Civic Engagement

Kony and Kissinger: Jacob and Trayvon

Reflections on social media and the struggle for justice in 2012.

April 20, 2012 is supposed to be D-DAY for Joseph Kony, thanks to a 30-minute video by Jason Russell, co-founder of the US-based NGO Invisible Children. In less than five days, Russell’s video garnered over 55 million hits on YouTube. It provides a moving, graphic, and simplistic story about Kony, the evil war criminal and founder of the Lord’s Resistance Army who is allegedly responsible for the abduction, rape, and abuse of 60,000 children over the past two decades.

“Kony 2012” ends with a rousing call to action to young people to make Kony “famous.” The mobilized youth are to plaster cities across the United States with Kony’s image, so that US politicians and decision makers intervene—supplying Uganda and other Central African nations with US military advisors and resources to track down the war criminal and bring him to justice.

Those of us who have spent a lifetime seeking to achieve social change and justice are awed by the sheer potential of this video. As the Israeli paper Haaretz warned in a March 14 editorial, “Israel should take note of ‘Kony 2012.’ It would not be far-fetched to assume that a similar film will be made about the Palestinian conflict. And once the heartrending images of bleeding children are seared into the consciousness of tens of millions of people, it’s doubtful that even 46 pauses for applause in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to AIPAC will be able to erase the damage.”

It is a wonderful thing to live in times when media access is broad enough that people can view a video and then be mobilized to try to put away someone who has brought violence, abuse, and death to thousands of people in Uganda and across Central Africa. That same access made it possible for the followers of the video to learn that its maker—a passionate advocate for Kony’s capture and the father of two children—was arrested for bizarre and perhaps lewd behavior just a few nights ago. It made it possible for us to learn the dubious details about the financials of Invisible Children. It allowed us to learn that Invisible Children has financial support from right-wing Christian fundamentalist groups that are homophobic and may have supported the current law being debated in Uganda making homosexuality a crime punishable by death. It has also resulted in numerous statements issued by Ugandans and other Africans who demand an end to the presentation of African children and adults as needing to be saved by well meaning Americans.

Although it’s impossible to predict what will happen next month, I suspect we won’t see the kind of mass action that Russell hoped would propel the United States to send military advisors to Uganda and provide East African troops with weapons to capture Kony. I hope young Americans can be similarly motivated by filmmakers who may try to use this medium to achieve justice for Trayvon Martin—a black teenager who recently was shot by an armed neighborhood-watch volunteer in broad daylight in a gated community in Sanford, Fla.

Unlike the Ugandan children in Russell’s video and its main character Jacob Acaye, Trayvon was not kidnapped by a warlord. He did not live in the middle of a war zone in Africa. He was not abducted in the middle of the night. He was simply coming back from the grocery store with a bag of Skittles in his hands and a hoodie over his head. His crime was being a young black man in a southern state with a legacy of racism and new laws that go by the innocuous title “Stand your Ground”—laws that are a thinly veiled pretext for the use of concealed weapons to resolve conflict in the case of a “perceived threat.”

This use of force to resolve conflict—the choice to fight fire with fire, so to speak, is one of my grave concerns about the Kony video. From the opening sequences in which Russell’s four-year-old son imagines a video game to bomb and destroy “bad guys,” to the video’s recommendations for US military intervention, viewers of “Kony 2012” are encouraged to make Kony a household name in the United States, thereby pressuring lawmakers to use military force in central Africa. After a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, after the death of more than 6,000 US troops and close to 1 million Iraqis and Afghans in wars ironically titled Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, it is chilling that a call to bring a war criminal to trial requires more soldiers, more military advisors, and more weapons.

That message of militarism in the Kony video is not the only thing that causes me unease. The video completely fails to acknowledge that we live in a world where power is unevenly distributed. It is a world where mass action by American teenagers can presumably "save" Africans and find the “bad guy" Kony, but also one in which it is not considered appropriate for Ugandans, Congolese, or Vietnamese activists to make videos exhorting their young people to pressure their governments to send military advisors to the United States to round up alleged war criminals there. More than four decades after the massacres of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians as a result of the napalm bombings authorized by Henry Kissinger, and over a decade after the illegal invasion of a country that did not attack the United States, there is no global call to go after men like Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, or George H. W. Bush. Indeed, the United States is not a party to the very international criminal court (ICC) that is so prominently spoken of in the video, because it would require that Americans be held to the same standards as war criminals from other nations. In the narrative exemplified by “Kony 2012,” it is Americans who write history and Africans who are victims in need of American help.

Yet, if I have learned one thing in my 15 years at the Global Fund for Women, it is that while food and clean drinking water may be lacking in many of the world’s poorest nations—courage, dignity, and resilience are to be found on every street corner and in the most humble barrios. Ordinary people—mothers, school teachers, doctors, and farmers—have been standing up to warlords like Joseph Kony and thousands like him from the smallest villages of Sierra Leone and Liberia to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Leymah Gbowee, who received a $5,000 grant in 2003 from the Global Fund for Women for her organizing work, was the 2011 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. She worked quietly and determinedly for many years without recognition along with thousands of other women in Liberia to challenge the violence of dictator Charles Taylor and the LURD rebels. Patricia Guerrero in Colombia, founder of La Liga Mujeres Desplazadas, will remind you that men with weapons—whether they are named Zimmerman and live in Florida or whether they belong to the Colombian army or the FARC rebels—are no friends to civilians.

Military intervention is often foreign policy folly. In the 20th century, American military advisors in Latin America helped oversee the brutal death squads of juntas in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, not to mention in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Women and their families are still paying the price for those travesties of justice. Just this past week, a single US soldier using a semiautomatic weapon killed 16 Afghans, although he cannot recall the incident.

Weapons, particularly the small arms that have flooded Central Africa and Latin America, give men the power to kill, maim, rape, and terrorize. Let’s not repeat history by calling for Congress to authorize more men with guns to go in search of the “bad guy.” Let us catalyze the power and inherent democratic promise of social media and hope that the next video calling for civil society to hold war criminals accountable—or for peace in Central Africa—will focus on long-term solutions beginning with an end to the sale and trade of weapons as Amnesty International has done. Let us hope there will soon be a D-DAY for weapons that kill and maim children whether they are Ugandans called Jacob or Americans called Trayvon.

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  • Great article - but I object to your characterization of Jason Russel’s arrest and behaviour as lewd and bizarre. I have no allegiance to him or Invisible Children but the media surrounding Russel’s arrest has represented for me the stigma still attached to mental illness whether addiction or otherwise). Because of this stigma, celebrities are arrested and hospitalized for “exhaustion and dehydration” instead of being able to indicate in a straightforward manner - just as many stars have about Cancer or Multiple Sclerosis - that they are dealing with the symptoms of a mental illness and regret the effect those symptoms had on other people.

    To my knowlede, Russel is still in hospital, indicating that his behaviour was part of a very serious mental illness or addiction and that he was likely not able to control his behaviour. This is not something that is fodder for comment in my mind - he’s sick, he’s in the hospital, and we hope he’ll get well. Let’s all decide to avoid gossip and prevent stigma about these issues in the public eye.

  • BY Patricia Burbank

    ON March 22, 2012 12:07 PM

    Excellent article, Kavita.  You have done an excellent job of weaving together all of these events and people in a whole tapestry that makes sense and cuts through the inconsistencies and hidden (or not so hidden) prejudices in the news.  Thank you for taking the time to write this… Hope it gets shared widely.

  • Tiffany's avatar

    BY Tiffany

    ON March 22, 2012 12:33 PM

    To clarify, the purpose of Kony 2012 is to raise awareness of the issue so that policy makers and interveners don’t pull out their support (the military has already intervened). And the purpose of US military intervention is to provide the African militaries with proper satellite tracking systems they are lacking (though I doubt they’ll leave their guns at home).

    Using words like “lewd behaviour”, “homophobic”, even “right-wing Christian” in this context only stirs up sensationalism and initiates conspiracies. Charities, those who beg for money to give away their money, aren’t in the position to be so choosy. Don’t paint one charity with the same brush as one of their funders, who was funded by someone, funded by someone else. Charities do extremely tiring work and the religion of an employee, even the founder isn’t relevant unless it is in the mission statement of the organization.

    What happened to the young man in Florida is awful. Truly a tragedy. But, how did you swipe aside 60,000 Africans who have experienced rape as a weapon and 9 year olds killing 9 year olds by making this a first-world issue? Yes, discourse about the death of one in comparison to the abduction, rape and abuse of 60,000 is a first-world issue. 

    And as stated by the previous post, it’s okay when a celebrity is hospitalized for dehydration and exhaustion, but a civil society worker is hospitalized for the same, plus malnutrition we vilify them? I’m tired of the rhetoric that seeks to destroy the civil society. It should be held accountable, and perhaps even more so than other sectors, but it is the only thing that is keeping this world livable.

  • First, I want to thank you for discussing the injustices to youth violent here in this country in a social enterprise platform.  I feel these issues are missing in many academic forums and are rarely addressed in the space of social impact and change.

    However, the reason why there is an uproar about Trayvon’s murder is because how can any of us Americans fight for Ugandan children or even begin to discuss the devestation of war and terroism against youth in war torn nations when American children are gunned down here in our own soil.

    I recalled when the black community had criticized Oprah for deciding to focus her philanthropic work in South Africa, when people felt there were so many needy causes within the race here in the states. She made an interesting response to the criticisms—there should be NO COMPETITION in social service regardless of where the injustices are occuring, if you feel so inclined to support a domestic cause, than you personally go and inspire the change.

    I mention Oprah’s comment, because I enjoyed your article until the last two paragraphs, where you state, “What happened to the young man in Florida is awful. But, how did you swipe aside 60,000 African who have…”. When you make comment like this you belittle the level of racism and inequality that occurs everyday in America due to the Zimmermans who feel within their rights to hunt human beings. We as a society have no right to make judgements on other social issues across the world, when Zimmerman is still not detained for his actions. This one instanct (and is not one, our youth, specifically minorities are murdered by the hundreds of thousands in this country, just google Chicago and youth murder rates).

    I would have rather seen two great articles, one about war torn countries and the other domestic U.S. policy changes around weapons and “citizen action”, than to have to read about two causes fighting for attention—as they both warrant change. This is not a criticism to your point, but I hope to share a moment of enlightenment around domestic social change.

  • BY Kavita N. Ramdas

    ON March 23, 2012 11:11 AM

    Thanks for your comments.
    First, on media - my intention in this blog was sharing how the same social media that gave us Kony 2012 also allowed us to learn more about the filmmaker and about Invisible Children.  It was not to vilify anyone or to present what we have heard as the truth, but rather just to point out how social media can bombard us with information that is varied.  We do not always know that it is correct, false, or just someone’s opinion.  As the comments suggest even mentioning a particular reference can be perceived as being callous or uncaring.

    I fully agree that civil society workers can and do get exhausted and overwhelmed given all they have to do deal with on a daily basis.  They should be cared for and supported to avoid burnout! The program on Social Entrepreneurship offers civil society leaders a chance to take time out of their daily efforts to read, write, rest, reflect and share their expertise and experience with students and academic researchers.

    Second, I am under no illusions that scale does not matter - 60,000 lives in Uganda matter - so do the over 1 million lives lost in Iraqi and Afghan lives as a result of American led wars and the many hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian lives in the Vietnam war.  Making the connection to Trayvon was not to make one life the equivalent of 60,000, but simply to make the point that the use of violence to end violence is not helpful.  As Gandhi said, “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”  Our world needs to see clearly the challenges of injustice and inequality and we need to be able to better use social media to help us overcome those injustices using non-violent means.

  • Hi Kativa,
    I disagree with your comment “Patricia Guerrero in Colombia, founder of La Liga Mujeres Desplazadas, will remind you that men with weapons—whether they are named Zimmerman and live in Florida or whether they belong to the Colombian army or the FARC rebels—are no friends to civilians.”
    I am Colombian, like Patricia Guerrero and if she has that point of view, let me tell you that 99% of Colombians do not think that way.
    Colombia has had the FARC guerrillas for 48 years and peace talks have shown us that the only way to defeat them is through war. They are terrorists who will not cease fire, stop kidnapping, drug production and other attrocities until the Colombian army defeats them. As much as we don’t like sending honest men to war, it is the only choice the FARC has left the Colombian Government.
    The same thing happens in Uganda, until the army defeats Kony, he will not stop abducting children and killing civilians.
    I support the Kony initiative and wish more people spend their lives fighting for human rights, and become their voice in the developed world, just like Russell did.
    Thank you

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