Saturday, 10 April 2021

Power to act

Photograph: Jon Nazca/Reuters (image taken from The Guardian)

Recent events made me revisit a post I wrote in 2014 referring to architect Zaha Hadid. When questioned by the Guardian about the deaths of migrant workers in the construction of a stadium she designed for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Hadid answered:

“I have nothing to do with the workers. I think that's an issue the government – if there's a problem – should pick up. (…) I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it.”

At the time, there were more than 500 deaths of Indian migrant workers and 382 Nepalese. Today, we are counting more than 6500 deaths of migrant workers since Qatar won the bid in 2010. In February this year, a Norwegian football team thought they had something to do with this and that they had some power to do something.

The Guardian reported that Tromsø football club issued a statement saying that “Tromsø IL thinks it is time for football to stop and take a few steps back. We should think about the purpose of football and why so many love our sport. That corruption, modern-day slavery and a high number of workers’ deaths are the fundament to our most important tournament, the World Cup, is totally unacceptable.”

In the days and weeks that followed, six more leading clubs followed 14 out of 16 supporters’ groups joined calls, urging the Norwegian FA to boycott the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Then, the Norwegian national team wore T-shirts championing respect and human rights. And the national teams of Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark had similar initiatives before their games. Now reporters from all over Europe are asking players how they feel about the World Cup in Qatar.

The Norwegian FA felt obliged to respond. Its initial statements seemed to show more concern about possible financial losses in the case of a boycott. It didn’t come down well with the public. The Guardian informs us that “Norwegian football is a democracy. Clubs are by law owned and run by their members who, once a year, vote on the club’s policies, amendments of its statutes and so on.” So, this is a grassroots campaign, as “for a long time Norwegians supporters have felt that football has been taken away from them by the people at the top level, that football’s true values have been sacrificed by greed and corruption (…)”.

At the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, Major League Baseball announced that it would be moving this summer’s All-Star Game from Atlanta, in response to the recent passage of a law in the state of Georgia that would significantly condition voting rights. The law aims to roll back automatic voter registration, mail-in voting, and early in-person voting (methods mainly used by Black voters and lower-income voters) on the grounds that such restrictions are needed to restore public trust in the electoral system (after Donald Trump and many in the Republican party claimed there had been fraud). Supporting the law, Andrew McCarthy (writing for the right-wing publication National Review) said that “It would be far better if the franchise were not exercised by ignorant, civics-illiterate people, hypnotized by the flimflam that a great nation needs to be fundamentally transformed rather than competently governed. Left to their own devices, many such people would not even take note of elections, much less go through the effort to register and vote.” (read more). According to the Washington Post, “MLB’s decision to pull the game, the biggest prize it can award its cities, represents a decisive departure for an organization that traditionally has been reluctant to involve itself in what it views as potentially polarizing political issues. The move follows a week in which executives from more than 170 companies joined the corporate push.”

Individual people and organisations in different parts of the world and from different fields feel unable to remain silent in the face of human rights violation. The sports field has given us some good examples, in the case of the US, when football player Colin Kaepernic started kneeling during the national anthem in protest for the killings of black people by the Police or when NBA players refused to play after the police shooting of Jacob Blake.

Statements in support of human dignity and respect for democracy and human rights come in all sorts of ways. In Portugal, we spent the last presidential campaign listening to far-right candidate André Ventura saying again and again that he aimed to be the “President of the good Portuguese” (having repeatedly attacked and offended black and Roma people, immigrants, women). Sports newspaper Record celebrated the wins of three Portuguese athletes in the latest European Athletics Indoor Championships with a cover showing who the “good Portuguese” might be.

This cover did not seem to draw the attention of people in the cultural field. Yet, it meant a lot to me, as I don’t see this field as neutral or apolitical and I often regret its silence and lack of mission. There are very few the cultural organisations in Portugal that addressed – more or less “diplomatically” –André Ventura’s racist and discriminatory discourse. Is it because they have nothing to do with it? Is It because they haven’t got the power to do something?

Norwegian journalist Håvard Melnæs, commenting on the stand taken by his country’s football teams, questioned whether this is just a moral window-dressing and whether they should be expected to act on a number of other issues too. He concluded, though, that the most important thing here is that football is finally being asked some inconvenient questions.” Shouldn’t the cultural field be asked (and ask itself) some inconvenient questions?

These days, with the case against Serralves Foundation being tried in court, it is impossible not to consider our stance both as citizens and as professionals. Rumours and formal news in the media have been telling as a rather grim tale for some time now. And yet, nothing happened, nothing changed. Even when the administration was heard by the parliamentary commission for Culture, MPs seemed quite satisfied with the explanations given. It took a small group of precarious workers to find the courage to protest publicly, for months in a row, not giving up, to take this Administration to court. It also took the resignation of others. Where do we stand? Are we just lying back and watching?

Photo: Teresa Pacheco Miranda (taken from the newspaper Público)

Pedro Levi Bismarck, wrote an incisive piece this week entitled “Serralves misery”. In it, he paints a raw picture of a decadent cultural institution, especially when we reminds us of the neutralisation of the democratic processes in its management, “something very evident in the constant internal pressures on the workers, in the authoritarianism of the administration, in its refusal to make statements, remaining silent and shirking its responsibility as a public institution and of a public nature.”

Serralves is very much in the media at this moment and for good reasons. But it is not a case apart, we know it. There is a need for change and change will not come unless we demand it, as a whole, both as professionals and as citizens. This has not only got to do only with the museum educators who are fighting their case in Court or with those who felt compelled to resign as a matter of dignity and self-respect. Serralves and other cultural organisations are not someone’s private backyard. Even if they were, there are some principles that must be demanded of all. This has got to do with all of us. If not all (it’s never all), many.

More on this blog

What is the change we are longing for?

What have we got to do with this (ii)?

What have we got to do with this (i)?

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