07 February 2017

What is evidence anyway? Activism in the era of post-truth

Maya Avis is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology and Sociology of Development at the Graduate Institute. She specialises in legal anthropology, focusing primarily on the Naqab-Negev region of southern Israel.

I stand gazing helplessly at the demolition of the Palestinian-Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in Southern Israel. It’s Wednesday, 18th January, 2017. The village is undergoing demolition to make way for the new, Jewish town of Hiran. Along with a group of activists and journalists, I’d arrived at 5.15, 15 minutes before a thousand heavily-armed, gun-wielding policemen stormed into the village. It was before dawn.

A convoy of SUVs accompanies the soldiers who run into the village. There are even fireworks to accompany the show (an abundance of smoke and light grenades that were fired, perhaps for dramatic effect). It’s an awesome display of might. I finally understand, firsthand, what it means for the state to hold the monopoly of violence.

As the policemen charge past, gunfire begins. It’s still dark and a lot of tear gas is being dealt out. There is chaos and the mournful drone of a car horn, sounding on for eternity. Rumours are that a dead man is slumped forward on the horn. This only makes the sound less bearable.  Amidst a deluge of tear gas, streaked faces and rumours of death, police threaten and shove villagers and activists. The sun’s first rays touch the scene.

One of the journalists checks her phone:  “They’re reporting it as a car attack by a Jihadist linked to Daesh”. If the police are giving witness, so must we. Another journalist pulls out her phone. There’s no time for high quality footage, just an urgent sense that we need to make the truth public and fast. An eye witness, Kobi Snitz, agrees to testify in a video that instantly goes viral. The immediacy of the temporal capacity, and expectation of the digital age is dazzling and overwhelming.

In the era of post-truth, the role of activist-witness is becoming ever more important, yet we, as activists, are hopelessly unprepared. Against such a precisely planned and executed police operation, we watch helplessly from our mound. Fuck! We don’t even have enough water or a back-up battery pack for our mobile phones! I feel embarrassed, outraged and disappointed. Posting blurry videos to Facebook doesn’t feel like enough when seven bulldozers are working in unison to demolish the village. Yet the blurry video of Snitz is important, albeit within a relatively limited temporal and spatial radius. What is important now, politically at least, is what the court will rule when the investigation is complete.

Less than 48 hours later, a team from the Forensic Architecture agency based at Goldsmith’s in London publishes a video of preliminary findings from footage produced by an activist/photographer present at the scene, plus an aerial video released by police. The evidence is stunning. Feminist theory has long talked about what counts as knowledge, and the privilege of the partial perspective. The Forensic Architecture piece joins the dots between the local, partial perspective - blurry, unstable, incomplete, perhaps even incoherent - with the language that was, at least until now, the language of authority and power: metadata, aerial imagery and the Trump-card of expertise (excuse the reference but this is central if we are indeed in the era of post-truth).

The aerial video shows that the car was moving slowly when three shots were fired in its direction. This suggests that the driver may have already been dead when the car careered down the hill, hitting a police officer.

All this begs the question about how evidence is constructed, whether legal, media or otherwise? Who has the power (and authority) to produce and present evidence? How can we use our positionality to form powerful assemblages with those we seek to defend? While power and privilege come into it, there is so much more to what counts as evidence in the era of post-truth, and this has everything to do with the pragmatics of activism at such a Trumpeting time.

A longer version of this article appeared on Open Democracy on 23 January 2017.