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OP-ED | 25-07-2020 09:13

From Portland to Bahía Blanca and beyond

The issues raised by Portland may be on the backburner here, but while this pandemic will eventually go away, the state mechanisms reared against it are likely to persist.

Media attention in the past week has been divided between alarmism about the government’s judicial reform intentions among the more serious elements of the mainstream press and massive coverage of the Quilmes vigilante pensioner in the more sensationalist, but perhaps the news from the United States should draw more attention to another aspect of this sphere – policing in times of coronavirus. A pandemic whose daily death toll has reached three digits here this week clearly calls for extreme measures but just how extreme? This is a question already being asked about Portland (Oregon) in a country with a far deadlier pandemic than ours (around 150,000 deaths and counting) – a potential constitutional crisis when Donald Trump overrides state authority and civil liberties to send in federal security agents in unmarked vehicles to quell the protests.

Nothing on that scale here as yet, of course, but as the title of a German film from half a century ago might remind us, Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen – even dwarfs started small. The current focus on alleged police excesses is the case of Facundo Astudillo Castro, the youth missing for almost three months since being detained by police for violating quarantine in the Bahía Blanca area, but it is not the first – eight weeks ago a rash of police brutality in at least four provinces around the time of the George Floyd slaying in Minnesota prompted an editorial headlined “From Minneapolis to Chaco and beyond.” Now Portland revives these questions again.

The fate of Facundo Castro might not command the media dimensions of George Floyd or even Santiago Maldonado here three years ago but should it be ignored on that account? Not that the Maldonado case is the ideal model to follow – nobody is holding President Alberto Fernández directly responsible for the missing youth in the way that Maldonado’s death was laid at then-president Mauricio Macri’s door by some circles and in most ways that is healthy. While Maldonado’s disappearance and death was flagged as a human rights case, its timing a couple of months before the 2017 midterms contaminated the issue – the opposition perceived this tragedy as a potential game-changer for an election which Macri was on course to win in the one growth year of his presidency and their relative indifference to the shooting of the Mapuche youth Rafael Nahuel (where the security forces were far more clearly culpable) a month after the elections casts suspicions on the sincerity of some of the indignation aroused by the Maldonado case. But while we can do without all that political baggage today, nor should we go to the other extreme of ignoring alleged police brutality – a concern which should be shared by President Fernández and provincial governors as much as the general public.

There is no lack of ingredients to toss into this editorial stew – along with Portland, Minneapolis and Astudillo Castro, the list of police victims two months ago is headed by Luis Espinoza, the La Matanza youth slain on his 18th birthday earlier this month, etc. – but at the same time we should not mix apples and oranges. Comparisons are indeed odious. When making them, it is obviously important to avoid presenting the two sides of the question as black and white but assuming each side to be as bad as the other is almost always equally fallacious. For example, the defence of human rights should never be equated with denial of the guerrilla violence preceding the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, but neither should that admission place it on a par with state terrorism either quantitatively or qualitatively – quantitatively because the dictatorship’s victims numbered many thousands and not the few hundred slain by guerrillas and qualitatively because while terrorists are terrorist by definition, the state is supposed to be the complete opposite. Corruption would be another example – its existence under the previous administration is now being exposed but nor does the evidence so far justify placing it on the same scale as what was orchestrated from the Federal Planning Ministry between 2007 and 2015.

But we digress – the issues raised by Portland may be on the backburner here but while this pandemic will eventually go away, the state mechanisms reared against it are likely to persist. These can never be allowed to include institutional violence.

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