The universal struggle for equality
Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina of Pussy Riot lie in a hole in the ground, wearing OMON riot police uniforms. They are slowly buried alive. Dirt fills the orifices in their faces. They can't breathe. In the music video of I Can't Breathe, released last week and shot in one long take, the Russian feminist punk rock group opted for emotion rather than anger. The group has chosen a new cause.
Richard Hell recites Eric Garner's last words at the end of the song. Garner was killed in New York after police officers placed him in a chokehold during an arrest for allegedly selling cigarettes illegally. He was pushed to the ground, surrounded by officers and suffocated to death. The entire incident was caught on video. He was, among other things, a father of six. Garner's words have become a mantra for protests in the past year in the Black Lives Matter movement, demanding a change in the police brutality and racism in the criminal justice system in the US.
Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, who rose to fame after their arrest — and subsequent incarceration — in Russia in 2012, for performing songs that insulted Vladimir Putin and the Orthodox Church, told the Guardian newspaper, "Our first English song is dedicated to those who can no longer breathe. To Eric Garner and to all who suffer from state terror — killed, choked, perished because of war and police violence — to political prisoners and those on the streets fighting for change. We all have to protest for those who are silent, and we have to protest for each other, no matter the geography, no matter the borders."
They are no stranger to police brutality. They have fought Russian police and expressed their anger in punk rock songs along with other Pussy Riot members. In this video, in addition to Hell, they worked with Nick Zinner of indie rock band Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Andrew Wyatt, of Miike Snow.
Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina have said that the song is also about the political situation in Russia and about Putin's war in Ukraine: "Russia is burying itself alive in terms of the rest of the world. Committing suicide. Daily." Following this thread is like playing a game of jumping from one topic to another on Wikipedia by following the least possible number of links.
Activism is good, we can all agree on that. Global activism, even better. But it is complicated when two Russian punks — and I use the word punk with all due respect — take up a foreign cause, expand it, then make it about something else.
A second music video of edited clips taken during the Garner protests has been released. The Garner case, as well as the acquittal of Darren Wilson for his shooting of Michael Brown, more than police brutality, are about institutionalised racism in the US. That is not to say one cannot understand, identify with or fight for a cause regarding a foreign culture that they are not a part of. The ideals of freedom and human rights mean the same thing in every language. Pain is felt the same way across the globe. Now that Eric Garner has become a symbol for racial inequality in the US, could he now also be made a martyr for a universal cause? Could he also be a symbol for what Pussy Riot fights against? Could his death really be related to the deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine?
There are no protests that can be limited to a city, no matter how specific. No country is insular. When these two members of Pussy Riot were in prison, it was international pressure that eventually led to their release. Then, it was a Russian human rights cause that had international reverberation. Eric Garner's struggle as a black man in America is an American cause with international reverberation.
In our own struggle in Thailand, people have been telling the West to let us fight our own fight. But in spite of the nuances that we believe exist in our particular situation — our history of 19 coups in less than a century, our relationship with the monarchy — there are certain ideals that are universal. Like human rights. Democracy, no matter where you are, means the rule of the people. What we should instead be saying, in this light, is fight with us, pressure our government to make the right decisions, but do not conflate the cause.
Pimrapee Thungkasemvathana is a feature writer for the Bangkok Post's Life section.