Public speech, political inaction

When I wrote this first draft, on February 25th, Aaron Bushnell had lit himself on fire in front of the Israeli embassy to protest the genocide of the Palestinian people. He was carrying out what he called “an extreme act of protest” because he could “no longer be complicit in genocide.” With his last words, he shouted “Free Palestine” three times, until collapsing into the flames around him. As Aaron burned, one officer shouted at him to drop to the ground, keeping his gun drawn on his body. Another officer shouted off camera: "I don't need guns, I need fire extinguishers!"

Pictured: Aaron Bushnell shouts "FREE PALESTINE" as flames erupt around him. Pulled from the live-stream Aaron recorded.

Our country is devoid of meaningful political outlets for enacting the public’s will, and so one might explore methods outside of polite politics to get a point across. And yet, through act of protest Aaron made his will and passion externally visible to the Israeli delegation and to the world.

To live in the capital of the world’s most wealthy and belligerent nation and to be even vaguely aware of its many international crimes against humanity is a game of spatial thinking. Sure, I may be able to walk down the street and physically approach the locus of this country’s power, and yet my political distance feels as vast as someone living in Hawaii. Less so, really, considering that District residents do not have voting representation in Congress.

Our nation’s political system is representative. I vote for someone who promises to consider my community’s needs in their political action. In voting for a representative, I delegate my political will and energy to someone else, transferring to them a responsibility to act on behalf of myself and the broader electorate. The delegation of collective political will is what legally and morally justifies this system, where one person can claim to act for many people: a representative democracy.

Our peculiar interpretation of this form of democracy however relies on the complete delegation of political power to representatives. As such, our legally and socially accepted means of political action are reduced to voting once every two-to-four years at best. The legal alternatives to political action are heavily managed, reduced to a kind of regulated kabuki, focused harassment of interns in a political reps office or guided self-help.

Protests are an alternative to voting that are only legal when they follow the parameters set by the state: organize at this location at this time, disperse by that time, and impede traffic to a minimum. The political stakes for a representative ignoring legal protests are relatively low, especially when they don’t directly name the rep or lack sustained coverage through institutional media. Read: most protests. (At least on the left: right-wing efforts on any benign issue never seem to struggle with sustaining change or attention.)

Petitions delivered to a representative only matter as far as which stakeholders signed on and how much political/monetary power they hold with the representative. Generally speaking, if a rep is not already sympathetic to a petition, and if they do not face a credible threat of being recalled or primaried, these too can be safely ignored or placated.

Ballot initiatives have some potential. But at least in Washington, DC, initiatives are hamstrung by the prevention of any collective lawmaking that would cost money to implement. In theory, this limitation is a means of preventing an initiative that could harm DC financially. In practice, this limitation preserves the power of council members and prevents the public from having direct control over how its tax revenues are used.

We, the public, did not decide to invade Iraq, Congress did.

We did not decide to invade Afghanistan, the President did.

We did not rule that corporations can legally bribe politicians, the Supreme Court did.

Nearly all legal methods the public has on influencing politics, from bike lanes to war declarations, rely on us convincing our representatives through some means, since they hold all the practical power. 

Still, what happens if we can’t convince our representatives to end a genocide? 

May you rest in solidarity, Aaron Bushnell.

Related Entries