Judith Butler

Common people in the firing line


Foto: Vivan Thi Tang

When rockstar critical theorist and thinker Judith Butler takes on most subjects it’s usually time to sit up and take notice. Given the grim kickstart to 2015 Hebdo, Ukraine, and Nigeria have already given us perhaps it was a little unsurprising that her recent sell-out talk at the London School of Economics was dedicated to the growing use of innocent civilian bodies as “human shields” in many current global political conflicts.

A public lecture by Butler is a big deal. We arrived to find 80 people already in the queue and loads more followed behind us. The last time I found myself in a queue this long was for the David Bowie V&A retrospective in Berlin, which makes sense I guess considering Butler and Bowie, are indeed both rock stars of a stripe.

Butler finally arrives and after a quick intro, she gets right into it. She referred the Geneva Conventions and the treatment of prisoners of war to begin her case for the use of human shields as a war crime, whereby innocent, involuntary civilian bodies become military instruments of war. The incidences where these bodies are used as human shields exist near war zones where civilians are strategically positioned to seem to require protection in attempts to lure the opposition to attack in order to counter-attack. Butler uses “wagering” and “hedging” as terms to emphasize the act of betting on human lives as “one war crime hedges against another war crime.” To the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the world at large, this approach could allow the supposed defender to appear morally innocent and justify the counter-attack as self-defense. At the same time, the assaulting side presents the attacked with the predicament of assessing the value of their own civilians’ lives towards the war effort.

This fear is that this style of justification is becoming common not only in what seem to be obvious war zones, such as Gaza, but also in civilian arenas in the United States, in Oakland and Ferguson, which can be considered as war zones given the militarization of the police state during recent protests. The police in these instances are trained by Urban Shield, a unit of Homeland Security (and whose website looks like a video game advert), who apply the same counter-terrorism training techniques used in the Middle East to urban America. On the current state of the use of human shields in the US, Butler demands further investigation: 

“One question that deserves further inquiry is whether it was the occupy movement [in Oakland] that was targeted for dispersal and what role the militarization of the police plays in the killing of unarmed black men, and women as well, within urban centers in the United States. This becomes especially important when we think about the killing of black people… who are already subdued or unarmed, on the ground or in a chokehold, or in the process of running away from police with their back to the police. In such cases, and there are at least, many many such cases, but at least 8-10 that have become the center of the Black Lives Matter movement, the police treat the subdued or fleeing body as a threat and as an eligible target… Given that there is no visible weapon and no grounds to think that one is hidden, what allows for this moving body suddenly to become a moving target?”

Butler kept the audience captivated.

She refered to recent examples of black men being victimised. In reference to Eric Garner’s chokehold incident in New York, “That man dies because he is perceived as a threat… Apparently it does not matter that these men are unarmed because the threat they pose is not the threat that comes with carrying weapons. They have become, as it were, civilian targets at which point the threat that they embody, we might even conjecture, the threat that is their body, justifies the violent action against them.”

She named the Oscar Grant shooting in Oakland and the Rodney King beating that spurred the 1992 Los Angeles Riots to remind us of the crux of American racism by boldly stating, “The police assault on black populations, if we can speak frankly, is the reverberating life of slavery in our times.” The justification of the police force’s militarised actions in the mass demonstrations of Ferguson and Oakland is explained by Butler, “When police functions become militarized and civilian populations are regarded as threats to security, then any number of basic liberties and constitutional rights can easily be suspended and so too can police ignore protocols on non-violence established from civil rights movements.” 

The Palestinian struggle parallels the black American struggle as both minority ethnic populations become victimized as human shields in their respective militarized war zones. During Ferguson, Palestinians shared protection advice to the protestors via tweets and Butler mentions the Palestinian photo-journalist, Hamde Abu Rahma’s, photo of him holding a sign, “The Palestinian people know what [it] mean[s] to be shot while unarmed because of your ethnicity #Ferguson #Justice.”

Gaza and Ferguson are only two examples of the many global occurrences of human shields and Butler pleas for the recognition of the equal value of all human lives and the reconsideration of war protocols for the protection of civilian populations. 

As the lecture came to a close, I felt mixed emotions of hopefulness and helplessness. I felt a deep pang of sadness from the daily reminders of the harsh reality of human shields as ISIS hostages, the Charlie Hebdo shooting victims and the next black American victim of police brutality. Is it even possible for the heads of states, the ICC and the global community come together to rectify these social injustices or are we left with our unanswered cries of solidarity?

Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley, where she served as Founding Director. She is also active in gender and sexual politics and human rights, anti-war politics, and serves on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace. The Human Shield lecture is available to watch and listen to here. 

Vivan Thi Tang is currently based in London via Brooklyn while pursuing a MA in Social Anthropology from Goldsmiths University of London. She is a Special Projects Producer and Creative Brand Consultant.
Twitter: @vivanthitang
Email: vivan.thi.tang@gmail.com

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