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Racial Justice

Dear America, white van squads aren't new

Unmarked vans hauling off protesters might shock some people, but it doesn't surprise me.
Kitana Ananda September 18th, 2020
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This summer, the images were all over the news and social media: tear gas explosions, rubber bullet injuries, and unmarked vans snatching protesters and hauling them off to undisclosed locations. Many Americans were shocked by what looked “like something in another country” happening to “us” in our own cities. I wasn’t.

My family is originally from Sri Lanka, and as an anthropologist, I’ve studied political activism and migration before, during, and after the country’s 26-year civil war. When I look at the U.S. today, I see a disturbingly familiar pattern of authoritarian repression and violence—and it builds on policies designed to further U.S. imperialism and criminalize migrants.

For millions of people of color in the U.S. and across the global south, the militarized policing of this summer’s uprisings isn’t new. Violent abductions have been used by fascists and authoritarian regimes on every continent—often with covert U.S. financial and military support—to govern by fear and quash any form of resistance, including labor strikes, peasant rebellions, and guerrilla warfare. During the Cold War, U.S.-backed right-wing dictatorships in Latin America disappeared tens of thousands of leftists and Indigenous people; in the civil wars that followed, in Colombia, El Salvador, and Guatemala, CIA-trained death squads used plainclothes officers in vans without plates to abduct everyone from guerrilla fighters to noncombatants, including young children. Similar interventions were made in the Middle East and Asia throughout the last century, from Syria and Iraq, to Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Despite its role in creating the violence that pushes people to flee from their homes, the U.S. government continues to deny refuge to people who have escaped violent persecution abroad. In fact, President Donald Trump’s spectacle of paramilitary force to suppress protest and civil unrest obscures another clampdown underway: his administration’s quiet dismantling of the U.S. asylum system.

Take the case of Vijayakumar Thuraissigiam, who was working on his farm in northern Sri Lanka when he was thrown into an unmarked van, taken to an unknown location, questioned about his support for an outspoken Tamil politician, and tortured by his abductors until he lost consciousness. After hiding for two years, he left Sri Lanka by boat and walked for months across the continent—joining thousands of Central Americans escaping Northern Triangle violence—to request asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. An officer determined he was ineligible for asylum despite believing his story, because he did not believe Thuraissigiam had a “credible fear” of persecution if returned to Sri Lanka.

Yet, Sri Lanka’s enforced disappearances are among the highest in the world. Government security personnel and paramilitary forces have used unmarked vans—known as “white van squads”—to abduct, torture, and murderjournalists, political opponents, dissidents, human rights defenders, and the island’s Tamil and Muslim minorities. These abductions became so pervasive during a youth-led insurrection in the 1980s and the civil war that many Sri Lankans use “white van” as a verb. The war ended in 2009, but a political solution to the conflict remains elusive, and state-sanctioned abductions continue to the present day. The current president is an accused war criminal whose brother, the current prime minister, had been president for 10 years until he was ousted in 2015. Last month, minorities and dissidents saw their worst fears come true when parliamentary elections in August 2020 gave the brothers’ ruling party the two-thirds majority needed to repeal reforms, consolidate their power, and replace the constitution.

The U.S. and Sri Lanka are liberal democracies with distinctly different histories, but they share some parallels. Both countries’ legislative and judicial branches have yielded their powers to the president for decades in the name of “national security,” resulting in an eroding system of checks and balances. They have elected autocratic presidents who believe they are above the law, demonize the media while creating disinformation, and enrich their families’ coffers. Both countries’ leaders use racism and Islamophobia to mobilize their political bases, divide people, stoke violence, and distract voters from their policy failures. Trump calls Portland’s protesters “terrorists,” a tactic straight out of an authoritarian playbook used around the world and in Sri Lanka to justify arbitrary detention, abuse, and extrajudicial killings.

Another image from this summer: resistance at the Supreme Court. After he was deemed ineligible for asylum, Thuraissigiam was placed into a fast-track deportation process known as “expedited removal,” but challenged the legality of his detention due to procedural concerns. Subsequent appeals took his case, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) v. Thuraissigiam, to the Supreme Court in June, where a 7–2 majority decided in favor of the DHS, effectively denying migrants the right to a fair hearing in court.

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The ruling is a major blow in a cluster of coordinated attacks on undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers. When combined with rules to expand expedited removal throughout the U.S. and limit who qualifies for asylum, the court’s removal of detained migrants from habeas corpus aids the Trump administration plan to end asylum and places tens of thousands of lives at risk. Deporting asylum-seekers does not only return them to unsafe conditions; it places them at greater risk in contexts where, like post-war Sri Lanka, those who leave the country and speak out about human rights abuses are criminalized as traitors.

The justices’ decision also has grave implications for the future of American dissent. By looking to a 1996 act of Congress to justify its ruling, the majority sidestepped its obligation to the Constitution and ceded the court’s power to the political branches of government. When the judiciary is this politicized, what prevents the denial of basic rights from being extended from noncitizens to anyone the state deems “criminal?”

On June 26, the day after the SCOTUS ruling on DHS v. Thuraissigiam, Trump signed the executive order that sent the DHS and other federal agencies to arrest protesters.

The Trump administration’s draconian response to nationwide demonstrations against systemic racism and police violence deserves unequivocal condemnation, but make no mistake: It’s not unprecedented. What the federal government is doing to protesters is what U.S. troops and agents have done to people across the global south during coups, wars, and occupations. It’s what America’s military allies do with the weapons and training they receive from this country each year. It’s also nothing new to the tens of thousands of asylum-seekers the U.S. turns away each year, Muslims detained and deported by a federal “special registration” program created after 9/11, and the millions of undocumented immigrants and mixed-status families who have been terrorized by federal agents for nearly two decades.

The Movement for Black Lives’ relentless organizing against state violence has compelled many Americans to take a long, hard look at policing. The government’s militarized response to nationwide demonstrations against police brutality has intensified that scrutiny, which now extends to the federal agencies that terrorize Black, Latino, Indigenous, and immigrant communities every day.

It’s time to prioritize human safety over the false security of a police state. To stop authoritarianism, Americans must reckon with this country’s foundation in white supremacy, defund policing and militarism, and defend the rights of all people, regardless of citizenship or social status—including asylum-seekers like Thuraissigiam. We must heed the calls of immigrant rights organizers to defund and shut down the DHS, and use its $92 billion budget to reinvest in communities impacted by violence.

If we don’t, our government has a military police it can use with impunity.

And after decades of the U.S. undermining democratic governments abroad, propping up dictators, and fighting endless wars while denying asylum to people fleeing persecution, ask yourself this: Where will you go when the white vans come for you?


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