The words never again
Clashing against the words
Again and again
– Alicia Ostriker, “The Eighth and Thirteenth”
I have no clever title for this post. When I began this blog, I deliberately designed it to address multiple subjects that interested me – gender, feminism, LGBTQ issues, Latin America travel, film, vegetarianism, decluttering, and anything I felt like commenting on. I’ve ended up writing more about my Argentina trips than anything else, and now I find myself wondering, if I address what’s going on there currently, I’ll scare off the curious travelers, the study-abroad students, their parents and friends.
A few days ago I had a chance to visit my Argentine-Uruguayan-USian friend D., who asked, as he often does, “Have you been following the news there?” There doesn’t need to be defined; he and I speak at times in a code that switches abruptly to Spanish, often rioplatense Spanish that says volumes in one phrase.
“Not lately,” I said, and his immediate reply was, “Just as well.” But I knew he was referring to the lynchings – although I don’t have many Facebook friends in Buenos Aires, I have enough that I can’t escape the most important news even when I’m not diligently reading online about their country. The Argentine media have reported at least eight incidents in the last two weeks of mob violence in four different provinces – citizens catching thieves and viciously attacking them. An 18-year-old in Rosario, the third-largest city in the country, was beaten to death by a mob after he was accused of stealing a woman’s purse.
As a born-and-raised U.S. citizen, when I hear “lynching,” the first thing that leaps to mind is not a thought, but an image: a Black man hanging from a tree. When I began reading about the linchamientos in Argentina, I had to look up the word’s definition, because I wasn’t sure what constituted a lynching. It is an extrajudicial killing, and does not have to involve hanging, nor, of course, an African American man fleeing a pack of white men with dogs through woods or Southern swamps. But this is what pops into our minds, we USians, what we’ve seen in films and old photographs. Horrendous images: the mangled face of Emmett Till in his coffin, a 14-year-old Black boy from the North who was tortured and murdered for speaking to a white woman in the South.
The lynchings in Argentina in the past several weeks are different – race is probably not a big factor, although indigenous ancestry and brown skin are often connected with poverty, although there’s still deep denial in Argentina that race is a factor in anything. (That’s a whole other blog post or 10, though.) Class and money are certainly involved, and, as in the United States, history. To say that Argentina is no stranger to extrajudicial killing is a ridiculous understatement, and it doesn’t surprise me that in an adolescent democracy, one that’s existed officially for only 31 years, citizens take the law into their own hands – or feet, in the cases of thieves who’ve been kicked to death.
I’m not an expert on Argentina (is anyone?), so I can’t say that I understand the police situation there. I continue to read about it and talk with friends who live there and/or grew up there whenever I have the opportunity. I’ve heard that the cops are paid as little as teachers, and I’ve noticed that the teachers in Buenos Aires go on strike for higher pay and better conditions at the beginning of nearly every school year these days – at this point I’d be shocked if the school year ever started on time.
Much of my information is anecdotal. Last year when I returned to Buenos Aires after five months’ absence, I noted large new trash containers (like small Dumpsters) on the streets, some with piles of rubbish next to them. I wondered why there were no containers for recyclables and how the cartoneros (see my blog post here) were going to make a living if they couldn’t reach the paper, cardboard, bottles, cans, and other items they collect for recycling. My acquaintance who co-owns a bed and breakfast with his wife told me the cartoneros were pulling these items out of the new bins and leaving the trash on the streets, and when people asked the police why they didn’t order people to return the garbage to the bins, the officers replied, “We can’t – they say we’re violating their rights and refuse to pick it up.”
Another acquaintance from Buenos Aires, who works for the mainstream, center-left daily newspaper, told me this was bunk. As with anything, there’s probably some truth on both sides. La Nación, the mainstream, center-right Buenos Aires daily, has a regular heading or section for many of its news stories: “Inseguridad,” “Insecurity.” Of course this sort of reporting appeals most to those with wealth, who have something to be insecure about, but the poor are also robbed, and the truly impoverished have to live in villas miserias, or shantytowns, and deal with young people who use and/or deal drugs and steal from people and homes – that’s true insecurity. It seems that people at all socioeconomic levels are simply tired of putting up with bold robbery that goes unpunished.
But it’s horrifying that some people have decided to deal with it by beating accused thieves to death on the streets. And the Buenos Aires provincial governor’s response seems equally chilling in a nation with a history of brutal dictatorships: declaring a year-long “state of security emergency” and beefing up police ranks and powers. Human rights groups are worried, and with good reason: unleashing the state security forces against youth is exactly what the military junta did between 1976 and 1983, when between 10,000 and 30,000 people were “disappeared” – kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. It’s impossible to tell what the coming weeks and months will bring, but right now, what comes to my mind is the title of the report on the dictatorship’s human rights violations, written and published in 1984: Nunca más. Never Again.