Neal Milner: The Ways Governments Disempower People And How They Resist - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Opinion article badgeLast week I had three experiences in 24 hours that were so powerful that I put off writing about corruption again and wrote about my experiences instead.

They all show how public officials use words to disempower their victims by keeping them voiceless and faceless and how victims fight back.

This is what got me started. I read “The Betrayal,” George Packer’s amazingly powerful takedown of Joe Biden’s Afghanistan policy.

I watched Ruby Freeman’s (Lady Ruby’s) testimony before the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

And I read Kevin Dayton’s Civil Beat article reporting on Diamond Simeon-Aloo’s recent suicide at the Oahu Community Correctional Center.

The officials’ tactics are different in each case. Ruby Freeman’s is about an authoritarian attack with an obvious target.

Biden’s Afghanistan moves tried to remove those Afghans who were problems by defining them out of the picture: Silencing by making the world go away.

Hawaii’s Department of Public Safety has tried to blunt concerns by using bureaucratic language that removes the focus on the victim and keeps it in control.

“Nothing to see here.”

Jan. 6 Committee: An Authoritarian Assault

When Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani targeted Ruby Freeman, aka Lady Ruby, an Atlanta election official, and falsely accused her of election fraud and drug use, her life went to hell.

Trump followed an authoritarian playbook: lie, target, humiliate, isolate and dehumanize.

Freeman had to go into hiding. “There is nowhere I feel safe,” she said to the committee. “Nowhere.”

The Trump attack tried to make Lady Ruby into a non-person by robbing her of her name. She no longer wears any of her collection of “Lady Ruby” T-shirts that were so much a part of her reputation and identity. “Now,” she testified, “I won’t even introduce myself by my name anymore.”

An Atlanta elections official says her life became hell when she stood up for the integrity of the 2020 presidential election. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2021

The committee hearing gave her a chance to use her words to fight back by asserting who she really is:

“I’m Lady Ruby,” she said, “a small business owner, a mother, a proud American citizen, who stood up to help Fulton County run an election in the middle of the pandemic.”

This is an exceptional case because Trump’s strategy was so obvious and because his victim had such a powerful forum she could use to fight back.

Disempowering is more subtle in the other two situations.

Biden And Afghanistan: Two Different Worlds

The Afghan story Packer tells is really two sets of stories. One is about what the Biden administration said and did.

The other, Packer’s focus, is on Afghans who had worked for the U.S. government. They were supposed to be allowed to come to the U.S. on special immigration visas called SIVs.

Packer shows that the U.S. government has never had a working policy to help those people get away.

Biden didn’t change this, whatever his public posturing. He really did not want to bring all these people to the U.S. It was a willful betrayal.

According to Packer, 90% of Afghans eligible for relocation were left behind.

Things really began to unravel when the Taliban were able to take control much faster than expected.

Those at the top told the official American government story, trying to smooth out the chaos of those final days. The president called the last days in Afghanistan a big success.

Then there were those ground-up stories. An American paratrooper on the scene called those last days “an absolute gut-wrenching shit show.”

While the U.S. government was failing, mis-planning and prevaricating, many of those who did get out were rescued by informal networks of mostly stateside volunteers and members of the U.S. military trying to get the Afghans who worked for them out of the country.

Those informal processes depended on real-time social media exchanges between Afghans hiding from Taliban and those in the U.S. trying to help them escape as time ticked away and the Taliban searched houses nearby. Not what you would normally think of as a process.

Here is a WhatsApp exchange between Hawa, a member of an all-female Afghan Special Forces platoon, and Capt. Alice Spence in Hawaii. Spence and Hawa had served side-by-side.

Hawa: The Taliban come to our area. I don’t know how should I go home. Ohhh.

Spence: Oh God, Hawa. Where are you? You are not in Kabul?

Hawa: Yes. I am in Kabul. They come to Kabul.

Spence: Fuck. OK, it will be OK.

Hawa: OK, dear. I am really scared.

Spence: Please be brave, Hawa. I will not go to sleep until you are safe.

There are many stories like this.

The Biden administration did not humiliate or threaten those in-country Afghans who had worked for the U.S., but government actions certainly disempowered them by defining them out of the picture.

Packer himself was a forum because he collected and offered the stories that otherwise might have never become public.

Diamond Simeon-Agoo’s Suicide: Trust Us. We Are The Experts

On June 15, Diamond Simeon-Agoo, a 21-year-old OCCC inmate who had just been released from suicide watch, hanged herself. She was in disciplinary isolation at the time.

The Department of Public Safety is not forthcoming about its prison suicides, and it was no different this time. All the department spokesperson would say was that an inmate had apparently committed suicide.

Instead, DPS responded with a policy statement: “As is normal procedure, an internal investigation was initiated. The department has sound policy for the care and custody of inmates with mental illness. The department routinely reviews and updates all policies including the inmate suicide prevention policy which is in accord with national standards.”

Cold enough for you? No names, no mention of the particular situation. No official discussion about why she was put in disciplinary isolation soon after being suicidal. Bloodless, but for a reason.

Diamond Simeona-Agoo 

The DPS response is generically bureaucratic. That’s meant to fend off ordinary folks. Trust us. We know what we are doing. Keep your distance.

Diamond’s family is left to tell the fuller story in their interview with Dayton — the good times growing up in Nanakuli as one of nine children, Diamond’s mental troubles, troubles with addiction and the law.

But their most compelling story is not in words but rather a photo. The article includes a large picture of the family with heads bowed in a prayer circle under shade trees on The Queen’s Medical Center lawn.

They are dressed as if they ran out of the house as soon as they heard the awful news. A two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew in one of the family member’s hands shows that they have been waiting and praying for a long time.

For now, that’s the most powerful response the family has.

Again, two different worlds, top-down versus ground-up. Once again, a journalist created a forum that probably wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

The three cases show that government officials can disempower people in a range of ways. Some are kinder and gentler than others. A Department of Public Safety official or a Biden official is not like Donald Trump. But he or she is part of a process that can blunt a citizen’s voice and effectively put them outside our concerns.

Don’t consider Lady Ruby, the Agoo family or those Afghans simply as victims. They are also contributors.

Their stories shed light on problems. Democracy dies in darkness.

Read this next:

Eric Stinton: Kids And Teachers Love Summer Vacation, But Does It Make Sense?

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

There has to be balance. In modern society, we always seem to swinging from extreme to extreme. The least we should expect from our government(s) is truth, rather than lies, misdirection, doubletalk and obfuscation.

SleepyandDopey · 1 month ago

In 1540 there was a summum malum, a fear of violent death outside the walls of the sovereign state. Much progress has been made now the fear pervades schoolyards, city street and even homes.

Peter_Bishop · 1 month ago

All governments exercise control, be overt or covert. Those wishing to eliminate government control should learn from Hobbes' Leviathan. Life in the natural state has been proven to be Solitary, Nasty, Brutish and Short.The choice is yours...

Peter_Bishop · 1 month ago

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