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OP-ED | 06-06-2020 08:24

From Minneapolis to Chaco and beyond

The use of the word “pandemic” in the first sentence was quite deliberate. Racism is everywhere, including here in Argentina, with police brutality also in common.

Today’s global pandemic is coronavirus but racism does not lag far behind. The worldwide focus here is, of course, George Floyd falling victim to police brutality in Minneapolis but so much has been written on this outrage since May 28 (and will doubtless continue to be written) that we do not aspire to add much – merely the humble suggestion that rather than ringing denunciations of racism (which we fully endorse) or tearing down cities (which we do not, while also pointing out that the vandals are far from being all black) the most fitting reaction to the specific case of George Floyd (and also Eric Garner suffering an identical fate in 2014) would be a determined campaign to eradicate choke holds from United States police training manuals and punish those who deploy them.

The use of the word “pandemic” in the first sentence was quite deliberate.  Racism is everywhere, including here in Argentina, with police brutality also in common. While the suspicion remains that these are chronic problems, George Floyd has created a trending topic with something of a copycat effect across the planet – for example, France is currently undergoing a wave of belated indignation over the 2016 death of black youth Adama Traoré while in police custody. Coincidence or not, a spate of cases of police brutality across this country has come to the fore in the last week or so. In alphabetical order of provinces, a savage raid on a Qom community hamlet near Fontana, Chaco; Florencia Magali Morales and Franco Maranguello both showing up lifeless in police precinct cells in the province of San Luis; ditto for Hugo Coronel in Santiago del Estero; farm hand Luis Espinoza supposedly falling off a cliff in Catamarca in mid-May but a bullet in his chest traced to Tucumán provincial police officer José Morales has since changed both the cause and place of death with eight other Tucumán policemen now also charged over his forced disappearance.

Using the word “pandemic” is not accidental in this context either because quarantine simultaneously makes stricter law enforcement a necessity while multiplying the occasions for abuse. Thus Florencia Magali Morales at least was in jail solely for violating quarantine, paying for this negligence with her life – if civic irresponsibility were to be considered a capital offence, there would be far more dead from coronavirus than there are confirmed cases. While nobody has said as much, the Qom youths ( innocent in the eyes of their families, violent, stone-throwing assailants according to the police version) might well have fallen afoul of the police for violating quarantine – which, of course, does not justify beating them up within an inch of their lives amid foul racist abuse, nor sexual abuse, a treatment presumably not received by the other 15,000-plus quarantine violators arrested in Chaco.

The reactions so far to these outrages leave much to be desired. Chaired by a former security minister, the PRO centre-right wing of the opposition promptly condemned “institutional violence” early this week accompanied by a list of these barbarities – one reprehensible aspect of that list is that the Qom victims appeared right at the bottom as if they were somehow less important than ordinary citizens (although it is also true that this was the only atrocity without a dead body as its bottom line). Slow to comment directly on the horrors occurring in provinces all governed by allies of the ruling coalition, government supporters were quick to respond to this opportunism with “look who’s talking” retorts – only in midweek did Human Rights Secretary Horacio Pietragalla also start talking of a need to “democratise” the police forces. While valid enough, such retorts are also unacceptable because they turn human rights into a blame game.

The names in question here are Luis Espinoza, Florencia Morales, Franco Maranguello and Hugo Coronel (while the Qom are apparently nameless, in almost all media reports, a further reproach for our society), not Santiago Maldonado, Rafael Nahuel or Luis Chocobar – let us not change the subject. Once we do, everything becomes relative – we should not make so much of George Floyd because Minnesota compares favourably with most southern states, we should not criticise Donald Trump because he is not as bad as Adolf Hitler, etc. etc. All these cases should command our concern, racism and police brutality alike – while we cannot condemn racism against indigenous communities strongly enough, we should not ignore the police victims in the other three provinces just because they do not happen to belong to an underprivileged minority. Covid-19 will pass but this pandemic will remain. 

Finally, a brief postscript about difficulties in the modern media environment. In the US this week, there was a fierce backlash against a New York Times op-ed written by Republican politician Tom Cotton, who called for military intervention in US cities facing protests over police violence. While we do not support the measures called for by the US senator, the strength and speed of calls for its removal felt unsettling and characteristic of a wider shift. In recent years, too many newspapers (and their readers) seem happy to remain in their ideological bubbles, reinforcing the same bias and avoiding views their readers may not agree with? The Times, as in the spirit of our predecessor, has and will seek to remain open to views of contrasting natures, even if we firmly and strongly disagree with them. Our editors print them every week. We are believers in the idea that debate and discourse is the way ahead, rather than silence and censorship. 

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