Despite its dubious history, the cry of ‘outside agitators’ remains a favourite stand-by. In the UK, it’s recently been deployed against the human rights campaigners working with the family of Jean-Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician shot dead by anti-terrorist police at a London tube station.
The Daily Telegraph, the country’s biggest selling broadsheet, complained that the campaigners are ‘exploiting his death to criticise the police and the Government. One man’s tragedy is becoming everybody’s circus.’ The Sun, the biggest selling tabloid, described the campaigners as ‘Marxist agitators’ ‘using the tragedy.’
Meanwhile, in the USA, Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a US soldier killed last year in Iraq, has been staging a vigil outside Bush’s vacation ranch in Crawford, Texas, demanding a meeting with the president and the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. She has been joined by thousands of supporters from a wide variety of backgrounds, and her direct challenge to the President has revived the grass-roots anti-war movement. The White House’s defenders have hit back by denouncing the grieving mother as a dupe and tool of ‘outside agitators’ with a ‘hidden leftist agenda’.
In Pakistan earlier this year the government blamed its embarrassment over gross violations of women’s rights on meddling ‘foreign-funded’ NGOs. Similarly, Honda attributed its recent troubles in Gurgaon, India to ‘outside forces.’
The tactic is transparent. By suggesting that voices of protest are somehow alien and inauthentic, those in authority seek to cloud the issues and evade accountability for their own actions.
What’s most pernicious is the assumption that the victims of injustice lack the wit or the will to challenge their superiors, that they are incapable of acting on their own grievance and rationally choosing their allies. Presumably, in the absence of the outside agitators, the de Menezes family would have graciously accepted the slaughter of their son as a sad but unavoidable by-product of the war on terror.
The outside agitator ploy depicts the victims as muddled and passive and their allies as furtive and Machiavellian. Sections of the British media would like us to be shocked to learn that the people assisting the de Menezes family have been active in anti-war, anti-racist and anti-globalisation activities. Why shouldn’t the de Menezes family draw on their skills and experience? Would it be better if they hired a PR firm?
The two activists singled out for attack in Britain – Asad Rehman and Yasmin Khan – are British Muslims. Confusingly for a media addicted to stereotypes, they are not jihadis but independent leftists with a broad commitment to human rights. The same people who noisily demand that Muslims ‘integrate’ into British society then attack individual Muslims when they engage energetically with the democratic process, when they insist that the summary public execution of an innocent man poses urgent questions for us all.
Campaigns against injustices are never ideology-free. The real crime of the de Menezes campaigners and those supporting Cindy Sheehan is not that they have an ideology but that they do not share the ideology of the powerful.
The snarling attacks on outside agitators are signs of panic. In the USA, the unexpected ramifications of Cindy Sheehan’s protest have taken professional commentators by surprise. Because they haven’t predicted it, they treat it as the result of a conspiracy. The reality is that because the occupation of Iraq is proving a nightmare increasing numbers of US citizens are coming to agree with Sheehan’s call for immediate withdrawal. Bush’s apologists hope to dampen the fire by suggesting that this call has its sources in an alien, duplicitous force. And they are joined here by people who oppose Bush but who are eager that anti-war protest should remain within the safe confines of the bi-partisan political elite.
In the UK, there’s clearly anxiety at the highest levels over the unraveling of the de Menezes killing. In recent weeks it’s been revealed that, contrary to initial police statements, the victim was not wearing a puffy jacket nor had he vaulted over the turnstile. It’s now also emerged that police fired (eleven times) without issuing a verbal warning, and that they sought to prevent the Independent Police Complaints Commission from investigating the shooting. Having been so discredited by their own behaviour, the police now seek to discredit their critics.
The facts of the de Menezes killing are also highly inconvenient for the British government, which wants to use the 7 July bombings as a pretext for increasing police powers, curtailing civil liberties and prosecuting the war on terror. To make their case stick, they have to ensure that people in Britain see the de Menezes shooting as merely a ‘tragic mistake’ rather than the cumulative result of high-handed, wrong-headed policies. For them, the de Menezes family, active and sceptical, aided by ‘outside agitators’, are an obstacle and a threat. Which is precisely why their refusal to slink away is good news, in Britain and well beyond.This is an edited version of an article originally appearing in The Hindu.