Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: March 2012

Justice for Trayvon Martin

Trayvon Martin's smiling face.

I first heard about Trayvon a few mornings ago in an airport lounge, on CNN. Thinking it was an older story that I’d somehow missed, I watched, shocked, but moved on…until a few days later when I began to see the petitions, the calls for protest, the plans for the Million Hoodie march and began reading up on the case.

Since then, I’ve simply been speechless.

Every element of this case horrifies me. The idea that a young boy would be chased down by an allegedly responsible adult member of a neighborhood watch and shot is one horror, but the lack of justice from the police charged with protecting young citizens, the continued excuses from the local police, and the continued silence from the White House is another. And lest you think it’s not Obama’s responsibility to comment, let’s not forget about the Beer Summit. Apparently the fact that Trayvon Martin is just a black kid, and not a black Harvard professor, matters.

And yes, I realize I shouldn’t be shocked per se, that variations of this are everyday occurrences in the United States, that racism hasn’t died but simply migrated from overt to covert, and yet. And yet.

In any case, I have nothing new to say here. I am privileged. I have not experienced racism. I will instead direct you to this beautifully written post from my close friend Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, with the suggestion that you read it. You might also read up on what the ACLU is saying.

On March 15

March 15, as it relates to Syria, holds two meanings for me. First, of course, it marks the anniversary of the beginning of the uprising that has claimed thousands of lives and caused so much damage — not just on the ground, but in the way it has divided the Syrian people, brother from brother. The second, however is personal: March 15, 2009, just happens to be the day I boarded a plane from Damascus back home, leaving Syria behind.

Mind you, I was only there a short time; I don’t mean to imply that my leaving is torturous like that of an exile. Rather, I simply note the tears that ran down my face as I walked across the tarmac to the plane, with a heavy feeling like I was leaving forever. I was not, of course, I can say even more certainly now (what, three years later and with enough miles to go the second it’s safe to do so), but I nonetheless had an ache in my chest that I’d never felt upon leaving anywhere else.

There was just…is just…something about Syria. I fell in love with it like no other, and thirty some-odd countries later, it still has my heart. For years I’ve read the blog posts of Yazan, Anas, and Maysaloon, for years I’ve dug through photos, but for the past three years I’ve simply dreamt of going back.

I want what’s best for the Syrian people, for my friends. I believe that’s freedom, but it is not I who decides how to get there.

Three years ago today I left Syria. One year ago today, Syria rose up. In one year, I can only hope I’ll be back.

On Syria’s Media Narrative(s): A Rant

This week’s Listening Post–the Al Jazeera program that includes clips from citizens all over the world with varying views–discusses “Syria’s media tug of war.” I haven’t listened yet (I’m at a conference) but the subject is pertinent and timely.

Today, there are two stories making the rounds that illustrate this “tug of war” perfectly. The first is a New York Times blog post that demonstrates the Syrian state news agency’s (SANA) falsification of evidence in its argument that rebels are funded by foreign agents. Another, on CNN and elsewhere, reports a tragedy: More than 40 Syrian soldiers allegedly executed by the regime. In this case, the story may very well be true…but the only source is unnamed “activists.”

In fact, the latter is entirely illustrative of the mainstream Western (and Gulf) media’s approach to Syria. A quick glance at the reporting done by the New York Times, CNN, Alarabiya, and others shows that “unnamed activists,” “Syrian opposition activists,” and “human rights activists” are their primary–and often, only–sources.

In a paper I wrote for the conference I’m currently attending, I analyzed the reporting of several mainstream news sources on Syrian casualty reports between November 2011 and February 2012. While that paper isn’t quite ready for prime time, here’s a table illustrating what I found:

As I intend to argue in my paper, these sources…and their numbers (which vary wildly) matter. As I’ve written elsewhere, I have personal history with Syria. I have known and talked about the horrors of the regime since long before March 2011. But while even 1,000 civilian deaths are far too many, these numbers matter when they’re being used to justify intervention. The media’s almost total reliance upon activists–not simply citizens, but self-described activists–is therefore problematic.

And yet, criticizing that fact has become even more problematic. As I said on Twitter earlier today, “question activist reports and you’re shabih. Report on regime atrocities and you’re a shill for the GCC.” Seriously…you can’t win. The international community largely appears to view Syria in terms of black and white when the situation is in fact quite grey…or at the very least, unclear, unverifiable.

This brings me back to the point about the media. At the moment, you have what is essentially a divide between journalists, commentators, and media bureaus that are very clearly pushing the opposition line and those that appear to be shilling for the regime. And there’s no middle ground – there’s almost no one condemning the regime, for example, whilst simultaneously questioning the dominant opposition narrative. Those who dare search for truth are immediately labeled as being on one side or the other.

Comments on a recent NYTimes article by Tyler Hicks, who was with Anthony Shadid in Syria when he died.

This post isn’t about which side is right or wrong. As I’ve said before, what I think about Syria is well-known but frankly, it truly doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. What concerns me, rather, is that the media–whose job it is to report facts, objectively*–is not only pushing a certain narrative, but also ignoring certain truths: the non-civilian casualty toll, for example (this one in particular bothers me when I think about all of my friends that did or almost did their compulsory Syrian military service).

What bothers me most, however, is the sheer certainty with which both sides attempt to make their points. The New Yorker in the screenshot above, for example, is so sure that “one side is for life, the other for death.” I’m not so sure. I’m certain that the regime is killing civilians (if you’re going to argue with me on that, just go away), but I’m not sure that there aren’t bad actors amongst the legitimate opposition. I can’t be sure…especially not when the media isn’t doing their job.

*not my favorite term, as you might know, but it’s nonetheless relevant.

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