For 11 months, Oliver Harris’ life came to a near standstill as he waited to find out if he would be sent to prison for years over his alleged participation in a rally against US President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Harris, 28, was among more than 230 people rounded up and arrested by police on January 20, Inauguration Day, after confrontations with heavily armed riot police officers. A small group of people engaged in property damage during the rally.
The following day, most of those who were arrested – demonstrators, medics, journalists and bystanders – were charged with felony rioting, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
In April, things grew worse for 212 of the defendants when the District of Columbia Superior Court returned a superseding indictment that added a slew of additional charges, including several felonies.
The accused, who are known collectively as the “J20 defendants”, were all of a sudden facing nearly eight decades – effectively a life sentence – behind bars.
Several defendants subsequently reached plea deals for significantly lighter sentences, while others had their charges dropped.
At least seven defendants had their charges reduced to misdemeanours.
By the time the first batch of defendants, which included Harris, went to trial, the charges had been reduced, but they were still facing the prospect of more than 50 years of jail time.
On December 21, however, a jury found Harris, a Pennsylvania resident, and his five co-defendants not-guilty on all counts.
“It was really overwhelming to hear 42 not guilty [decisions],” Harris told Al Jazeera by phone.
The DC US Attorney’s Office subsequently said in a statement it would pursue charges against the remaining defendants.
With 188 Inauguration Day defendants still at risk of harsh punishment, and other activists across the country facing potential jail time for alleged infractions during protests, critics say Trump has overseen a crackdown on dissent during his first year in office.
Across the US, from Washington, DC, to Sacramento, California, anti-racists, anti-fascists, leftists and other demonstrators have been charged with felonies and misdemeanours.
Referring to the shrinking space for protest symbolised by the Inauguration Day defendants’ case, Harris said: “It goes hand-in-hand with the way folks across the US have been repressed, from Standing Rock to other pipeline projects … It’s the state legal apparatus taking aim at street protests and pipeline blockades.”
Among those targeted by authorities in 2017 was Yvette Felarca, an anti-fascist activist with By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), a left-wing civil rights group.
She was charged with felony assault and a pair of misdemeanours in July, which could result in years of jail time and hefty fines, according to court documents.
Felarca, a middle school teacher whose legal name is Yvonne, was charged over her alleged involvement in violence during a counter protest on June 26, 2016, when anti-fascists and anti-racists confronted a neo-Nazi rally in Sacramento, California.
During that incident, white supremacists armed with knives attacked counterdemonstrators, stabbing several, including Felarca.
“We are continuing to build the movement to fight fascism and get the false charges against myself and other anti-fascist protesters in Sacramento dropped,” Felarca told Al Jazeera by email.
While three others were dealt charges over the Sacramento violence, only one of them was from the white supremacist contingent.
Felarca echoed accusations that Trump’s administration has emboldened authorities across the country to suppress anti-fascists, anti-racists and other anti-Trump activists across the US.
“He hates and fears criticism because he hates and fears the strength of the mass movement that is committed to defeating him,” she added, arguing that the ostensible crackdown is evidence that Trump’s administration is “weak, vicious and brittle”.
“His attempt to crack down on anti-racists and anti-fascists is exposing and isolating him to the majority of people in the US and across the world as the enemy of democratic rights.”
For his part, Trump has time and again defended his administration and claimed to support the right of protesters to voice their opposition to his policies as well as racism and sexism.
In August, when tens of thousands staged a counterdemonstration against a far-right rally, Trump took to Twitter to describe anti-fascists and anti-racists as “anti-police agitators”.
He later appeared to express support for the right to protest, saying: “I want to applaud the many protesters in Boston who are speaking out against bigotry and hate. Our country will soon come together as one!”
On January 22, following nationwide marches for women’s rights, immigration reform and other issues, Trump said on Twitter: “Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don’t always agree, I recognise the rights of people to express their views.”
In other instances, Trump has lashed out at demonstrators.
In February, after a rally against a speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at University of California, Berkeley, the president lambasted “professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters” on Twitter.
Donald J. Trump
Professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters are proving the point of the millions of people who voted to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!
5:18 PM – Feb 3, 2017
41,604 41,604 Replies 41,756 41,756 Retweets 168,087 168,087 likes
On September 15, protests erupted in St Louis, Missouri over the acquittal of Jason Stockley, a white former police officer who shot dead 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith, an unarmed African American man, nearly six years earlier.
Protests spanned weeks, with demonstrators and community members engaging in civil disobedience and non-violent tactics aimed at disrupting the local economy. During the first 18 days, police arrested at least 307 people, the St Louis Police Department (SLMPD) told Al Jazeera at the time.
The SLMPD’s mass arrests and forceful response to the demonstrations elicited criticism from activists and rights groups, including the local state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
With outcry mounting, Trump remained silent on the protests in St Louis, commenting neither on the demonstrations nor the police response.
Scott Michelman, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s DC chapter, argued that “there has been an astonishing level of hostility toward the First Amendment in 2017”, referring to the constitutional protection that affords those in the US the right to free speech and to assemble, among other freedoms.
“The president sets a tone for the country in lots of ways, and Trump has signalled to his supporters that free speech isn’t a value of his and it shouldn’t be a value of ours,” Michelman told Al Jazeera.
“That’s given permission and encouragement to anti-free speech forces across the country, whether they be law enforcement or policymakers.”
Throughout Trump’s first year in office, right-wing state legislators introduced dozens of bills designed to curb the activities of demonstrators in nearly 20 states, according to the ACLU.
Several states – among them North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Tennessee – have passed such bills into law.
North Dakota passed into law bills that criminalised protests on private property, increased penalties for riot offences and barred demonstrators from wearing masks to conceal their identities, among others.
In Oklahoma, new laws ostensibly made it possible for authorities to hold anyone arrested for trespassing financially accountable for any damages to property and punished protesters who knowingly trespass on “critical infrastructure”.
In Tennessee, a new law known as SB 902 introduced a $200 fine for protesters who obstruct the access of emergency vehicles, while South Dakota’s SB 176 expanded the abilities of authorities to limit or block protests on public land and highways.
This month, Durham County, North Carolina introduced a new proposal that would require protesters to give 48-hour notice before holding any demonstration on publicly owned land.
“The wave of anti-speech fury on the part of prosecutors, law enforcement and political forces will pass; but that’s not to say that we should be complacent with it and think it will pass without hard work,” Michelman concluded.
“Free speech is deeply ingrained in our political and social fabric, and people are going to continue to raise their voices for it.”
War or peace?
By Dr Akmal Hussain
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi on Sunday, April 7, in a press briefing in Multan, announced that the government had “reliable” information that India was planning another attack on Pakistan. He revealed that during a meeting of the Indian Cabinet Committee on Security, the three service chiefs had indicated that they were ready with plans of multiple strikes against Pakistan across a wide front and were awaiting a “political nod”, which was duly given by PM Modi during the meeting.
After the political boomerang of the failed Balakot strike, simple statistical theory would suggest to the military mind that the larger the number of strikes next time the higher the probability of at least one succeeding. The chances of partial success would increase if the air attack is across a wide front: the defending air force would have to spread itself thin and so the number of intercepting aircraft that could be fielded against any one group of attackers would be reduced.
Such a military adventure by India would not simply be a repeat strike after Balakot. It would be a precipitous escalation, fraught with the risk of full-scale conventional war that could quickly lead to a catastrophic nuclear exchange. When India suffered a setback in the Balakot engagement, they reportedly readied themselves for a missile strike against three Pakistani cities on the night of February 27.
There is no technology in existence that can determine whether or not incoming missiles have a nuclear payload. So Pakistan’s declaration that they would launch triple the number of missiles in retaliation, as soon as Indian missiles left their launch pads, carried the grim possibility of a nuclear war in the Subcontinent. If we had come so close to Armageddon soon after even a single abortive strike, imagine how much greater would be the risk of escalation to the nuclear level during a full-scale conventional war.
At present, and in the foreseeable future, two aspects of the structure of the India-Pakistan relationship create a hair trigger that can quickly and repeatedly bring the two countries to flashpoint. First, a popular freedom movement in Kashmir that, despite their protracted coercion, Indian security forces have been unable to suppress. It has instead produced a pantheon of martyrs and a new generation of militant youths willing to sacrifice themselves for freedom. Under these circumstances the internal dynamics of the Kashmiri movement can generate acts of violent rebellion against Indian troops at any time.
Second, on the other side of the border for many years non-state groups of militant extremists who have off and on received patronage continue to exist. The toxic mix of these two elements creates an environment in which spectacular acts of violence by Kashmiri youth could be blamed on “Pakistan-based terrorists” by India. This could intensify tensions, precipitating another military conflict. The past cannot be taken as a guide to say how it will end, whether in peace or nuclear war.
Given the firepower of modern conventional weaponry, significant loss of territory can occur during the initial onslaught that could escalate to the use of battlefield nuclear weapons. Once nuclear weapons are used on enemy troops, all-out nuclear war would follow. The recent history of India-Pakistan military conflict however has shown that even before a full-scale conventional war, a limited, localised battle can bring the two sides to the nuclear precipice.
For example, during the Kargil conflict in 1999 when the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif flew to Washington to ask the then US president Clinton to help end the conflict, he was shown satellite pictures of nuclear weapons being loaded onto F16s as evidence for a shocked PM of how close the two countries were to a nuclear war. Then again during the first two days of the February 2019 conflict involving limited Air Force engagements, nuclear missiles were reportedly readied on the night of February 27 for use by both sides.
So far these confrontations have induced timely intercession by the international community and peoples of the Subcontinent have survived by the skin of their teeth. But what a future confrontation will bring, whether we live or die in a nuclear war is inherently uncertain. Its probability cannot be estimated.
Some take comfort in the fact that seven confrontations in the past did not result in full-scale war as international pressure to defuse tensions worked. However, this 100 percent success in preventing war in the past cannot be used as a basis for saying it will not occur the next time around. This is because in society as much as in the relationship between states the averages of the past do not necessarily hold into the future. This is unlike natural phenomena where averages of the past as expressed in natural laws do hold into the future.
For example, take the law of gravity: if you had dropped an object and it fell to the ground yesterday, there is a high probability that it would fall again if you dropped it tomorrow. But in society, probability estimates which are essentially based on projecting the past into the future are not possible in principle. The pattern of social phenomena and human behaviour observed in the past can in the future be shattered by unique events or a combination of unique events.
As the preceding discussion argues, even a limited conventional conflict following a terrorist incident can quickly escalate to the nuclear threshold. It is vital, therefore, for the two countries supported by the world community to address the explosive structure of a situation that leads to repeated military confrontation.
Millions of citizens in both countries are mired in poverty, illiteracy and disease. Thousands of children are dying at birth every day; of those who survive birth, thousands die before they are five years old. Of the children who live beyond five years, millions are suffering from malnutrition, their bodies stunted, their brains dulled. Millions of children roam the streets and alleys, deprived of quality education, abandoned by society and state and living without hope. Instead of halting this massacre of innocents together, the two states are marching in lockstep to a nuclear catastrophe.
It is time for the leaderships of both India and Pakistan to reflect on the irrationality and inhumanity of using proxy wars or ‘surgical strikes’ as a means of achieving national security. The power of a nation lies not in following the course of mutual annihilation but pursuing the path of peace for the welfare of its citizens. The leaderships of the two countries should dip their cupped hands into their shared civilisational well-springs. Imbibe the sense of compassion and human solidarity to care for our children rather than killing them.
Rubbing salt on the wounds:
By Aleem Faizee
Another assault on the people of Malegaon – this is how a shopkeeper in Malegaon reacted to the news of the BJP fielding Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur from Bhopal against Congress’ Digvijaya Singh in this Lok Sabha election.
It’s like rubbing salt on our wounds, another Malegaon resident said.
For the people in Malegaon, the announcement of Pragya Thakur’s candidature has brought back the ghastly memories of 29 September 2008, when the city was rocked by a bomb blast. Thakur is facing trial in the case.
On the night of the blast, it was about 9.40 pm and people were about to finish Salaat-ut-Taraweeh – special night prayers offered during the month of Ramadan – when they heard a loud sound of explosion. At first, they thought it could be a cylinder blast accident. But it soon emerged that it was a bomb blast.
The blast spot was just metres away from the Ladies Fashion Market at Anjuman Chowk where a huge crowd of women and children were busy shopping for Eid al Fitr. There was chaos near Bhikku Chowk – the site of the blast. People carried the bleeding victims, more than a hundred, to hospitals using whatever means they could find.
The blast claimed six lives. One of them was 5-year-old Farheen Shaikh who was out to buy some snacks and was on her way back home to have Ramadan dinner with her grandmother.
Among the injured was Abdullah Jamaluddin Ansari of Shakeel Transport. The 75-year-old man, during initial investigation, had said he had noticed the LML Freedom motorcycle, which was later traced to Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur and led to her arrest, parked in front of his office since afternoon that day. He had also informed the police chowki, a stone’s throw away from the blast site, but claimed that no action was taken.
Javed Ansari, owner of a photocopier shop, was also injured in the Malegaon blast. It took him over three years to recover and resume work.
But for these blast victims, life has never been the same since that September night.
While Javed Ansari and the family of Farheen Shaikh left the locality after the blast, Shakeel Transport’s Abdullah Ansari died last year. Following the blast, Ansari often looked at the wall clock in his shop, which had stopped working at 9.37 pm – the time of the blast – and waited for justice.
One doesn’t know how he would have reacted to the news of Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and contesting the Lok Sabha election.
By fielding Sadhvi Pragya, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants people to believe that she and other accused arrested in various blast cases were ‘framed in fabricated cases’ and that ‘saffron terror’ is a myth.
But while doing so the, BJP has undermined the fact that Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur still remains a key accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast case. As per court papers, the first evidence that led to her arrest was the LML Freedom motorcycle that was registered in her name and was used to plant the bomb. There are also some audio tapes and visuals too. Based on these evidences, the Bombay trial court judge had observed that there was enough ground to establish Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur’s role in the blast.
Ironically, while nominating Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur as the party candidate, the BJP did not think about the kind of message this would send to all the world leaders with whom Narendra Modi has often taken up the issue of terrorism.
The people of Malegaon, who had been hearing about the pressure on some officers and public prosecutor Rohini Salian ‘to go soft’ in the case, have almost lost all hope of getting justice. Wife of Mumbai ATS chief Hemant Karkare – the officer who initially investigated the case – had turned down then-Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s monetary compensation after 26/11 attacks.
Therefore, the BJP’s decision to field Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur in this election is neither shocking nor surprising for most people in Malegaon. But it is painful, especially for the blast victims and their families.
Majboot Sarkars Overrated?
Prior to the 1990s, coalition governments in Indian politics were considered to be an aberration and not particularly desirable. The lack of coalitions in India was clearly tied to the one-party preponderance of the Congress. So, when the party sensed defeat in the 1989 Lok Sabha election, it tried to remind voters of how shambolic the 1977 Janata government had been.
The VP Singh-led National Front government formed in 1989 was perhaps the strangest political entity that people had witnessed in Indian politics. Propped up by the Left parties on one side, and the right-wing BJP that provided support with its 86 seats on the other – the government proved to be short lived.
The grand old party then supported the Chandrashekhar Singh government for four months, after which it decided to withdraw support and elections in 1991 brought back a Congress-led coalition government in the country. With that, the era of coalition politics was well and truly upon us.
Coalition governments were the new normal in Indian politics and would continue to be so until 2014, when the Narendra Modi-led government became the first in three decades since 1984, to win a clear majority.
In 1996, there was a short-lived Vajpayee-led BJP government for 13 days, followed by the rather soporific one led by HD Deve Gowda that lasted until 1997. After that, IK Gujral led the United Front coalition government that lasted from April 1997 to March 1998.
By then, the political scenario of the country was beginning to look a bit like a game of musical chairs. However, things stabilised with Atal Bihari Vajpayee returning in 1998, hanging on for a year and then getting re-elected in 1999 to finally last a whole term.
After that, with a full decade of the Congress led United Progressive Alliance leading the way, Indian politics developed a version of the two party system, rather, a two coalition system. Numerous political parties have coalesced around BJP and the Congress in the form of the National Democratic Alliance and the United Progressive Alliance, respectively.
Congress governments in coalition have brought about some of the most momentous and far-reaching changes. It was the Narasimha Rao-led government that introduced the economic reforms, which for better or worse, changed the country tremendously.
One simple indicator of the worth of coalitions is the fact that many thought that the UPA-I government was too hobbled by the presence of the Left, as it was a hindrance to the economic reforms associated with Congress governments since 1991.
The withdrawal of Left support, followed by the more emphatic victory that led to UPA-II in 2009, was supposed to bring in a more decisive and unfettered government. Yet, it is the UPA-I government that is remembered for the succession of rights-based legislation it introduced, while UPA II has come to be associated with crony capitalism.
Similarly, the NDA-I government of Vajpayee, with all of its coalition pulls and pressures ensured two things. First, the core and often contentious BJP issues, which are Article 370, Babri Masjid and Uniform Civil Code, were relegated to the back-burner.
Second, the Vajpayee-led BJP government could well and truly be said to have a fringe and a centre, with the fringe remaining where any fringe should belong.
However, the ruling BJP government of the day has once again brought the core contentious issues to the forefront. It has also ensured that the fringe encompasses the party uniformly, leaving no hint of nuance or differentiation.
What this suggests is that weaker coalitions may actually perform better. More importantly, coalitions are able to more naturally weave in the vital regional parties that act as breakwaters in the path of potentially elective despotism.
Are majority governments over-rated?
What have supposedly strong and stable majority governments been able to do? Have they taken decisive measures or brought about ‘big-ticket economic reforms’, untroubled by the petty pulls of coalition partners?
Take the 1984 Rajiv Gandhi government with its mammoth majority of above 400 hundred seats. In less than two years, it started playing communally divisive politics around the Babri Masjid and Shah Bano issues.
The Congress thought it was being cleverly even handed by dealing out both majority and minority communal cards. The drift in the Rajiv Gandhi government could be sensed right in the middle of its term when it lost badly in the Haryana assembly elections of 1987. It lost the hugely symbolic Allahabad by-election in 1988 to V.P. Singh, and the rest we are prone to saying, is history.
The question then is this: Could the supposed strength and stability provided by majority governments be overrated? What has the Modi government achieved on the back of its huge mandate? Has it squandered that majority much like the Rajiv Gandhi led government of 1984-89? Can Modi return to power? This has been a bit of a see-saw question.
When Modi’s government came to power with a huge landslide, or ‘tsunami’ if you will, conventional wisdom was that he was here to stay for at least two terms. The UP assembly elections in 2017 seemed to confirm this. After that, it has been more of a will he/won’t he guessing game. The jury is well and truly out on this one.