I write this article on January 3, 2024. It is three days into a new year, but it is 89 days into a genocide in Gaza. On the fourth day of this new year, we will reach 90 days of preventable tragedy. Ninety days of displacement, starvation, bombing, disease, injury, and death. Ninety days of terror, as people try to stay alive as the sky falls on them and the earth shatters underneath their feet. Ninety days of crimes against humanity as the powers that can stop it instead choose to push more money and ammunition into the blood-soaked hands that continue to pull the trigger. Yet tomorrow will not only be historic for Gaza. For on the fourth day of this new year, it will also be 264 days of the genocide and war in Sudan, and years of ethnic cleansing and conflict in Congo and Tigray.
But I will not dwell on the numbers of the dead, injured, and displaced, lest your eyes glaze over from the sheer scale of death and destruction. These numbers will not mean anything to you except that they are entirely too much. These numbers are everywhere else, begging to be taken seriously, to be believed, to be saved. These numbers are human beings, desperate to have the most fundamental and basic human rights. These humans do not deserve the torture they endure. They do not deserve to have their homes taken from them by a bomb, a gun, or the greed of governments and corporations.
These people are far away, on other continents, in different cultures. They face war and famine and hardship. We are here, and we have many challenges of our own in Canada and in broader Western society. We struggle with a cost-of-living crisis, a housing crisis, the effects of a pandemic, increasing homelessness, police brutality, and so much more. Why should we devote so much attention and effort to those people miles and miles away, when we have a responsibility to look after Canadians first? These conflicts are huge and complex. Wouldn’t our efforts be better used towards our local community?
To these questions, there is a simple and clear answer: we should care because we are all connected. We are connected not only by our shared humanity, but—perhaps, more importantly—by our shared oppression as well.
Take, for example, the issue of police brutality. In 2015, Freddie Gray was murdered by Baltimore Police after he was arrested over his legal possession of a knife. Upon his arrest, Gray was held down, with one officer putting his knee on Gray’s neck, while the other officer was bending his legs backward, a description of the “leg lace” move. Gray was then placed in a police van and restrained with “flexi-cuffs” and leg shackles. A witness also reported seeing the officers beating him with batons before putting him in the van. Importantly, he was not secured with a seatbelt within the van as per department policy. The next events comprised a long drive around the west side of Baltimore, wherein Gray requested medical assistance several times because he was having trouble breathing and was consistently denied.
During that ride, Gray sustained a critical neck injury that Dr. Carol Allan, an assistant medical examiner, described as “resembling those suffered in a diving accident, [which] were caused by abrupt force to his neck during his transport, when he could not see outside the van to predict sudden stops, starts or turns.” When the van finally stopped at the Western District Police Station, Gray lay unconscious, without a pulse. His neck injury, and thus subsequent death, resulted from “being handcuffed, shackled by his feet and unrestrained inside of the [Baltimore Police Department] wagon,” according to Baltimore City State’s Attorney, Marilyn Mosby.
How does the homicide of Freddie Gray relate to the wider systems of oppression? Because Baltimore Police, “along with hundreds of others from Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, Arizona, Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Georgia, Washington state, as well as the DC Capitol police have all traveled to Israel for training. Thousands of others have also received training from Israeli officials in the U.S.” And why does that matter? For one thing, police departments across the US are receiving training from a chronic human rights violator that both the US and other human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, have cited as “carrying out extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings, using ill treatment and torture (even against children), suppression of freedom of expression/association including through government surveillance, and excessive use of force against peaceful protesters.”
That kind of training has a significant impact on the tactics and behaviour of police officers and departments. Police departments have cited their training in Israel as inspirations behind tactics such as the NYPD’s “Demographics Unit”—a unit that employs informants, called “mosque crawlers,” that spy on Muslim communities. A report by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and Researching the American-Israeli Alliance (RAIA), found that “instead of promoting effective security for communities, the programme facilitates an exchange of tactics used in police violence and control including mass surveillance, racial profiling and the suppression of protests and dissent.” In fact, one of the largest facilitators of these policing exchange programs, Anti-Defamation League, or ADL, has acknowledged that “its exchange program helped militarize U.S. police and harm communities of color.” In short, the brutality and disregard for human rights and dignity faced by Palestinians at the hands of Israeli police and military is recreated in the US—and Canada—against our communities.
The war and genocides in Sudan and Congo also tie directly back to us. In Sudan, two military rivals raze the country to the ground in a fight over its land and power. Both military leaders are backed by various other countries, such as the U.A.E., Egypt, and Russia, which have meddled in the country’s politics. For years, the Sudanese people have protested and fought to establish a stable democratic government, and yet several coups by the military thwarted that mission. The meddling in another nation’s elections/politics and their right to self-determination is a fear that has been exacerbated in North America more recently. It is a fear that arises when we become victim to the same tactics our governments employ abroad, such as Russia’s meddling in the US elections, and China’s alleged attempt to influence Canadian elections and policy.
In the Congo, we see modern day slavery. That is not hyperbole or conjecture. Congo is rich in materials such as copper, diamonds, gold, and most notably, coltan and cobalt. Eighty per cent of the world’s supply of coltan, and 63 per cent of the world’s cobalt comes from the Congo. Yet, the Congolese people are one of the five poorest nations in the world. Multinational mining companies are scrambling to expand their mining operations in the Congo and have evicted entire communities from their homes and farmland, all the while committing human rights abuses, such as rape, arson, and assault, according to Amnesty International. Those that do work in the mines are barely paid two dollars a day for the gruelling work of mining with only simple equipment, such as a pickaxe and shovel, and no protective equipment or safety measures. The result of that raw exposure to those minerals and their pollution, especially cobalt, is causing a high rate of birth defects like limb abnormalities or cleft palates.
Powerful companies forcing people from their homes and polluting a community resulting in lifelong disease and disability is not limited to the Congo, or Africa, or the “third world.” It is something Indigenous communities in Canada and the US know all too well. It is also a reality for communities like St. Louis, Missouri, where governments and companies left nuclear waste to contaminate several sites, including the creek and the landfill, for decades. Residents that lived near those sites or who worked at the Mallinckrodt plant have developed rare cancers, autoimmune diseases, and have a higher risk of developing cancer due to their exposure. The carelessness for human life and health in a world run by corporations and governments founded on greed hurts all of us, whether now, in a few decades, or for generations to come.
In the end, I only have one message to emphasize to you, and it is the truth that if one life is deemed worthless, then all life is deemed worthless. And that is very much the world we live in. There is no adult or child that is safe from the violence that is enacted by the systems of oppression that found the workings of our current world. But this is not a hopeless message. It is a call to start noticing how connected we all are to the struggles of the world. It is a plea to begin learning about how we are all held down by colonialism, white supremacy, and capitalism. It is an invitation to join in working to make the world better. Because none of us are free until all of us are free.