Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Otto Warmbier and Black Lives Matter

A couple months ago, a UVA college student named Otto Warmbier was arrested in North Korea for stealing/vandalizing a propaganda poster.  Warmbier was apparently in the country on the school trip, and tried to take the poster from his hotel as a souvenir on the night before his scheduled return home.  Prior to his sentence, he “confessed” to this crime in a clearly coerced and exaggerated (but not necessarily false) statement which you can watch here.

So naturally, he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

When this went viral, there was a lot of discussion online about how stupid the kid was, with many saying things like “that’s why you don’t go to other countries and break their laws!”  This bothered me a bit, because it sounds a lot like victim blaming, but I mostly held my tongue.  It was, after all, pretty stupid.

But when a very left wing Hopkins friend of mine shared this article – titled “You Gon’ Learn Today: On the Revocation of White Privilege in North Korea,” – along with the caption “privilege is a hell of a drug lol,” I couldn’t resist. The following is the dialogue that ensued.  As always, his comments are in italics and mine are in regular font.  As always, you should read the original article first for context.  For the record, my friend is black and an outspoken supporter of the BLM movement, which is relevant to our discussion.


Me: People who think Eric Garner IN ANY WAY deserved what he got just because he broke a ridiculous law are wrong as hell.  So is the woman who wrote this, for the same reason.

The first thing to point out here is that the North Korean state, and all of its laws, are completely illegitimate.  The author decries how the guy "went to an Asian country and violated their laws," but they are not "their” laws so much as "Kim Jong Un's laws," because NK is a ruthless murderous tyranny with zero popular input.  North Korean laws deserve no more respect than the rules of the Mafia.  

She ridicules his "perception that the rules do not apply to him.”  But North Korea's rules don't apply to anybody, morally speaking.  She argues he "is now facing a decade and a half of hard labor because he lacked both good judgment and respect for the national autonomy of a country."  But NOBODY should respect that autonomy, because it doesn't exist!

Stealing a North Korean propaganda banner (if he actually did it, which it's very possible he didn't) is literally analogous to someone tearing down a swastika in 1942 Germany.  Both are genocidal, thieving regimes that had no more right to ownership over that sign than you or I.  Otto Warmbier is very foolish, but he did nothing immoral at all, and arguably even something heroic.

She notes that "if he had obeyed North Korea’s laws, he would be home now."  The same is true for Garner and Freddie Gray and Michael Brown and most of the other high profile "victims of state sanctioned violence" that the author alludes to in this country. It's also completely fucking irrelevant to whether these individuals got justice!

To be outraged in all those cases, but gleefully say "That’s what the hell he gets. Good for him! He earned that" out of spite in this case just because it happened to someone who's white and preppy is the height of hypocrisy.

My friend: Although she mentioned her callous reaction was similar to her mothers, I don't really think she believes that Otto deserves what came to him. Nor do I believe that's what he deserves. He should be aware enough of the turbulence and irrationality of North Korea to know better than to do something so foolish. A hero? What help does one less piece of propaganda do for North Korean climate? The point is his upbringing in America, where he is in a position of power due to privilege, may have blinded him into going into a restricted access area of a North Korean hotel and stealing propaganda. It just doesn't make sense.

I'm sure we can all agree that N. Korea's laws are completely illegitimate. But that doesn't mean an Individual (American or not) should do something so reckless. Don't poke the bear, especially when it's in its cave and with a sleuth.

Me: I don't disagree with anything you wrote here, it's just not important in the larger context of what happened.  If the kid really did it, it was obviously stupid.  But being an idiot does not warrant 15 years of enslavement, and chortling about the privilege of someone who was just sent to a concentration camp seems like petty tribalism against her rivals in a culture war.

Yes, it was unwise and foolish and "reckless" and "he should have been aware enough...to know better."  But it was also unwise for Michael Brown to steal those cigarillos, and it was also reckless for Freddie Gray to run from the cops, and also foolish for Eric Garner to resist arrest.  Had I posted a link in the wake of these injustices that effectually said "Well, that's why you don't poke the bear - you gon' learn today!!" would that have struck you as an appropriate response?  Or is there something ugly about relishing in the suffering of people who've been so deeply wronged, just because they could have avoided it by making better decisions?

Her theory that the entitled invincibility of privilege contributed to his decisions isn't what I objected to, it’s just the whole smug air of "sorry not sorry, *sips tea* payback is sweet."  It bothers me because it's the same dismissive attitude we see on the right among police abuse apologists: "yeah, the cops probably overreacted, BUT, this guy was a criminal, so he pretty much had it coming."  No the fuck he didn't.

My friend:  No on is saying that he deserved 15 years of hard labor! Equating Otto to Eric Garner, Freddie Gray or Mike Brown is a big problem and I will tell you why. Mike Brown probably knew the consequences of stealing, Freddie Gray could have thought running was reckless, and Eric Garner probably knew resisting arrest was foolish, but guess what? THEY 100% ABSOLUTELY knew that whatever they did was not PUNISHABLE BY DEATH. They did not DIE for their decisions, they died because there are disgusting cops out there who think that they can treat American citizens with brutal force without consequence. They are poking no bear, stealing a cigarillo in America is not the same as stealing north korean propaganda in NORTH KOREA. And however illegitimate the situation once (on all fronts), Otto had a "trial" and was sentenced. Mike, Freddie and Eric are all dead without a chance.

"As I’ve said, living 15 years performing manual labor in North Korea is unimaginable, but so is going to a place I know I’m unwelcome and violating their laws. I’m a black woman though. The hopeless fear Warmbier is now experiencing is my daily reality living in a country where white men like him are willfully oblivious to my suffering even as they are complicit in maintaining the power structures which ensure their supremacy at my expense. He is now an outsider at the mercy of a government unfazed by his cries for help. I get it."

I can tell you now that the author is not saying he deserves what he got, nor is it a dismissive attitude. The dismissive attitude you think you hear is actually a comparison of his struggle to the struggle that people of color face EVERYDAY in America. Police abuse apologists are just wrong, because we KNOW that these cases did not warrant killing someone. You cannot apply what happens here to what happens in North Korea. If Otto was any other race THE SAME THING WOULD HAVE HAPPENED. We cannot say the same for Mike, Freddie and Eric. Even if the tone of the article was "Sorry not sorry" (which I do not hear), an american feeling that way about this case would not be the same as an american feeling that way about the killing of black men and women in police custody--all of whom committed "crimes" that are not punishable by death. The author attributes his reckless behavior to his white privilege, that's it.

Me:  I think the reason we're talking past each other here is that you are comparing the WISDOM of the crimes, and I am comparing the MORALITY of the crimes.  The wisdom is not as important to me, but even from that perspective, you could argue that black victims of police abuse are every bit as aware of the long history of police misconduct against them in the USA as Warmbier was of NK's history.  But in both cases, it makes my blood boil to respond by saying "they should have known better," whether or not it's true, because it's sort of victim blaming: it reverses who has the onus to avoid the injustice from the perpetrator to the victim, almost like saying "she should have known better than to get so drunk at that frat party."  In response to rape, that's just a diversion from the far more pressing and imperative evil that transpired.  It's horrible to respond to police murders by saying "well he shoulda known there are some racist cops out there and not pressed his luck."  What they knew is relevant to how WISE their decision was, but not to what our reaction should be.

You argue they're not comparable "because we KNOW that these cases did not warrant killing someone."  But didn't you start the post by insisting that everyone knows Warmbier's actions do not warrant 15 years of hard labor?

The question of what something "warrants" is an inherently moral matter, and morally, what the state says is or is not punishable by death is arbitrary and irrelevant.  Even if it were written on some piece of paper that stealing cigarillos and running from the cops WERE punishable by death, carrying out that sentence would be no more ethically justified than the way it went down in reality.  And if I opened a word document right now, titled it "New Constitution of North Korea," wrote down some rules and printed it off, it would have exactly as much moral authority over the NK people as the entire North Korean legal code.

You say "They died because there are disgusting cops out there who think that they can treat American citizens with brutal force without consequence." True! And Warmbier might well die because there are disgusting North Korean officials out there who think they can treat American citizens with brutal force without consequence. Still don't see a difference.

The other distinction you propose is race. You argue that Otto would be treated this way even if he weren't white, and Brown/Gray/Garner would NOT have been treated that way were they white.  That second part is debatable - there is lots of unconscionable police abuse against white people too – but suppose it's true.  Why does it matter? Suppose Otto dies in this work camp, like thousands of others do every year.  Why should the death of a relatively innocent person on account of their North Korea's hatred towards Americans spark more outrage than the death of a relatively innocent person on account of their race?  It's a sincere question and I'm willing to consider that I might be wrong here, but as I see it, both are morally unimportant, so the injustices are equally barbaric.

My friend:  I'm doing my best to address your concerns. So I'll try not to ramble. An injustice is an injustice. The multitude of black men and women killed by police are injustices. Otto being sentenced to 15 years of hard labor is an injustice. You're right, they are both barbaric. But the distinction is, the killings of blacks in America are connected with racial tension/profiling/discrimination. Despite how barbaric and appalling all of these cases are, the fact is, had Otto not stolen the banner he would be home. The police shootings are a lot more variable in my opinion. Yes, their actions land them in the situations...but their actions aren't the direct reason they are killed. To me, it's comparing apples and oranges...but they are both fruit at the end of the day. I shared the article because I can imagine the thought going through Otto's head that he could do this and not think about the harsh repercussions. Which the author suggests is a product of privilege, that's it.

I let him have the last word at that.

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