when high-speed police chases have the ~unfortunate byproduct~ of death (especially, especially, when young drivers are involved), how can they still be considered a legitimate policing practice?
To live in diaspora is to be haunted by histories that sit uncomfortably out of joint, ambivalently ahead of their time and yet behind it too. It is to feel a small tingle on the skin at the back of your neck and know that something is not quite right about where you are now, but to know also that you cannot leave. To be un-homed is a process. To be unhomely is a state of diasporic consciousness.
I am a diaspora Tamil youth.
Gordon Weiss, speaking at Amnesty NZ’s Human Rights Conference 2013 (that Shelley, Grace and I attended yesterday) said we are “enraged, engaged, and well-paid”. I don’t think I am any of those three things — though I am working towards the latter two.
Growing up in Singapore, there was never much room for being Tamil of Sri Lankan origin. I remember only speaking Tamil until I went to kindergarten — and then being told my Tamil was different to the Indian Tamil that is Singapore’s official language. One of my primary school teachers said I was wrong, and hardly let me speak. He was an aberration; Tamil teachers apart from him were generally amused by the sight of a skinny kid stuttering her way through oral exams with an overly-romanticised dialect.
Our family didn’t fit into Singapore’s neat CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Other) categories either. I didn’t know what race to put on my IC. Everyone in my family has a different race listed: my father is Indian, my mother is Sri Lankan Tamil, I am Ceylonese, and my brother is something that I can’t remember right now (sorry Goks). We’re all the same race. We just can’t seem to agree what it is, and official descriptors can’t either.
What I’m trying to say in this very roundabout manner is that at times, I don’t feel qualified to participate in this discussion. We didn’t have an activist diaspora identity, and Singapore would hardly have been the place for it. I write about Sri Lanka in academic papers and feel like I’m talking about my heritage (our history!) as an outsider.
Something that I’m increasingly coming to terms with — especially after talking to Neha — is that my voice should still carry weight. I can’t let diaspora indicators of “Tamil-ness” disqualify me from participating. The Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tigers waged an unlawful war against each other, and in doing so also obliterated the middle ground between their positions. Retreating to extremes now, four years on, isn’t going to help either.
Violence has its place in legitimate struggle; less so nation-building. The Tamil cause — both in Sri Lanka and overseas — will be helped by having a shared ideology, one that is well-articulated, and takes strategic advantage of the fact that Sri Lanka’s government is increasingly viewed with skepticism. I also don’t want it to seem like I’m saying diaspora Tamil communities have less of a buy-in; but I believe social distance can hurt in certain situations.
Finally, I’m hoping for an international war crimes tribunal. I’m not holding my breath, though. The work of groups like the International Crimes Evidence Project is inspiring. It seems impossible a country (and its citizens) can move beyond decades of brutality, mistrust, and dysfunction — especially when these have become the norm and are manifest beyond the supposed end of hostilities.
At some points during Weiss’ talk yesterday I found myself thinking in snatches of Tamil. I was holding a pen; writing them down was instinctive. It was the first time since 2006 that I’ve written in Tamil (apart from writing transliterations of friends’ names for novelty reasons). When I tried to consciously think about the letters they lost their shape. By the time my brain registered it as foreign, my hand had finished writing. Muscle memory? Or bone-deep, cultural memory?
Thinking of going to a public meeting of local Tamils today, and talking to someone about CHOGM. It would be a good first step.
i think maybe it’s something we share, us immigrants, us children of immigrants, those of us thrown into diaspora, scattered across countries and continents with names we still struggle to pronounce, further from the heartland than our parents ever dreamed we’d end up. we spend so much time in airports, picking people up, dropping people off. there is always someone leaving, someone coming back, and it exhausts me- this perpetual meeting and parting of ways. we miss the births of nieces and nephews, we miss funerals, we are condemned to celebrate and mourn without each other. when ladan was born we slaughtered a goat and shared it with strangers. i saw farah when she was two years old, and again at her wedding. we cry when our mamas leave, when we leave them, our time together is measured piecemeal, it is always too short, it is never enough, we milk these precious moments for all that they’re worth. we stand in lines at airports, bear suitcases that hold gifts as offerings, it’s a condolence, always an apology. you say i’m sorry i was gone for so long. always someone, maybe your niece who is four tugging on the hem of your coat asking when you’ll be back again. soon you tell her, you kiss her on the forehead and you know soon is never soon enough. you hug your aunt and tell her you love her. on the plane you watch the city and all those you love grow smaller, distance blooms wide and unforgiving in your mouth. both here and there, neither here nor there, call it the immigrant’s burden, this weight, this persistent longing we carry on our backs. always someone asking you to stay, i can’t, you say, every single time.
In an incident that echoes the 9/11 backlash in New York City, a Bangladeshi man was assaulted after the Boston Marathon bombings by four men in the Bronx on the mistaken assumption that he was an Arab.
The New York Post reported that 30-year-old Abdullah Faruque, who was born in Bangladesh but grew up in the Bronx, was having dinner at a Bronx restaurant Monday night when three or four Hispanic men apparently wanted revenge for the Boston Marathon bombings earlier in the day (presumably they had already ascertained that the Boston blasts were perpetrated by Arabs or Muslims).
The paper noted that the four men viciously beat Faruque while shouting “f—king Arab” at the Bengali man as he stepped out of the Applebee’s restaurant on Exterior Avenue in Melrose for a smoke.
“One of the guys asked if I was Arab,” Faruque told the Post. “I just shook my head, said like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ I didn’t even know that Boston happened because I had a busy day.”
As Faruque, a network engineer, turned to return to his meal, one of the other men said: “Yeah, he’s a f—king Arab,” leading to a brutal pummeling that dislocated Faruque’s left shoulder and left him semiconscious.
“Before I could grab the door, they started swinging at me,” Faruque.
“I’ve been jumped before. If you can’t win, you back up, you try to protect yourself.”
Only after he returned home and learned of the Boston tragedy from the TV news did Faruque understand.
“I saw the news, and then it hits me: That’s why I got jumped,” he said.
The New York Police Department is probing the beating as a hate crime.
People from South Asia, including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, are sometimes targeted for violence and abuse by people who mistake them for Arabs whenever news of terror attacks emerge in the media.
This situation was particularly dangerous for turbaned Sikhs (who are not Muslims) in the wake of 9-11, leading to at least one murder and innumerable assaults.
Stay safe Arabs …and non-Arabs. Muslims. Everyone.
A young white blogger was telling me that we (non-white folks in/of America) need to have a “12-hour limit” before talking about the inevitable racist backlash of these events because our concern to survive a disgustingly racist society was “tacky.” Well, here you go. This is where our “tacky” worry comes from.
Following a 77-44 vote in favour, the third reading of the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill is greeted by a waiata (Pokarekare Ana) from the public gallery.
Watch some history being made: I don’t even have words for this right now. So much hope for the future, and gratitude that this happened. Parliament may goof on a regular basis but this was a moment to remember.
Still trying to make sense of the mess that is reaction to the Boston Marathon explosions
To people decrying tragedy-comparing: while it may be true that “human suffering is human suffering”, there are clear disparities to the value attached to different people’s lives by the global public. The media treats death around the world differently: if you die in an ‘unexpected’ manner in a ‘safe’ part of the world, your death will receive narrative attention and contextualisation. Tough nuts if otherwise. It’s naive to pretend that all experiences of human suffering are the same; and it would diminish the lives of those of us who have had to live as suspects, or targets, or be disenfranchised and stateless.
All tragedies are not created the same. They definitely aren’t discursively shaped (and reshaped) the same. When the Muslim world has to pre-emptively dissociate Islam from the explosions; when a bloodied victim running away from the blasts is thought to be a suspect because of his race and is tackled, detained and handed over to authorities, there is no way to treat what happened as simply the suffering of those who were injured/killed by the bombs.
Discomfort in the face of the Boston Marathon explosions
Injury and loss of innocent life is always devastating and regrettable. But one of my first thoughts after hearing about Boston was: Here come the torrents of Western exceptionalism in the face of tragedy (especially when the political and media narratives surrounding it make it so easy to leap to assumptions about the race or religion of the perpetrators).
Hours before the Boston Marathon, 14 people were killed in a car bomb and set of explosions in Somalia. At least five were civilians. There was an explosion in Afghanistan too, killing ‘insurgents’ and ‘invaders’. A wave of explosions swept across Iraq, killing more than 20 and injuring 200. None of these even registered as a blip on the radar of global consciousness, or sparked an outpouring of grief on the level of what we’ve seen so far regarding Boston.
My Facebook and Twitter feeds are exploding with people expressing their condolences and sympathy (#prayforboston). I guess in terms of social distance Boston is a lot closer to the people in my circle of acquaintances than Mogadishu, Baghdad, or Ghazni. This shouldn’t be an excuse.
I’ve just pulled an all-nighter, and am trying to articulate this as clearly as possible without thinking about the half-complete essay open in another window. Probably not doing very well.
I’ll leave with this: Can we all please stop blowing things up?
ETA: Aaaand #muslims is already trending internationally on Twitter. No prizes for guessing why.
ETA2: I’m not even going to talk about how Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia have all played the “enemy” to the US’ ~crusading international warrior~ in recent decades.
ETA3: It’s worth caring about these events constantly, rather than just sitting up to listen when something ghastly happens. Torie Rose DeGhett’s This Week in War is a great round-up mailer. Sign up here.