Anti-Denial Laws: The Politics of Remembering

In many countries it is criminal to deny the Holocaust; yet, many historians have argued heavily against this concept. Do laws like these, which are passed by parliaments, unjustifiably limit the freedom of expression? Or are they necessary in the remembrance of genocides, such as the Holocaust, or the Armenian genocide?

Protesters at a demonstration against anti-Semitism in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018.
(Credit: Henry Nicholas, Reuters)

Holocaust deniers either state the Jews were not killed in a systemic genocide or minimise its extent; some claims suggest they were instead victims to disease, or other forms of indiscriminate hardship. The reality, as we well know, was “the most documented tragedy in recorded history”, as Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner, Elie Wiesel declared during a discussion in 1999 at the White House. Due to the indescribable suffering inflicted upon many by the Nazi regime, many countries have in response passed Anti-Denial Laws, which criminalised both the promotion of Nazi ideology, as well as the denial of the Holocaust. In France, there is a more general law on genocide denial, geared perhaps to the Armenian genocide, which was commemorated formally for the first time in 2019. President Macron said during his 2017 presidential campaign, “France is, first and foremost, the country that knows how to look history in the face”, setting a precedent perhaps for other countries to not only set Anti-Denial laws, but to also commemorate such genocides. 

However, historians protested heavily against the more general law on genocide denial in France, and on the concept more broadly. As Garton Ash writes for The Guardian, such laws “curtail free expression”. Through restricting this by law, regardless of good intentions, other freedoms which free expression sustains are suffocated. Although ex-German justice minister Brigitte Zypreis argues “this historical experience puts Germany under a permanent obligation to combat systematically every form of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia”, Garton Ash contends there is no evidence that a ban on free expression will make any significant difference. Many of the countries with laws against Holocaust denial (such as France, Germany, Lithuania, Romania, and Belgium) happen to also be some of the countries with particularly strong right-wing xenophobic parties. It is of course not that these parties exist due to the existence of Anti-Denial laws, but independent of this. 

When the French Anti-Denial law was passed in 2006, many felt, again, that this was a repression of free expression. Even the renowned Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink passionately opposed such laws, as they placed limitations on the discussion of what happened to thousands of Armenians in 1915. While in Turkey, it was illegal for Dink to describe these events as ‘genocide’, for which he was tried. Before his death, Dink responded to the first moot of such a law in France: “I cannot accept that in France you could possibly now be tried for denying the Armenian genocide. If this bill becomes law, I will be among the first to head for France and break the law.” He continued somewhat humorously, that then we could all watch whether it would be the Turkish Republic or the French government to condemn him first. 

Anti-Denial laws while necessary in the remembrance of genocides, have proven a particularly contentious topic for historians. Although we promote free speech in society, there has to be limits. Therefore, while I have discussed both views, the promotion of free speech should not act as a gateway to hate speech in any form.

Emily Glynn

“Strong people don’t need strong leaders” – The Continual Impact of Women in the Black Freedom Struggle

With the ongoing global protests against police brutality and systemic racism sparked by the murder of George Floyd, it is now more important than ever to look back at the history of the civil rights and black liberation movements. When we look at these movements, the work and contributions of women are often overlooked, although current protests take far more inspiration from historical female activists than is often recognised. The impact of women, such as Angela Davis and Ella Baker, in the black freedom struggle can be seen clearly. Many of the global demands being made at this time concern the police and prisons; however, it can only be helpful to take a closer look at the successes of women and attempt to learn from them as best we can.

The most well-known leading female figure of the black liberation struggle, and arguably the most influential in the current protests is, without a doubt, Angela Davis. An active and continuing campaigner for the black liberation struggle for over 5 decades, she has an exceedingly large body of experience to examine. The influence of her commitment to police and prison abolition and her lasting criticisms of the prison-industrial complex can be seen throughout many of the demands currently being made in protests. Furthermore, her internationalist, intersectional outlook should undoubtedly be the standard against which organisations attempting to foment radical change should be measured. There is much that has already been said about Angela Davis, but her ubiquity should not serve to diminish her influence. We should not focus simply on her work, but also the work of other contemporaries and past figures. The most important, yet overlooked, is Ella Baker.

Angela Davis speaking at Columbia University. (Credit: Columbia GSAPP, via Flickr)

It is hard to overstate the monumental impact that Ella Baker had on the civil rights movement. However, compared to many of her contemporaries, her contributions remain largely unrecognised. During her lifetime she was an active member of organisations such as the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and even helped to co-found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960. She was deeply critical of organisations driven by a single, usually male, charismatic leader and feared that such organisations would distance themselves from the very people they were intending to help. Ella Baker fundamentally believed that people should always be prioritised over organisations, and her approach to activism remains forward-thinking and progressive by modern standards. By prioritising grassroots appeal and more horizontal, technocratic forms of organisational hierarchy, she showed commitment to her belief that every individual has the capacity to engage with, and fight against oppression. 

The nature of the current protests exemplifies these womens’ lasting influence. We see now movements driven not by a single, messianic leader, but by a confidence in the wisdom of ordinary people to define their problems and cultivate solutions. We are beginning to see forms of group-centered leadership with individuals accountable to each other. Never before have calls for police defunding or prison abolition been so loud and so widespread; more people than ever are attempting to fight and dismantle a system that perpetuates racism and violence. However, none of this means that the current protest demands and organisational forms are beyond reproach, and it is important that we look back and learn from the actions and demands of women such as Angela Davis and Ella Baker, as well as unmentioned figures such as Assata Shakur, Rosa Parks, Elaine Brown, Ramona Africa and many, many others. Looking reflectively at the past, and the pioneering work of these women is critical to ensuring the current movements can be as effective as possible, and provide the best chance of inducing real change.

Freddy Fossey-Warren

A Knock in the Dark: Venezuela’s Human Rights Violations

In a country ravaged by authoritarian socialism under dictator Nicolás Maduro, voicing opposition can be a death sentence. Freedom of speech and the right of expression are taken for granted where they exist, and it’s difficult for many in the West to envision a country whereby expressing a political opinion would endanger your own life as well as that of your family and closest friends. 

For Ariana Granadillo, it was a ‘knock in the dark’. Government agents, without a warrant, detained Granadillo, confined, beat, interrogated and threatened to suffocate her. Granadillo’s only crime had been that she was related to a political opponent, her father’s second cousin. Secret detentions such as these are used by the Venezuelan government as a tool to control its population and discourage dissent. Human rights groups counted over 200 cases in 2018 but 524 in 2019, revealing how sinister the situation has become. As well as arbitrary detentions, Venezuela’s Press and Society Institute recorded 1,032 violations to freedom of expression and access to public information for citizens. This year, there were 326 aggressions and attacks on journalists, the nature of which includes detentions. More important than counting the number of violations is the lasting impact of such tyrannical governance – a deliberately instilled fear of fighting against the government. 

Before Maduro, it was Hugo Chávez’s reign of destruction that plagued Venezuela, beginning in 1998 until his death in 2013. A damning report by Human Rights Watch in 2008 accused Chávez’s government of flouting human rights by ‘neutralising the judiciary’ with allies and increasing censorship in private media. The systemic abuse of freedoms has proven to have become entrenched by Venezuela’s worsening humanitarian crisis under Maduro. The government suppresses dissent through violent crackdowns, arbitrary arrests, and by prosecuting civilians in military courts. There remains no check on executive power by opposition groups. In 2019, a UN humanitarian affairs chief estimated that there were 7 million people in need of humanitarian aid in Venezuela – a quarter of its entire population. Whilst organisations send medicines and food supplies into the country, they are withheld by Maduro’s government and used to manipulate citizens into voting.

President Nicolas Maduro at a press conference in Caracas, March 12, 2020 (Credit: Matias Delacroix/Associated Press)

Yet, the same UN that recognises the perilous position of Venezuela’s people and its violations on basic freedoms, voted last year for the country to sit on its Human Rights Council. In fitting company, the council also hosts China, which has detained over 1 million Uighurs and other Muslims in re-education camps; Saudi Arabia, which likewise carries out arbitrary detentions and continues to commit atrocities against the Yemeni people; and Cuba, whose government represses and punishes dissent and criticism. Countries which are guilty of committing human rights atrocities often seek positions on the council to prevent alarms being raised towards their own country. Whilst the Venezuelan crisis continues to unravel, its people remain afraid of speaking out for fear of arrest and torture, or worse, their own families being punished instead. Whilst the Venezuelan government enjoys another two years on the council, those that are brave enough to take action may only await a ‘knock in the dark’.

Ariana Fanning

What Stonewall 1969 can Teach Us About Activism

Photo by Diana Davies depicts the Gay Liberation Front marches in Times Square 1969, accessed via The Guardian.

Understanding the historical construction of LGBTQ+ movements is imperative to furthering current activism. A prime example of this is the creation of the ‘Stonewall Myth’, as the Stonewall riots are now revered as the catalyst for the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement in the US. Given the current situation in the US it seems more important than ever to understand how protests shape the historical narrative. Understanding how activists construct social memory around particular events enables us to further the gains of the current LGBTQ+ movement as many grapple with how to further the rights of, and protect the more marginalized members of the LGBTQ+ community.

The Stonewall riots were started by African American transgender woman Marsha P. Johnson. A series of riots began on June 27th 1969 after police raided a homosexual bar in New York (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 724), they are now remembered as a catalyst for the gay civil rights movement in the US. However, sociologists Armstrong & Crage note that there were similar instances of activism prior to this such as the 1965 New Year’s Ball raid in San Francisco (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 730), which were not committed to the collective social memory. They use these instances to highlight the two conditions that are essential for an event to permeate the collective memory, which are that ‘activists considered the event commemorable and had the mnemonic capacity to create a commemorative vehicle’ (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 730). Unlike previous raids in other parts of the country, Stonewall was able to achieve these criteria. Activists used the raid as the basis for commemorative marches which became the first gay pride and has since solidified the event in US social memory. The significance of Stonewall also highlights the extent to which the movement grew between 1969 and the Black Cat raids a few years earlier (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 736). Events that fit into existing genres are generally seen as more commemorable. Much like how the protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd in the US demonstrate a maturation of the black lives matter movement, Stonewall showed a maturation of the gay civil rights movement, which meant that the Gay Liberation Front was better financially equipped to create mnemonic resonance.

Achieving ‘mnemonic capacity’ with regard to an event is all the more difficult now as the growth of social media makes it harder to corral attention around specific events for extended periods of time. As we have seen with the recent protests in both Hong Kong and the US, social media can be an immensely powerful tool to bring people together, even when communication is limited within society. But in order to make sure these movements are remembered and create lasting change we can take lessons from Stonewall activists in how they used repetitive action to make their message permeate the collective memory and achieve long term progress in civil rights. Zeynep Tufekci argues that modern social movements fail to ‘sustain over the long term and exert leverage over the system, which leads to frustrated protesters dropping out, and even more corrupt politics.’ Social media is a powerful tool to raise awareness of how our rights may be under threat, as we saw with the Government’s recent proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act which could have devastating impacts on the trans community. However, in order to transform this awareness into significant political power we can take inspiration from Stonewall, which showed how repetitive, radical action is necessary to make sure that the wider public take notice of movements for justice.

Alicia Bickerstaff


Bibliography

Armstrong, E.A & Crage, S.N, 2006, ‘Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth’, American Sociological Review, Vol.71, No. 5 pp. 724-751, Viewed 7th June 2020, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25472425

Loong, L.L.H, 2012, ‘Deconstructing the silences: Gay Social Memory’, Journal of Homosexuality, Vol.59, No.5, pp.675-688, DOI: 10.1080/00918369.2012.673903

Mitchell Reyes, G & Schulz, David. P & Hovland, Zoe, 2018, ‘When Memory and Sexuality Collide: The Homosentimental Style of Gay Liberation’, Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 1 April 2018, Vol.21, No.1, pp.39-74, Viewed 7th June 2020, https://muse-jhu-edu.ezphost.dur.ac.uk/journal/171

Tufekci, Z, 2014, Online Social Change: Easy To Organize, Hard To Win, online video, Viewed 7th June, https://www.ted.com/…/zeynep_tufekci_how_the_internet_has_m…