Solidarity in the streets: An interview with Judith Butler

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Award-winning author and prolific feminist scholar Judith Butler will be speaking tomorrow night at the Vogue Theatre in Vancouver. Dr. Butler will be presenting a talk entitled 'A Politics of the Street' in which she will examine the different forms of public resistance, protests and their implications for contemporary politics.

The event, which is being presented by The Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies as part of their public forums for converging minds to explore freely, sold out 1100 tickets in just three hours.

Media and the new student movements

"We are all drawn to think about what is going on," says Butler, who has had a close eye on various protests around the world, including the current student demonstrations in Montreal. "I think the Montreal protests are very powerful; it is getting global attention and raises fundamental questions about whether students in Canada have a right to an affordable education. It has been powerful enough to cancel classes and stop business as usual. Sometimes you have to bring the machinery to a halt to make a difference."

"Media is very important in making certain links. News made through social media can be relatively uncensored and it undercuts or contests the more dominant media representations," explains Butler, who sees protests in one part of the world having an effect on what is happening on the other side of the world.

"I think there was a successful movement on the part of the Chilean students last year opposing tuition. Their success has been an important point of reference for Berkeley, Athens and Montreal. People in Cairo are watching us in the U.S. and people in Chile are watching Athens. The world has been more connected in the last year and a half. There's an increasing understanding of global dependency and new forms of global alliances."

Dr. Butler received a PhD in philosophy from Yale University and is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. There she saw the student movement fighting budget cuts and defended some of the students against police brutality, even condemning the University administration for allowing it to take place.

"I have been part of protests my whole life," says Butler, who also visited the Occupy Wall Street movement. "What interests me is what happens when people get together and find themselves standing next to someone they don't know. Communities of people gather in the streets, they don't know each other and yet they overcome differences and are all brought together in sudden alliance."

"Outside of our local groups or identity-based communities, we are figuring out what is our obligation to the stranger. Our commonality, whether it is anti-racism or radical democratic ideals, insists that we have obligations to one another that are not based on shared language or religion or even beliefs about humanity. Views do not have to be the same to sense that something is profoundly unjust and have strong ties of solidarity."

Strong bonds of solidarity needed

"I was just at the May 1st street protests in Paris," recalls Butler. "I saw a number of different groups come together. Some were opposing violence in Syria; some were trying to gain rights for gay and lesbian parenting, some where fighting cuts to teachers' salaries. All the issues where so different, and yet they were looking to achieve a greater sense of equality and justice. It was International Labour Day and the left came together, they all show up and a few days later, they threw out their president - it was a beautiful sight."

"There are ways of being physically proximate to people, modes of solidarity that emphasize the political community we're striving for. It's important, if we are going to oppose in a strong way the differentials of wealth that we're seeing. In order to fight economic conditions that are devastating peoples' lives, military efforts that are destroying populations and the earth, we need strong bonds of solidarity to oppose those very powerful structures."

Earlier this month, Dr. Butler was in Switzerland where she presented at a conference at the University of Geneva on the topic of coalitions. She also just returned from visiting Israel and Palestine where she met with several different groups. She has a new book entitled Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, due out next month.

"There are activists in Palestine struggling with some very brutal aspects of the Occupation. The problem with living under occupation is that you can't just assemble in public or you may be risking immediate imprisonment. I think there is great courage and dignity among Palestinians who are facing indefinite detention. Israeli security forces are able to put a Palestinian in jail without reason."

Palestinian hunger strikes: 'A great act of courage and dignity'

"When I was there 3-4 weeks ago, the hunger strikes in prison were extremely important. There were individuals in separate cells refusing food as a way to oppose indefinite detention. The narratives of those stories were powerful and brought negative attention to the State of Israel. To actually decide to refuse food, to say these are not liveable conditions, is a great act of courage and dignity. It's a way of saying, 'this life is already at risk'. Sometimes there is more dignity to risk death for one self then to keep living in subjugation."

"What I witnessed most disturbingly is the situation in Hebron on the West Bank," explains Butler. "There is a sort of apartheid with Palestinians on one side of the wall and Israelis on the other side. Walking through check points, they can have objects thrown at them and acid thrown down on them from buildings. It struck me as an unbelievable situation and one that is not documented aptly enough."

"There was a beautiful moment when I met with a man who had been imprisoned and every single time he passes through the check point he says 'I am free again'. I had admiration for the way in which he affirmed his transient sense of freedom."

'Not hopeful, but not devastated either'

When asked if she is hopeful about the state of the world, Dr. Butler answers "I am not hopeful, but I am not devastated either. I find instances of hope."

"I am discouraged by the wars that the U.S. has undertaken in the last years, discouraged that President Obama hasn't shut Guantanamo, that acts of torture happen, that people in the U.S. alone are losing their homes and dropping out of school."

"But meeting some of the people in Palestinian prisons, affirms life and our connection with others. There are ways for people to maintain dignity even under extreme conditions of injustice, these are moments of hopefulness."


Samantha Sarra is a freelance journalist based out of Vancouver.  For more than a decade she has worked in television and print as a journalist committed to covering human rights, politics, culture and the arts. As an activist she volunteers for several organizations and currently sits on the board of The Shanti Uganda Society.

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