Photo courtesy of Thilina Kaluthotage

“And when you live under a situation like that constantly…and then you ask me whether I approve of violence…I mean, that just doesn’t make any sense at all.” Angela Davis 

A few months ago, the area surrounding the Presidential Secretariat was home to an unprecedented resistance. The occupation at Gotagogama marked 124 days of nonviolent struggle and vibrant community.  The struggle area stood in absolute juxtaposition to an urban landscape that has displaced historic communities, in defiance of the corruption that underlies Port City, and in confrontation with key political establishments.

But by August 10, skeletal remains of Gotagogama peppered the Galle Face vista. Over the following weeks, virtually all signs of its existence were gone. Its downfall, like most cases of civil resistance in the country, was sealed through a cataclysmic clash with the state.

The right to occupy

The logic of nonviolence was, and remains, central to the aragalaya. When orders were issued to clear Gotagogama, protesters agreed to leave the site the next day. But that did not shield civilians from the July 22 raid on Galle Face. Gotagogama, armed with its library, art and music, was no match for the teargas, imprisonments and rule of law and order.

The morning of July 22 saw a targeted deployment of the armed forces and police at Gotagogama evicting protesters from the site. The state declared that Gotagogama encroached on public property and thus constituted an illegal occupation. But in the absence of an effective government, the protest village embodied a true public endeavor to live cooperatively and resist communally. With on site medical services, a legal aid camp, a library, art gallery, dansalas and ongoing community events, Gotagogama represented not only a site of protest but an actualization of public good carried out by and for the people. It was perhaps the most authentic public use of the Presidential Secretariat.

For so long, occupation has been a right only afforded to the state. Communities in the North and East live under a sustained military occupation while inner city communities are dispelled from their homes to make way for the foreign direct investment renaissance. The state conducts land grabs, displaces its people and delineates high security, militarized zones. It gifts land to its favored citizens while expelling the poor and marginalized. Public land and its usage has always been a contestation of state power.

In the post war years, the urban facade has been central to pacifying dissent. Urban spaces are beautified, politicians are venerated for their new developments and the constituency lauds the leader that facilitates civic progress. To occupy the heart of Colombo, therefore, was to undermine the surface level developments that so often obscure corruption.

In the state’s eyes, the people’s occupation is “violent” because it proves a communal ability to repurpose spaces that otherwise serve as sanctuaries for unfettered, unchecked government power. When Temple Trees became an occupied site, a graffiti sign decorated its entrance with the words “open to the public”. People converted the palatial structure into a communal kitchen, serving free meals to all those visiting the prime minister’s residence. The occupation at Gotagogama, Horugogama, Mynagogama and subsequent iterations fostered community within self-functioning townships. The aragalaya’s occupation even provided space for intersectional struggles including hosting Colombo’s first large scale pride march.

The threat of occupation is evidenced by the recent extraordinary gazette calling for the designation of High Security Zones (HSZs) around several government sites including the Presidential Secretariat, Supreme Court, parliament and Defense Ministry headquarters, all of which have been sites of protest since the beginning of this year. Although now revoked, the gazette signals increased government efforts to suppress protest and confer arbitrary powers of arrest. In short, public spaces continue to be militarized and legitimately occupied by the state.

The people’s nonviolent occupation directly challenged the state’s historic use of the same tactic. Whereas the state secures public property to fortify its coercive power, the aragalaya secured public spaces to reimagine a community devoid of state antagonisms. The nonviolent occupation provided possibilities for camaraderie and it is surely a threat to a government that is sustained by division.

The right to violence   

On several occasions, the nonviolent aragalaya movement found itself embroiled in violence. These inflammatory moments, however, were moments in which the aragalaya drew out violent actions by the state. May 9 saw pro-government mobs attack protesters where police and army stood on standby and redirected their force towards members of the aragalaya. Arson attacks at residences of several parliamentarians were condemned as protest violence although this was reactive violence targeted at property, not human lives, as in the case of the state’s preemptive and indiscriminate brutality. The UDA undermines Gotagogama as a defacement of public property, stating that some Rs. 4.7 million is needed to restore the natural turf surrounding the Presidential Secretariat.

A certain respectability politics is expected of those without power. In order to be taken seriously and to be heard, resistance must not be perceived as raucous, destructive or violent. Even in protest, civilians cannot afford to hurt political sensibilities.

But engaging in a politics of respectability has not granted civilians protection from militarized force. A commitment to nonviolence is not reciprocated by a government that buttresses war, military occupation, targeted policing and state sanctioned violence. The ongoing detainment of Wasantha Mudalige and other members of the Inter University Student Federation under the Prevention of Terrorism Act evidences a staunch commitment to zero tolerance domination. It seems that the only “extremist” power at play is the state itself and it holds legitimacy in doing so.

Morally condemning the “violence” of protesters makes no sense at all because in every imaginable scenario, the state will win a hundred to one. On September 24, two months after the raid on Galle Face, an additional 84 people were arrested after a minor protest organized by the Socialist Youth Union in Colombo. In true historic fashion, the state flexed its military muscle, tightening its grip on civil liberties, barring freedom of expression, movement and peaceful assembly.

The people’s struggle

As the spirit of aragalaya teeters, its work is left to marginalized communities that hold direct stakes in the future of a country led by crude and corrupt power. The mainstream momentum of the movement, which mobilized a cross class, cross ethnic resistance, dwindles to a more concentrated fight by fringe groups such as grassroots activists, unions, minorities and the socioeconomically vulnerable. With the Rajapaksas temporarily absent from the public eye, President Ranil Wickremesinghe appeases the masses with shorter petrol queues and power cuts. Those who can leave the country, flee. Those with privilege retreat into their bubbles, declaring that normalcy has returned. Those without either option remain to fight another day.

And so the state drives out the movement first by policing spaces once used for communal resistance and then purporting narratives of protest violence. It diminishes the aragalaya’s popularity by casting it as a stray and disorderly movement – for who could want some ramshackle tent city to tarnish the gilded Colombo landscape? President Wickremesinghe even spins a more insidious narrative that it is the aragalaya inhibiting the upstanding work of parliamentarians trying their best to bring order amongst the boisterous masses.

But as history tells us, the state holds no qualms in exercising its fully fledged force against its minorities. A revival of aragalaya left to these communities will result in a more calculated, more violent backlash. The people’s struggle will be derailed as nothing more than the complaints of those already denied a voice – and the state will be quick to silence them.