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Jan 6, 20

Los Angeles, CA: Report Back on New Year’s Eve Noise Demo

Sarang Narasimhaiah reports back from New Year’s Eve noise demo in Los Angeles, California.

“Feliz Año Nuevo! No están solos! Libertad! Libertad! Libertad!”

“Happy New Year! You’re not alone! Liberty! Liberty! Liberty!” These were just a few of the chants that rang out in front of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Detention Center on New Year’s Eve. I was part of a small but loud group of anti-fascists, anti-authoritarians, and abolitionists from Southern and Central California who staged a noise demo in front of this towering monument to the American prison, policing, and military-industrial complexes. Hundreds of fellow troublemakers rung in the 2020’s in similarly raucous fashion across the country, from Washington to Illinois to New York.

Carceral States in a Carceral World

The Los Angeles Metropolitan Detention Center. Photograph Source: Michael Locke (8/15/2012)

As we mark the end of one decade and the start of another, the United States remains the world’s foremost carceral state and society. More than two million prisoners currently languish in the country’s public and private prisons and jails, accounting for almost 25% of the world’s prison population. Hundreds of thousands more find themselves in immigration detention centers, in conditions that can only be described as unconscionable. Meanwhile, fascist functionaries on America’s streets — both in and out of uniform — employ more and more sweeping, manipulative, and downright barbaric tactics to ensnare the most vulnerable members of their communities in the endless traps set by the white supremacist capitalist American state. Under the near-total protection and open incitement of their Orange Emperor — and also aided, lest it be forgotten, by the cynical, desperate, and borderline delusional collaboration of the liberal establishment’s defenders — police officers and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents harass, cage, maim, and murder Black people, Brown people, refugees and migrants, houseless people, sex workers, mentally ill, disabled, and neurodivergent persons, and queer and trans people with virtual impunity. At the same time, Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer members roam around looking for “Antifa f*gs” to beat to a bloody pulp, and Minutemen try to capture, dehydrate, and assassinate migrants crossing the Sonoran Desert. Elsewhere, Identity Europa puts up flyers on college and university campuses like mine, and West Point cadets flash what look suspiciously like white power symbols, apparently all too aware of the role that the American Empire expects them to play in its global occupation campaigns.

Having been founded upon Indigenous genocide, Black enslavement, broad-based xenophobia, rampant foreign interventionism, and categorical labor exploitation and resource depletion, the American settler-colonial and imperialist hydra has distilled mass death and destruction into both an art and a science. Inextricably linked to the criminal justice system, the American border regime, and the blossoming of grassroots fascism on soil primed for the latter for more than three centuries, carceral institutions are crucial pieces of America’s mosaic of social death and simultaneously among its most favored and effective scientific methods for achieving this end.

However, the United States is far from the only state or society locking up, terrorizing, and slaughtering the citizens and non-citizens under its purview at the moment. As a South Asian decolonial anarchist residing in the United States, my feet were planted firmly on the asphalt of Los Angeles while my mind traveled approximately 8,000 miles away to the northeastern Indian state of Assam, where hundreds have been herded into six equally unconscionable detention camps as part of the government’s crackdown on “illegal immigration” through the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Almost two million more Assamese residents await their fate as they are forced to prove their citizenship — their very existence in the eyes of the state — before sham tribunals, with several committing suicide as a result of this mental torture. Assam is a testing ground for the countrywide implementation of the NRC, which was a key part of the platform on which Modi and the BJP sailed to victory in India’s 2019 General Election; four more detention centers are currently operational outside of Assam, with more potentially on the way. As such, hundreds of millions more residents of India have been forced to contemplate similarly bleak non-futures as the Indian national government, under the direction of Hindu nationalist hardliner Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), enforces the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and rolls out the National Population Register (NPR). Especially when combined with the NRC, the CAA and the NPR are two more major steps toward fulfilling the Hindu Right’s nightmarish vision of a hyper-capitalist Hindu ethno-state, not least of all by rendering Muslims and members of other marginalized communities stateless.

The eight million predominantly Muslim residents of Kashmir are all too familiar with life under the Hindu nationalist carceral state terror that is the bedrock of this vision. In the five months since the BJP-controlled Indian Parliament approved the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution — which had previously guaranteed some semblance of political and economic autonomy to Indian-controlled Kashmir — the eight million residents of Kashmir have been roaring, struggling, and dying in the darkness that, now more than ever in recent history, shrouds the most militarized place on Earth. Now under the direct administration of the central government, Kashmiris have endured a near-complete Internet blackout (an area in which India currently leads the world); Indian security forces have blinded them with pellets, kidnapped and arrested them en masse in the dead of night, blocked their access to vital medical facilities, and underwritten the decimation of their state economy. They have even forced some Kashmiri civilians to lick dirt off the road when the latter have refused to chant “Jai Hind!” (“Victory to India!”) and “Vande Mataram” (“I Praise Thee, Mother”), the rallying cries of the Hindu Right and its increasingly consolidated, sophisticated, and widespread apparatus of armed, corporatized, religiously justified occupation.

India’s largest detention center in Goalpara, Assam, which can house up to 3,000 people. Photograph Source: “‘How is It Human?’: India’s Largest Detention Center Almost Ready” (Tawqeer Hussain, Al Jazeera English, 1/2/2020)

People all over India, in varying ways and to varying but increasingly convergent degrees, are confronting the aforementioned apparatus in their own locales. After students at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Jamia Millia Islamia University (JMIU) lit the spark of the ongoing mass anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests, Delhi Police stormed these campuses, baton-charged the protesters in question while firing tear gas and rubber bullets at them, and sexually assaulted female students in their hostels. Police in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh have gone even further with their state-sanctioned sadism. Having teamed up with military and paramilitary forces and grassroots Hindu right-wing rioters, they had arrested 1,100 people while detaining 5,500 more, in addition to most likely having had some hand in the deaths of 19 people (out of the 27 who have thus far been killed in the countrywide protests) and preparing to seize the property of protesters accused of inciting violence. Perhaps most horrifically of all, though, they have been accused of subjecting Muslim youths as young as fourteen to rectal torture severe enough to produce sustained bleeding. As blows rain down on the bodies of India’s protesters, and even those who have avoided the protests, the BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organization or RSS) — the Nazi-inspired mothership of the Hindu Right — are clogging online channels with propaganda and gearing up to make door-to-door visits to affirm the benevolence of the CAA, NRC, and NPR.

Like states throughout the modern world, India and the United States are ramping up their all-out wars against the impoverished masses trapped within their borders. Prisons, jails, and detention centers are the fortresses and dungeons of these wars: their primary function is the punishment of poverty and the reinforcement of nativism, not rehabilitation or societal protection. Despite obvious differences, these institutions disproportionately contain, comprehensively exploit, and slowly kill subgroups demarcated by race, caste, religion, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, and political affiliation in both countries under consideration. In the final estimation, and without resorting to hysterical exaggeration, they could very well be glimpses of the world’s carceral future as a whole. They are a resounding alarm alerting us to the breakneck, far-reaching, and dovetailing proliferation of the structures and systems of power that make incarceration possible. A whole lot of people, not just designated Others, could be consumed by these structures and systems as global political, economic, and ecological crises intensify. To cite an old anarchist slogan that is more relevant now than ever, “We are all criminals in the eyes of the state,” in America, India, and wherever else state authority reigns supreme.

Anti-imperialist Escalation and Mass Mobilization through Translation

I have often felt despair, confusion, and a not insignificant amount of frustration at the lack of awareness, concern, and action regarding India among many non-South Asian American leftists. That said, I have been heartened by the generous and self-reflective responses to my critiques of this tendency, and I was even more encouraged by the eagerness of other participants in the LA noise demo to learn more about India’s mounting authoritarian nightmare and their commitment to establishing bonds of solidarity with those most acutely affected by it. At the end of my call for solidarious co-agitation, my fellow protesters joined me in chanting, “Inquilab Zindabad,” a classic Urdu / Hindi protest slogan meaning, “Love Long the Revolution!” that has filled the streets and squares of India in these past several days.

Yelling a range of other slogans, beating or shaking our makeshift noisemakers, and carrying a giant banner that read “Abolish ICE! End State Terror,” we marched to a street corner facing the Detention Center, where we continued to make a ruckus in addition to waving glowsticks and flashing lights to try and catch the attention of our compatriots on the inside.

For about fifteen minutes, nothing. Not a sound, not a glimmer.

Then, finally, a light behind one of the windows high up on the right-hand side of the building started blinking.

Then so did another light on the same side.

About ten minutes later, eight to ten detainees gathered behind the windows right in the middle of the Detention Center. Slowly, one or two of them started waving to us. After we chanted “Libertad!” for the first time, they began to cheer. And then someone on the other end of our little cluster began serenading the tiny silhouettes observing us with classic Spanish-language revolutionary songs, such as the translated version of global anti-fascist anthem “Bella Ciao.” Our comrades behind bars danced and swayed with us, demanding encores, making song requests, and good-naturedly joking with us.

This was my first noise demo, and I have to admit that I was worried about whether we would make a huge racket in vain. The positive reaction we got from the other side of the barbed wire fence moved us as much as it made us determined to do much more. A fellow organizer said that they were quite depressed at the end of the action, a mood certainly not helped by an ICE van with fully armed agents that pulled out of the Center’s parking lot at the end of the night. I appreciate and share this comrade’s sentiments, insofar as I’m saddened, intimidated, and infuriated by the carceral state’s relentless expansion. Overcoming the root causes of these sentiments necessitates a diversity of tactics deployed by a coalition of diverse actors engaging all of these facets, from running community know-your-rights campaigns to setting up, maintaining and refining copwatches and ICE raid alert systems to showing discursive and material solidarity with the rising tide of prison strikes. Anti-authoritarian abolitionist struggles, by their very definition, cannot afford to leave a single stone unturned, making escalation the next logical step of whatever action we take. We have to shut down and prevent the construction of public prisons as well as private ones. We have to fight back against the systematic oppression wrought by police and immigration officials as well as the more informal, ad hoc oppression wrought by grassroots fascists. And we crucially have to tackle the mundane but debilitating symptoms of bourgeois rule— such as food insecurity, indebtedness, houselessness, and a chronic lack of mental, emotional, and physical well-being — at the same time as we combat capitalism’s inevitable metamorphosis into fascism.

During our action, a number of houseless people crossed our path. In Los Angeles, as in so many other parts of the United States, houselessness has reached epidemic proportions, an epidemic that is particularly lethal in the less-than-ideal current weather conditions. As during previous public demonstrators and direct actions in other places, I became somewhat self-conscious as houseless folks walked past us — not out of any aversion to them but because my fellow demonstrators and I were largely not equipped to assist them in immediate, tangible ways. During our debrief, we agreed that, in future, we should, to the fullest extent possible, come to actions prepared to distribute water and food to anyone who needs or wants it. America imprisons vast sectors of its population outside its prison plantations and concentration camps, sending them careening into its never-ending spirals of destitution, dispossession, and displacement. Our solidarity with the targets of the American carceral state must thus naturally extend to the targets of the carceral society to which it is symbiotically connected.

As an non-American agitating for revolutionary social transformation in America, I would additionally stress that attacking the American settler-colony, in all its carceral brutality, is theoretically and practically inseparable from attacking American Empire and its transnational coordinators, collaborators, and competitors. The majority of prisoners at detention centers in LA and elsewhere would arguably not be where they are today if not for US imperialist butchery and plunder across Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, and the Latin American, African, and Asian continents as a whole. Moreover, America’s continued settler-colonialism and imperialism do not merely parallel their equivalents in other countries and regions — such as Hindu nationalist authoritarianism in India — but condone, connect, and compound these various oppressions and the apparatuses behind them. The Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP) has an LA office from which staffers and volunteers made thousands of phone calls to solicit votes for Modi in last year’s General Election. The Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh — the American wing of the RSS — operated in some 172 locations in the USA as of 2016; meanwhile, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (the World Hindu Congress or VHP) held the World Hindu Congress, perhaps the foremost international platform for Hindu nationalism, in Chicago, with attendees brutalizing a small group of brave protesters. Indian tech giant Wipro, which celebrated its integral role in the implementation of the NRC in Assam, also celebrates its “long and profound history of making strategic investments in the US,” not unlike fellow conglomerates like the Tata, Reliance, and Aditya Birla Groups, all of which have worked hand-in-hand with the Modi regime since 2014.

Truly anti-authoritarian abolitionism enacts Afro-Caribbean revolutionary philosopher Frantz Fanon’s famous declaration that, “Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove not just from our land, but from our minds as well.” As an ethos and a praxis, it has the capacity, and thus the responsibility, to encompass and engage the whole world. It can only fulfill this responsibility if its practitioners — especially in the belly of the beast, which is to say above all in the United States — make critical anti-imperialist internationalist solidarity a pivot of all that we do, wherever and however we do it. Beyond symbols and rhetoric, this solidarity entails mutual learning about intertwining and resonant struggles beyond our respective political, social, and cultural horizons, in all their promise, complexity, and contradiction. It in turn entails providing material and logistical support to the people waging these struggles, attacking the nearest nodal points of the structures and systems oppressing them, and co-constructing coalitions, movements, and shared futures with them.

I recognize that most Stateside anti-authoritarian abolitionists are pressed for resources at the best of times, which can make full-fledged internationalist commitment easier demanded than done. This relative scarcity of time, money, and energy ranks chief among the reasons why we have to make intentional, well-planned, and empathetic attempts to secure mass support for our insurrections. A number of vehicles honked their approval of our actions as they drove past us and the Detention Center. Given how enlivening this support was in combination with encouragement from the detainees we alerted to our presence, I couldn’t help but fantasize about having the kind of inter-generational and, to some extent, cross-ideological backing widely given to anti-G-20 protesters by the residents of Hamburg, Germany in 2017, to rebelling youth by an elderly couple in Santiago, Chile in 2019, or to the AMU and JMIU students fending off police attacks by their neighbors in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh last month.

The distant, blurry silhouettes of the detainees who responded to our noise demo.

My boisterous singing comrade made me consider the key role of translation in stimulating mass mobilizations. Translation here necessitates more than making our ideas and actions accessible to people from the widest possible range of oppressed (and even less oppressed) backgrounds, so as to make the former dynamic but principled and purposeful embodiments of the autonomous, dignified, just, equitable, and resilient alternative modes of life we strive to bring into being. More than that, it necessitates making our work intelligible and inviting to those who had yet to develop a critical and radical consciousness, without watering down our interventions, unduly alienating our interlocutors, or sacrificing our militancy.

This second task is a tricky balancing act, to be sure, but it is an imperative all the same, and one that I consider an organic extension of the empathy at the heart of all revolutionary praxis. As a simultaneous outsider and insider in America, I can confirm just how intoxicating the foundational myths of the American settler-colony and Empire truly are. They have insidiously, intimately infected the minds and hearts of so many who should, by all accounts, be fighting by our side. I fume at most American liberals just as much as the next anti-fascist, anti-authoritarian, or abolitionist, but I try to force myself to remember how politically misguided I once was myself and how patient my many mentors were as they helped me unlearn my socialization, interrogate my class position, and find my feet as an insurgent thinker, writer, and organizer. As much individual, interpersonal, and collective comfort as they might offer in the face of frustration, obstruction, and betrayal, proto-elitist revolutionary outlooks — as manifest in rampant call-out culture, exclusionary jargon, and bitter sectarian infighting — could very well be the death of us, our struggles, and our hopes. Far worse, these dispiriting, de-mobilizing tendencies could very well be the death of the very living communities we claim to defend.

Hope and Fear in the New Year

Oaxacan activist-scholar Gustavo Esteva likes to say that, “Hope is not the conviction that something will happen, but the knowledge that something makes sense no matter what happens.”

As I shouted myself hoarse on the last day of the 2010’s, I felt these dual yet dueling forces of precarity and certainty — of hope tainted by fear and fear interrupted by hope — in the pit of my stomach.

On the one hand, I can hardly imagine crossing over into a new year and a new decade in better company or more satisfying circumstances. On the other hand, I know that the satisfaction I gained belies my inability to answer insistent questions about where I see myself or the world as a whole at the end of the next ten years. I sidestep these questions not only out of a desire to avoid presumption but also because the planet, and just about every piece of it that I know and navigate, are facing existential crises to the point that even the most well-intended, well-informed prediction seems like a cruel joke, with a punchline almost nobody wants to know.

The Amazon is burning. Australia is burning. India and America are burning, burned out, and smoldering all at once.

As these and other fires reduce almost all conventional convictions about the future to ash, what stands to make sense no matter what happens from this point forward? Where can we find it? How can we nurture it, so that the rising flames only ultimately fertilize the soil for the seeds of a world in which many worlds can fit?

Relationships, in a word. Or, rather, the theory and praxis of radical relationality, which is “the fact,” according to Colombian activist-scholar Arturo Escobar, “that all entities that make up the universe are so deeply interrelated that they have no intrinsic, separate existence by themselves.” As highbrow as this concept might initially sound, it encapsulates the fundamental fact that revolutionary change is, when it’s all said and done, nothing more than a radical reconstitution of the relationships that define our lives. It means redefining our relationships with our family members, friends, lovers, teachers, students, and fellow workers, which, as a matter of course, means rejecting the unjustifiable, unbearable shackles placed upon these relationships by the prevailing neoliberal imperialist statist world-system.

I study, write, and talk about radical relationality precisely because of the infinite forms it can take: we must weave as many of these forms as possible into a patchwork quilt of resistance, re-emergence, and reinvention as variegated yet harmonious and irrepressible as a Zapatista painting. Radical relationality can be as grand as Yellow Vests in France driving a forklift into a French government building, Palestinians embarking on a Great March of Return while dodging Israeli sniper fire, or hundreds of thousands of people shouting “Azadi!” (“Freedom!”) in the center of Delhi at the stroke of midnight.

But radical relationality can also begin as humbly as a group of strangers coming together on a chilly Los Angeles evening to let other, far more weary strangers know that they will not be forgotten at the same time as their oppressors will not be forgiven. To extend this modest but sincere and ferocious generosity to even more strangers and kindred spirits half a world away. To promise themselves that they will be back with as many reinforcements as they can muster, until they don’t need to come back anymore.

Wherever you may be, friends and comrades, no están solos. Feliz Año Nuevo, and Inquilab Zindabad.

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