In the early 2000s, a bewildering rare medical phenomenon, which had not been reported since the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Europe, resurfaced among refugee children in Sweden. “Resignation Syndrome” is a psychiatric condition in which upon hearing they have to be deported, the children fall into a coma like a deep sleep where they stop moving, speaking, eating, drinking or reacting to physical stimuli or pain. They’re called apathetic children; they have lost the will to live. In most cases, when the deportation order is reversed, the children would come back to life/wake up upon learning that they have been granted the leave to remain status.
I recently read a report according to which when humans freeze momentarily in the face of imminent threat, like deers in the headlights, it is an instinct when neither “flight” or “fight” options are available, when there’s no escape. They freeze to assess the threat. This involuntary but instinctive — to some — “freezing” comes with psychological benefits; there is little to no memory of the trauma. Between 2003-2005, more than 400 cases of resignation syndrome were reported in Sweden. Without any understanding as to why this was only occurring in Sweden, there were speculations that the condition could be contagious.
Did the children truly resign to the threat of deportation or did they instinctively go silent to survive? I cannot but consider this as a form of protest; the increasing number of withdrawal of children seemingly at the same time, a form of collective action, resulted in the halt of deportations. The children had managed to subvert immigration department laws, the authority was caught by surprise. In the absence of precedence or any laws that account for this form of protest, they had no choice but to grant the “sick” asylum seekers permanent residency in most cases.
In 2003, one of the largest protests in contemporary history took place across Europe, with the largest manifestations in Rome and London against the invasion of Iraq. The United States and their allies still invaded Iraq and it became clear that the demonstrations, which were said to have brought together over 36 million people across the world did not make a change. Once it became clear that the demonstrations were not going to affect any political decisions, for those who had participated, it became about a personal, humanist duty — their “right” in their liberal democracies. They felt content about “doing something about it”, about participating, afterwards they would go back home and have some dinner.
Between 2005 and 2018 there were weekly protests in the village of Bil’in in occupied Palestine. The protests,which were accompanied by a series of lawsuits against the Israeli Ministry of Defence, were a force. These protests garnered solidarity from all over Palestine, the international community and “leftist” Israelis. Every Friday without fail, hundreds of people would march towards the green line, where parts of the apartheid wall and the expansion to a nearby settlement were being constructed illegally on the land of the village residents. In 2007 the Israeli High Court of Justice issued two rulings; one favorable to Bil’in; to change the route of the wall, success. While the second was unfavorable; legalising the expansion of the settlement. The building of the wall was halted, but the construction of the settlement continued and so did the protests, until 2018 when people just stopped because they were exhausted, because there was no change.
For years, inspired by my late father and personal experiences in Palestine, I believed in the power of — and regularly participated in — organised protests. And then I just stopped. I stopped after joining demonstrations against the Israeli apartheid wall in Bil’in in 2006; after demonstrations against the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah for the normalisation and perpetuation of the occupation in 2007; and then again and finally after the Israeli onslaught of Gaza in December 2008. I stopped because I became increasingly skeptical of the purpose and value of traditional forms of public protest in the west bank particularly. I stopped because I needed to reassess what my participation in demonstrations meant, especially in the absence of any other form of political or community organising.
During my withdrawal, I have been reconsidering how we, as people, can best face the political, financial, social and environmental tyranny. I then withdrew because I understood that we are merely part of an oppressive system that has been constructed to gradually but strategically dizzy us out of protest, pushing us to resign to the situation. We are playing exactly our role, in Bil’in and across Palestine, people march angrily, resiliently and peacefully — should one stone be thrown, the Israeli Occupation Forces respond with disproportionate violence, the wall gets built, settlements arise, people are disposed of their land and ancestry and then everyone who is not arrested or injured just returns home, exhausted. With a lack of serious political organisation outside of the existing government to go with these demonstrations, we are stuck in a loop.
I withdrew because I finally understood that demonstration protests as a form are no longer proportionate to the entangled nature of “democracy”, rights and market economies in our everyday life. We still protest today on the street the same way people did before the proliferation of the global capitalist network in the 1950s, but mostly without any other forms of political and community organising. The world has changed dramatically over the past 7 decades. Our methods of public street protest must also reflect the entangled transnationality of our current reality.
Since around the 1950s, protests have become synonymous with demonstrations. Previously it was rarely referred to as protest; it was always something that eluded to dissent: riots, mob, chaos, uprising but never a protest that implicates governments or hegemonic powers. It was always depicted as the irrational violent behavior of civil society. The transformation in the early twentieth century and more so after World War II from protesting against to protest a particular policy came directly in relation to the growth of democratic governments and market economies. Terms such as “protest demonstration” and “protest strike” were introduced and accommodated for in the system. Protests were essential in liberal democracies because they relieved civic pressures while simultaneously giving the people a feeling that they have a say. People feel good about participating. Demonstrations have become sanctioned, legally a right, but if you try to protest in another form that they have not coopted, they call it dissent, criminal or rioting. Think of the Ferguson “unrest” in 2014, they were declared as riots. Think of all the hacktivists who are deemed criminals and imprisoned for a simple disruption of government or global financial websites in protest.
But if the most common forms of public protest are now accounted for and formally allowed by liberal democracies and self-proclaimed democratic governments, in which you are issued permits and the police are there to “protect” you, how do we protest today in a form that is more proportionate to the global capitalist network we live under? How do we negotiate with this, and make space for ourselves? How do we protest in a way to block the system before it swallows us and our protests into the abyss of institutional mechanics and power structures? How can we exit our position of conscious or unconscious complacent participation in the system that is trying to exhaust us? How can we protest from a position of power and freedom, not merely as away to counter their oppression; so that our protest is not used against us or as a tool to perpetuate the same conditions we are protesting against?
How do we become like the apathetic children who seemingly just stopped in order to refuse extermination, in order to survive?
If we demand this inclusion, this seat on the table, the presence in a room, the right to stay through these forms of protest that have been coopted then it leaves us with a question of whether we are merely accepting the dominance and power that created these exclusionary conditions to begin with. Through these forms of protest that have been coopted, the politics of refusal or seemingly resigning to one’s fate like the apathetic children and my long momentary withdrawal from participating in demonstration protests are not about simple stoppage or disengagement, they are attempts at finding other forms to survive. Survival is not simply about existing or “getting by” but the refusal of extermination and erasure. It is about refusing to accept the legitimacy of the hegemonic powers to “allow” or grant us rights to be included. It is about understanding the power we can hold together in and outside of the systems they have imposed upon us.
While still governed by global powers and local governments, the digital realm and its rise over the last 30+ years has become a contentious but maybe legitimate space to be considered for public protest that can perhaps be argued to be proportionate to the system that we live in today. Its relative newness and nature give it the advantage of still allowing individuals to gain or retain autonomous power, it allows a certain level of anonymity if desired, which is not available to street protests with all the new technologies of state surveillance mechanisms today. Virtually, it transcends geographical borders and allows people to organise transnationally— it’s the space where the global capitalist market conducts its work and its politics. It is also a space, however, that is an extension of neoliberal behaviours and conditions, it mimics them. Perhaps due to my limited ability to understand it or to my lack of imagination of other forms and realms of protest currently, I still suspect that it has the potential to be manipulated and subverted for political organisation and action. Perhaps there are loopholes, blackholes or other sets of permutations that would allow it to exist outside the already visible coopted conditions so that it can offer another imagination of how to survive. Consider the 2012 online protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTEST IP Act (PIPA), where the internet went dark and 7 million people signed petitions and called their senators to retract the act. Consider Hamza bendelladj, who now faces 30 years in prison because he hacked US and European government and financial institution accounts and appropriated millions of dollars to give to charities in Africa and Palestine. But also consider the Blackout Tuesday “protest” and the numerous other feel good campaigns that disappear as soon as they are launched, leaving only trails of cute images behind.
My concern around forms of public protest has been growing and is directly tied to answering questions onhow to survive and how to be, how to refuse and how to exit. The apathetic children case continues to bewilder and amaze me, but perhaps, as a starting point it has pushed me to consider and reconsider what a protest can be and look like and what a commitment to organising can offer. Both in understanding the power we still hold and how to make use of it in protests, and in producing new social relationships that allow for other political realities and ways of being.
This research was developed as part of the Amant Residency Siena (2020)