Political Action and Generations Part II: Emergent Conversation 12

Photo by Thierry Joubert. Peaceful demonstration in Sarajevo on February 29, 2014. Used with author’s permission. Website:  https://www.ekoakcija.org/

As mass demonstrations mobilized against racial injustice in the U.S. and globally, Nataša Garić-Humphrey, Andrew Gilbert, Azra Hromadžić, and Larisa Kurtović took part in a virtual discussion of political and social movements, drawing from their extensive ethnographic research in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Their discussion explores the complex interplay of history, social movements, and generational change, and how anthropological theory engages with these phenomena. This discussion was moderated by PoLAR Associate Editor Jennifer Curtis. Nataša Garić-Humphrey’s article “Negotiating “True” Politics: Intergenerational Dynamics During Social Uprising in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina” appeared in the May 2020 issue of PoLAR; Larisa Kurtović’s article “When All That Is Solid Does Not Melt into Air: Labor, Politics and Materiality in a Bosnian Detergent Factory” appeared in the November 2020 issue of PoLAR.

Following George Floyd’s murder in May by a Minneapolis police officer, protests against police brutality in the U.S. reinvigorated a national discussion about violent and nonviolent protest, and inspired global protests against police brutality and structural racism. These recent events underscore the timeliness of Nataša’s critique of Rancière and his categorization of violent vs. nonviolent protest, particularly for anthropologists studying social movements. Post-conflict societies like Bosnia-Herzegovina offer an opportunity to consider social movements, violence, and nonviolence in nuanced ways over time.  

Historically, U.S. civil rights movements deployed nonviolence not just for moral reasons, but with the pragmatic goal of making already-existing, racist violence visible—and thereby catalyzing legal and social change. Shortly before his death in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledged that “a riot is the language of the unheard,” but also asserted that, “I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensified the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results.” 

Over and over, citizens living through violent conflicts have seen that violence sometimes does achieve its practitioners’ political objectives, irrespective of one’s views on the legitimacy of the tactic. From this perspective, Rancière’s categorical denunciation of violence overlooks its complexity in practice, and collapses other distinctions, such as violence directed against property versus violence against people, violence by protesters versus violence by state forces and so on.  In your research in Bosnia Herzegovina, how has both the war and its settlement affected broader orientations to and expressions of political violence? What analytical and theoretical insights on violence and nonviolence in both war and “peace” does your research provide for anthropologists thinking about activism and political violence in other places and times?

Photo by Azra Hromadžić. Black Lives Matter protests in upstate New York. Used with author’s permission.

Azra Hromadžić: Recent Black Lives Matter protests in the US illuminated for many Americans that which anthropologists of the Balkans have been arguing for decades—in order to understand how politics and the political work, we need to study historically-produced power relations among institutions, groups and individuals. This means that we study not only institutionalized racism, sexism, elitism, and ethnicism, and intergroup dynamics among ethnicities, races, generations, genders and classes. Rather, we need to also pay attention to everyday encounters between, for example, a mother and a daughter talking in the kitchen in the Herzegovinian town of Mostar, among classmates in the “Peace and Conflict in the Balkans” course at Syracuse University (see below, also see Hromadžić 2020), among neighbors in a mostly white American suburb in upstate NY…The protests also illuminated some differences between the Balkans—where people deeply mistrust their institutions but believe that the majority of ordinary folk are decent people (narod, normalni ljudi, običan svijet ) who have been brainwashed by politics/politicians, and the US—where people stalwartly believe in their institutions but distrust their government and their racialized co-citizens/others.

Violence is hard to grasp abstractly since it “defies easy categorization. It can be everything and nothing; legitimate or illegitimate; visible or invisible; necessary or useless; senseless and gratuitous or utterly rational and strategic” (Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois 2004:2). Inspired by this comprehensive definition of violence and my own observations, following Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois (2004), I suggest that both violence and politics should be approached as a continuum between different forms of violence and between “openings” and “closings” (see below).

This broadening of “the field”  exposes relations between the symbolic, structural and physical forms of violence and helps us realize that there is no impulse out of which mass violences are born; rather, “it is ingrained in the common sense of everyday social life” (Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois 2004:19). We can therefore avoid simplistic categorization and evaluation of “good” and “bad” violence and focus instead on unique historicities, complex cultural formations, and unique yet comparable social expressions of violences. Even we, anthropologists, need to be reminded sometimes that violence is a human condition that should be studied like any other human condition in its situated complexity, its cultural logics, and its social and material relations. This capacious approach to violence and politics can help us dismantle overly confident, neat, and normative distinctions between war and peace, and “violent and non-violent protest” (Rancière). Rather, non-linear, converging violences which are simultaneously destructive and productive of lives and communities, travel between people and material objects and descend into everyday lives.

The everyday violence that destroys historically and socially marginalized humans with great frequency is usually invisible or misrecognized (Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois 2004). In addition, expressions of accumulated and “made-invisible” violence are frequently misinterpreted as personal traits. This became especially visible during the recent Black Lives Matter protests, when a Black woman activist Kimberly Jones refused the dominant (white) narrative which contrasted “peaceful protests” and “looting” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=llci8MVh8J4). Rather, with superb clarity and masterful articulation, she charted the field of symbolic, structural and physical violences, and bodily and material dispossessions, that intimately connect the two. And yet, in a typical symbolic violence fashion (see Bourdieu 2004), many interpreted Jones’ intervention as her personal characteristic. She was “read” (even by the “good” white folk) as a bit “too much”—too angry and, as always, too hysterical. Her words and dispositions were therefore not seen for what they were—clear articulations of centuries of sediment; structural and physical violences which were first embodied and then, like springs in the belly, triggered by most recent police brutalities. Misrecognition of Jones’ intervention by the majority of her white audiences therefore created a “closing”—a moment in social life when translation between social and political worlds fell short of its promise of plentitude and signaled the failure of a shared grammar and a denial of recognition (see Hromadžić 2020).

On the other hand, understanding connections among histories, and cultural and structural logics, allows for “openings,” both “here” and “there.” I understand “openings” as those transactions in sociopolitical life when “structures of feeling” were somehow transmitted and felt, almost understood, across the sociopolitical, geographic, and historical spectrum. Openings ask for acknowledgment, which may be given or denied. Here I share two of those openings that I witnessed and experienced, and that I recently published (see Hromadžić 2020), personal experiences of what a socio-political “opening” looks like and feels like in the context of violence continuum.

“Being Muslim in Bosnia is like being Black in the U.S.!!!”

The Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania is housed at the Penn Museum. The Museum is also home of the “International Classroom” a program that exposes students in inner city schools to “International experiences” by inviting speakers to visit the schools.[1] In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I frequently worked with this program—my job was to go to inner city schools and tell my personal story of living in Bosnia during the war. The majority of students in these schools were Black, poor and marginalized. The schools varied in their sizes and locations but most were overcrowded and underfunded. Teachers frequently had trouble keeping their students in school, focused and interested. I also had trouble retaining their attention at first, but when my story shifted from socialist experiences and geopolitics to my daily struggles with physical violence that tried to obliterate me, and to the world that labeled me as an ethnic Muslim and caged me in this rigid, subordinate, “unwanted” category, my students became interested. I told them how these labels were persistent, demeaning, frustrating, painful, and felt omnipresent, and how they made me feel angry and powerless. At the same time, I subconsciously embodied some of these ideas about “my” identity (I would learn later, from Pierre Bourdieu, that this was “symbolic violence” at its best—a naturalized, normalized, misrecognized form of violence that is often mistaken for emotion, where even those who are subject to it, see it as “just” and contribute to its perpetuation). For example, I told them how when I was in elementary school I felt embarrassed that my parents’ names, Rasema and Hasan, were not as fashionable as some Serb and Croat parents’ names, Zora and Jovo, for example. And I felt embarrassed for feeling embarrassment, I felt I was betraying my parents. I blushed (another sign of symbolic violence reveling itself and masking itself as a personal trait) when I said their names in front of our 30-student classroom. I also told them how, immediately after the war, when I was able to leave the siege and go to the neighboring country of Croatia, I spoke quietly in public because my way of speaking was indexing who I “was” – a Bosnian Muslim, close to the bottom of the pervasive, nestling, and sometimes deadly Balkan socio-political hierarchy. I wanted to avoid being judged and “put in my place.” The students listened carefully. One young man commented: “I know what you mean. One day, I was walking down the street and I saw 5 or 6 young Black men, their hoodies on, walking toward me. Without thinking, I crossed the street. I could not believe what I did. I felt embarrassed and confused.” The room fell silent…Then one young Black woman broke the silence by saying: “Being a Muslim in Bosnia is a little bit similar to being a Black person in the U.S.!” This statement does not suggest a shared sameness or victimhood. Rather, it recognizes a kernel of a shared experience with a radical potential. An opening.

“Now I understand how Yugoslavia could collapse”

It is November 2016, and I am sitting in my classroom, Maxwell Hall 205A, with 15 Syracuse University undergraduates enrolled in my upper division seminar “Peace and Conflict in the Balkans.” For years, I taught this class to mostly International Relations students, trying to shift their understanding of the Balkans—in most of their Political Science classes, the Balkans is yet another one-week-long case study (next to Northern Ireland and Rwanda) under the banner of Civil War or Postwar Reconstruction. I had a difficult task of undoing this rigid, ethnicized knowledge of “The Balkans and its Peoples” and I did this more or less successfully. While I had considerable success broadening my students view to include Yugoslav socialist past (“We want more Tito!” “Why don’t we study Tito in our high school history classes?” were some of the comments on students’ course evaluations), students always struggled to understand how Yugoslavia could collapse. How “ordinary” people, who were relatively close to each other and who shared language and history, could become politically mobilized and ethnicized against each other to such an extent? Were they really, I mean really friends, and sometimes even members of the same family, before the war or were they just pretending?

Immediately after the 2016 presidential elections in the U.S., my students and I are sitting in our classroom, 205A Maxwell Hall, disoriented and unsure. The room feels different, a bit uncanny, familiar, but not ours. One student is visibly upset. She starts sharing without our encouragement: “I cannot believe what happened last night. I am openly gay. I fear what is to come. And the worst thing is that my mother, she voted for him. And now, the two of us cannot talk to each other [starts to cry]. I cannot…. I cannot understand why she did it…” Some students whisper words of support. Others are hesitant because they do not know who among us voted for whom. While several weeks ago they felt unified in their U.S. identity regardless of their many and significant differences, they are not sure any more whom to trust.  They “suddenly” doubt their friends and families, each other and their unity, because they “just do not know…” Doubt and mistrust seeps between our chairs and desks. The room is heavy, the air stale, almost suffocating. Then, suddenly, one student says: “I think I understand now how Yugoslavia could fall apart.” Some other students nod. There is an opening—raw, painful, and uncertain. 

The last week of December 2020, marked 100 years from the start of Husino Rebellion, the most famous and the most radical strike of miners in the Bosnian-Herzegovinian history. The weeklong strike on the outskirts of the city of Tuzla, was brutally suppressed by the gendarmerie of the then Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (which would become the Kingdom of Yugoslavia). It was also one of the events that precipitated the ban of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia several days later, as punishment for helping organize the miners in both Slovenia and Bosnia. The ban pushed the communists underground. Faith would have it that this “underground” grew into the partisan resistance–the same one that organized the popular struggle for liberation against the fascist occupiers, and in so doing, made possible Yugoslavia’s revolution. The significance of these events cannot be overstated. December 21 remains to this day, the official Miners’ Day in recognition of this heroic uprising. And the memory of Husino rebellion lives on in red Tuzla, where you can find this remarkable statue by Ivan Sabolic, dedicated to the Husino miners and to the revolution they helped spark. Photo by Larisa Kurtović. Used with author’s permission.

Larisa Kurtović: Thank you for this timely question, one with which I have been grappling for a really long time. Let me start with the limitations of Rancière’s own thought,  particularly for anthropology, which has historically been more attuned to non-conventional political thought and action, or to that which Elizabeth Povinelli (2012) has called “the otherwise.” For most political anthropologists, there are no “wrong” or “right” kinds of politics—only the impetus that political movements and formations be understood on their own terms. This places scholars such as ourselves, who are committed to ethnography, in a strong position to think about riots in ways that are creative and unexpected, rather than dismissive or moralizing. Our colleague, Maple Razsa (2015), has done some fantastic work in ethnographically grounding the experience of participation in violent protest—and tracing the transformative, and indeed, subjectificating effects of this type of political action on the radical activists among whom he has worked.  By contrast, Rancièrian judgements about what constitutes more desirable forms of politics suffer from the same myopias that have haunted political philosophy since its inception. Like that of his colleagues, Rancière’s thought is marked by a lack of attention to decolonial, critical race and feminist perspectives. I would go so far to say that the underlying normativity of his writing stands in stark contrast with his openness to theorizing politics as a space of dissensus (2010).

Hence, to think the political language of the riot more seriously, we need to look elsewhere, and perhaps embrace some of these sidelined perspectives. Fanon, for example, has powerfully argued for the need to recognize the transformational capacity of anti-colonial violence, of material struggle whose goal is not only to liberate the colonized lands, but also the spirit and psyche of those who were violently subjugated. Scholars inspired by revolutionary and radical traditions have long ago posed the question of why protest violence is met with such popular outrage while enduring, structural forms of violence to which marginal communities are exposed on the daily basis, pass for ordinary, expected and tolerable. It is precisely these questions that are at stake in the current moment of political mobilization. Whether we perceive police violence as a particular instantiation of the aforementioned structural forces, or a specific kind of state-sanctioned cruelty through which white supremacy is maintained, it is stunning to see the extent to which Black Lives Matter movement has been successful in subverting the claim that the protesters are violent while the police acts out of necessity to enforce law and order. This is why I think BLM gives scholars of protest movements much to think about, and why I am grateful that this kind of a question was posed in a forum dedicated to Bosnian postwar uprisings.

In order to bring the two cases—one American, the other Bosnian—to bear on one another, my impulse would be to treat political violence not only as a material fact and embodied experience, but also something that itself has a certain kinds of historicity and historical texture. For example, when Black Americans and their allies rise up in protest, they are not protesting only the murder, but a whole chain of bodily subjugations, ranging from chattel slavery, mass imprisonment, and various forms of maiming and slaying that marked Black experience in the Americas. The pushback against police violence and the demand for what Achille Mbembe (2020) has recently called “the right to breathe” is itself both haunted and made profound and powerful by these violent and ghostly histories of racial terror.

Given these analytical insights, when we return our attention to Bosnia-Herzegovina, we must also inquire into the historical character, content and texture of political violence, whether it comes in a state-sanctioned, paramilitary or para-statist forms, or in the form of violent street protest. As I have already suggested, today’s youthful protestors, typically young men, are historically complex figures for they invoke a range of images, hopes and anxieties. On the one hand, their youthful figures represent potential—a kind of masculinist power capable of labor, creation and reproduction. Yet, these days, those very functions, as Nataša’s article argues, are in crisis, unable to be realized under the conditions of postsocialist dispossession and disempowerment. This sets the stage for  these rioting bodies to become a source of enormous anxiety and fear. Their unleashed energy, no longer harnessed in service of social reproduction, is instead seen as a source of threat and risk. Hence we get to the figure of the hooligan—imagined as a nihilistic delinquent—who merely destroys in protest. But the hooligan is also someone’s child, brother, friend—he too is embedded in dense networks of sociality which cannot be denied. In that sense, he is also comparable to the young wartime soldier, itself an ambiguous figure, one that can be both a source of protection and fear, kinship and hostility.

In Bosnia too, just like in the US, violence has a history; and so, violent protest can be either cathartic or deeply triggering people who have lived through the siege, genocide and ethnic cleansing. For a long time after the war,  it was popular to say “Everything is good while there is no shooting.” Sarajevans, in particular, were exhausted and eager to pick up the pieces of what was left and resume their forever-scarred lives. But eventually, many people came to realize that peace was not enough without solid economic and social prospects. The truth is, the nationalist parties that have been in power, more or less continuously through the last 25 years, have used fear to distract the public from their own incompetence and corruption. There is a lot of pent-up anger in Bosnia, especially when people see the spectacular accumulations of wealth among the select few, while most of the country plunges into more impoverishment and economic marginalization. In peacetime, violence therefore takes new, more mundane and structural forms, which nevertheless accumulate over time. There are many who believe that revolutionary transformation, one which is radical and violent in its character, is really the only kind of political action with transformative potential (see Jansen 2014). In that sense, a riot is a way to announce that poverty and lack of prospects are themselves a form of violence which must be contested by any means necessary.

Last but not least, those of us who are paying attention to uprisings also need to be careful when we encounter claims about illegitimacy of violent protest and the plea to protest “peacefully.” To start, these distinctions are predicated on a certain misunderstandings of non-violence as a method of political resistance, which is in and of itself, quite radical. During the Civil Rights Movement, this strategy involved a calculated risk of stark brutality against black bodies engaged in acts of civil disobedience. Non-violence did not mean absence of violence: rather, it was a drastic means through which protest participants could render white supremacy as clear as day. Engaging in peaceful protest therefore is no guarantee one will be left at peace—this is what the protesting masses in Sarajevo learned on April 5, 1992 when their anti-war rally was interrupted by shots of snipers that claimed some of the first victims of the Bosnian war. Not acknowledging this intertwining of peaceful protest and its violent repression requires a certain revisionist attitude to history. Moreover, the fetishization of peaceful protest in Bosnia among some echelons of society, effectively erases a long history of armed struggle and strikes which played a transformative historical role. In Tuzla, one of the most significant events of the last hundred years was the miners’ strike in the village of Husino (Husinska buna) against the harsh conditions of work and miserable pay, which was ultimately squashed in blood by the authoritarian government of what was then the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (the precursor of post WWII Yugoslavia). It was by no accident that the 2014 mobilizations were nicknamed the Second Husino Uprising, for the young protestors saw themselves as direct descendants of that tradition.

Violent forms of protests, and the state response to them, can often be quite revelatory of subjugated histories and long-standing power dynamics, and can open a certain political space for different kinds of organizing, as embodied, in the case of Bosnia, in the plenums. In that sense, radical protest is not the rule of a mob, but can be part of an arsenal of tactics. These tactics are often well-thought out: for example, during the BLM uprisings, protest organizers sent white women to the front lines to act as a shield against police batons, in order to lessen the physical impact of state-sanctioned violence not just on Black bodies specifically, but the protesting collective more generally. In so doing, they also exposed how race and gender fundamentally alter the way one is policed in this country.

I find such moments quite illuminating for those of us dedicated to theorizing political violence from an ethnographic perspective.

Photo by Emir Hodžić. People distributing bread to the protesters during February, 2014, social uprising in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Nataša Garić-Humphrey: Thank you, Azra and Larisa, for a wonderful and thoughtful response to this important prompt. In the example of Bosnia-Herzegovina and specifically during the Sarajevo social uprising in 2014, I saw the raw power and how this idea of acting outside of the existing political structure energized many citizen activists. My fieldwork interlocuters often expressed that the energy comes from feeling of being in control over their own lives for the first time since before the war in the 1990s. When people flooded the streets, spoke out their grievances publicly, stood their ground, and, yes, I would dare say, even when they expressed their indignation violently, something normal happened—for that moment people felt they had the control over their lives. They were reclaiming their dignities that have been so violently taken away from them during and after the war. As one citizen activist expressed his feelings after a protest in Sarajevo: “I felt like I was in control of my own life, something I never felt before… It’s a feeling that gives me goose bumps all over… I felt normal…”

Most would label people participating in violent indignation as out of control and yet, here we have citizen activists saying they felt in control. What I witnessed during the social uprising in Sarajevo echoes what Rancière calls politics—a pushback against the existing order of governance that is hierarchical and consensual by those who have been excluded from participation in sociopolitical life and distribution of resources. These protesters emerged as new subjects that did not belong to any preexisting groups occupying spaces within mainstream politics (see Garić-Humphrey 2020). However, when Rancière creates a distinction between police and politics to give recognition to “those without a part” (2010, 42) in his endeavor for equality, at the same time he leads us to characterize certain types of indignation as “right” and others as “wrong,” as is the case with non-violent and violent protest respectively. But non-violence should not be juxtaposed to violence, right or wrong, democratic or non-democratic, civilized or non-civilized as the media and politicians often do. Indignation, and life in general, is much more complex than this simple delineation between two polar opposites. Something that appears benign can often be an expression of violence that is covert. For example, symbolic violence usually lies below our reflexive consciousness because it is normalized, naturalized, and internalized. Similarly, everyday structural violence is often excused and brushed under the rug, or not recognized as violent at all. As Larisa mentions in her response along with many scholars before her, how come violent protests are always met with such scorn and contempt but everyday structural violence is rendered invisible and unproblematic? What John Lewis and Reverend Hosea Williams did when they led civil rights marchers out of Selma in 1965 is made racist violence visible. People all over America and the rest of the world were able to see non-violent protesters walking across the bridge on the one hand, and racist police and other white men beating the protestors with weapons on the other. Upon this open and public expression of hate, people were able to reevaluate their own senses of right and wrong.

In a very different example in Bosnia-Herzegovina, we have people trying to feel in control of their lives out of the need for normality. After February 7th social protests that turned violent in several major cities across Bosnia-Herzegovina, when people from different cities all over the world were creating their cover videos to Pharrell William’s song “Happy,” Bosnians came out with their own version (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MdmRH39hiBk). Williams’ upbeat song that compels one to dance and sing along is accompanied by a music video of people dancing on the streets of LA. Juxtaposed to the original music video and many other worldwide renditions of it popping up on YouTube in 2014, a Bosnian version contains images of violent social protests from different Bosnian cities. In this video, the song “Happy” is accompanied by people in pain, protesting because they are the opposite of happy—they are suffering from the effects of brutal war, high unemployment rates, ethnic polarization, shattered industry and economy, collapsed health care, pension system, and other social services, etc. What little there is left in Bosnia-Herzegovina is being grabbed by self-serving political elites for their own selfish purposes. People came out to the streets of Bosnia-Herzegovina, some protesting by destroying government property, because they do not see any other way out of the hopelessness of their lives. The opening paragraph of my article illustrates an interaction between an old woman and a young man, where the old woman pleads with the young man to refrain from violence. To that, the young man responds: Ne ide drugačije, bako (There is no other way, Grandma). In that moment, the young man thought his only tool of resistance to structural violence is through violence itself and by that rendering violence done upon everyday citizens in Bosnia-Herzegovina visible. In this example, violence did achieve its practitioners’ political objectives, which was to get heard, noticed, and to show “everyday citizens have had enough.” It opened up a space, previously occupied by constant noises and abuses of ethnic politics of polarization intentionally used by political elites to divide and conquer, for citizens to work towards a better future.

What the George Floyd-s of this world show us when they plead for their lives, when “I can’t breathe” falls on deaf ears, is a repertoire of what people can do in response to structural violence. People respond to crisis and violence in different ways. We, therefore, need a greater understanding of people’s visceral experiences and the historical textures that influence their reactions to structures of violence. It is imperative to better understand what happens in that moment when Rayshard Brooks goes from being calm and compliant when questioned by police, to fighting for his life at the moment the police officer tries to handcuff him. What types of not only life experiences of being Black in America today but generational patterns of influence going all the way back to slavery, put a stamp on people’s lives and actions? It is easy for us to say Rayshard should have stayed calm and if he did, he would still be alive today. But how can one stay calm under such circumstances, as inhumane brutality is inflicted upon Black people in the US, and other parts of the world, and the historical, systemic, and institutional foundations of this brutality that people have to endure? And how can Bosnians stay calm under the violence of Absurdistan—first, under the effects of the brutal war where everyday people who did not want to participate in the war bore the brunt of it, and then in the absence of future prospects?

It is also important to take a closer look at the complexity of the protest itself. In instances when violence erupts, people tend to focus their attention on that. But a whole range of emotions and actions other than violence transpire during a protest as well. As a participant in the citizen uprising on February 7th, 2014, in Sarajevo, when protestors clashed with the police which resulted in them setting the Cantonal Government building and the Presidency on fire, I witnessed a great deal of solidarity, for example, not just among the protesters but protesters and the police as well. I witnessed a man whom I did not know saving me from falling over the river bank wall in an instance when the police pushed forward towards the protesting crowd. I saw an older woman trying to hit a police officer with an umbrella to save a young man from the clutches of the officer. I saw citizen activists carrying officers who were hurt into safety and I saw an activist friend of mine, suffer a blow from another protestor in order to protect a police officer who fell on the ground. Some people were visibly distraught at the sight of the burning Cantonal Government building as it reminded them of the war when Sarajevo was regularly attacked by snipers and mortars from neighboring hills for 1,425 days. Others were having visceral experiences of feeling their bodies shattering into million pieces and sensed guilt for not doing enough to help the younger generation whom they saw as casualties of post-war life in Bosnia-Herzegovina. One woman said to me while looking at the young men partaking in the destruction of government property: “Look at what we have done to these poor kids! They have nothing left to do but this!” Still others were sensitive to the potential impression this violent uprising is going to have on the outside world. One citizen said: “Again, they [people outside of Bosnia-Herzegovina] are going to take us for savages. I’m afraid the only thing we are going to be known for is the brutality we cause each other.” I could go on and on but my point is that what transpires during a protest is so much more complex that media, politicians, and even some researchers make it out to be.

Photo of the Tuzla Plenum. From the Tuzla Plenum Facebook account, https://www.facebook.com/plenumTK.

Andrew Gilbert:  The invitation to reflect further on political violence and non-violence in war and peace is indeed timely. The recent history of Bosnia and Herzegovina points to how violence—to property or to persons or to ideas—can unsettle a given order of things.  I have written elsewhere (Gilbert 2013) about how and why the violence of the 1990s war was seen by state separatists as necessary to render impossible or irrelevant the lifeworld of socialist Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), especially its forms of worker self-management and social ownership, and its multi- and non-ethnic forms of sociality, moral community and human flourishing.  However, the enduring political meaning and effects of the war-time violence was only made in the ensuing years of the post-war “peace.”  Violence may have succeeded in unsettling one social and political order of things, but did not determine what came next.

A similar insight emerged from my research on the protest and plenum of early 2014 in Tuzla: violence clearly had the capacity to unsettle, and to create political openings, but defining what those openings could be was only forged in the aftermath.  And while Ranciere does usefully draw our attention to politics as “ruptural and inaugurative” (Dikeç 2013), I have found Hannah Arendt’s writing on beginnings and power and violence better to think with when it comes to understanding the possibilities and limits of the 2014 protests.  While there were many things unprecedented about the 2014 protests in postwar BiH, including their confrontational violence, it was the experiment of the plenum—an attempt to introduce something new into the world of Bosnian politics—that I want to discuss for the insights it offers for anthropologists studying the relationship between activism and political violence in other times and places.

To begin with, Arendt (1972: 143–55) distinguishes between power and violence, arguing that the latter can always destroy the former, but never create it.  As we have already noted in this discussion, images of police beating and gassing young and elderly citizens, of police being stoned and forced to withdraw from confrontation with protestors, and of government buildings set on fire, captured national and international attention.  Utterly delegitimized by police violence, the disorder in the streets, and the largely spontaneous enactment of mass popular opposition, Tuzla’s cantonal premier resigned—one of four across Bosnia to do so.

Most participants described the three days of protest as a mix of exhilaration, fear, and possibility as the usual order of things became unsettled.  Nearly all of the protest participants I encountered had decidedly ambivalent feelings about the violence committed against property and police; most workers who had taken part simultaneously condemned and disavowed that violence and also recognized that without it, many subsequent gains—putting issues of socioeconomic inequality squarely into public discourse, forcing some legal changes through cantonal assemblies, increasing the responsiveness of government to the plight of disemployed workers—might never have come about.

What the violence did more immediately was to create an opening that had a dual nature.  On the one hand, the destruction of government property, defeat and withdrawal of police forces, and the resignation of the premier created a direct question: “What now?”—which was actually many questions: “What now will happen to the protestors?” “What now will happen with government, after the resignation of the premier?” “What now will happen to the specific and ongoing grievances of the unemployed workers?”  On the other hand, there was something about this moment that exceeded the specific details and demands of the protest, something produced in the spontaneous emergence of a nascent and provisional form of popular sovereignty over the preceding three days.  Power, Arendt argues, is distinct from violence; it lies in the relations between people that gather for collective action.  Elsewhere Arendt (1998) also writes about the miracle of natality – the new beginning inherent in human action, the capacity of humans to introduce novelty into the world.  Judith Butler (2015) combines and extends these insights when she theorizes the generative force of assembled bodies. She argues that the power of assembled bodies, and what such assembled bodies might signify, exceeds any specific demands or articulations; there is an excess potentiality and indeterminacy—an unexpectedness—that is inherent in the plurality and multiplicity of assembled bodies acting together.

This suggests to me, then, that the violence of the protest temporarily negated both the violence of the state and the power of institutionalized politics, and this, together with the assembled bodies that made up the protesting masses, created an opening. This opening was more than just a series of specific iterations of “What now?”—that is, a shift in attention to what will happen next—but also related to the potentiality that the protest contained—“What now is possible?”  What, if anything, had the protests changed?  Or, in Arendt’s terms, was this a new beginning, a moment to introduce something new into the world of Bosnian politics?  If so, Arendt would suggest, it would rely not on the exercise of force but on the production of power, which would require a “space of appearance” in which people could gather to act and speak collectively.

According to Arendt, because power is the potential that lies in the relationships between people, those relationships must be constantly re-created in action for power to factually exist. Any given collective endeavor is thus inherently unpredictable and fragile: it requires the ongoing support of its participants, continually manifested through deeds and words. Because this action takes place within and through a plurality of human relationships, no actor can control its final outcome.  Finally, although power “springs up whenever people get together and act in concert,” it “derives its legitimacy from the initial getting together rather than from any action that then may follow” (1972: 151). In other words, power is legitimized by appealing to the past and is subject to ongoing evaluation and judgment. Conceiving of politics in these terms foregrounds the importance of foundational moments when people initially come together around a project or goal to bring it into being; it is here that the legitimacy of that collective endeavor is established.

This helps explain why and how, in order to seize and maintain this opening, to channel the energies of the protest and harness its potentiality for a new beginning, a small group of activists (including university faculty, workers, and football fans) called for a plenum, the popular citizens assembly marked by horizontal organization and direct democratic decision-making and described in Nataša’s article.  If the protest itself was unprecedented, then so too was the response to the Tuzla plenum.  It attracted people from nearly every social category in Bosnian society and it moved through ever-larger spaces of appearance.  After initially meeting in a relatively small community center, it moved to the National Theater and then again to the Bosnian Cultural Center, where it immediately filled the seating capacity of 700. By this time, organizers managed to begin broadcasting the general assembly of the plenum over the internet, reaching a virtual audience that numbered up to 2,000 viewers.

Almost from the beginning there were disagreements in Tuzla about whether the plenum was the right form and “space of appearance” for collective speech and action; many protest participants, especially workers who had very specific demands, argued that a continued presence on the streets—a presence now imbued with the threat of violence—was more likely to prompt a response from the government.  Others argued for a division of labor and for a time there was an attempt to keep a presence on the streets and in the plenum general assembly – a proliferation of spaces of appearance.

At the outset, part of what made the plenum different and attractive was the way its horizontal forms of direct democracy disrupted some core norms of postwar Bosnian politics and sought to introduce new norms – a foundational moment that would be a measure of its legitimacy.  For instance, against the norm that the sole legitimate political actors were political parties with hierarchical organization, the plenum had no leader or leadership, no spokesperson, and banned anyone representing a political party.  In an extension of its anti-hierarchical commitment, the plenum made membership open to all and celebrated the equal participation of everyone, thus going against the norm that legitimate participation in politics required one to have party membership or other recognized social status (professor, union leader, doctor, businessman, etc.). Against the norm that the primary goal of politics was to capture the state apparatus, the plenum stated that they had no such desire, but just wanted the state to do its job. Against the normative assumption that getting involved in politics could only be motivated by self-interest, the plenum articulated collective solidarity and selfless care, and against the normative practice of making decisions away from public scrutiny, the plenum made all decision-making public and transparent.

There is more to be said about why the plenum was so attractive to its participants, such as its early victories at getting the cantonal assembly to meet its collectively-generated demands.  But what I want to focus on here is how much time was spent by plenum participants resisting attempts to make the plenum commensurable with the very political norms its form rejected.  These attempts were relentless and came from all sides, not only from threatened political parties but also from within the plenum.  This meant fulfilling performative demands that the claims to non-normativity created—these claims had to be constantly enacted and substantiated in part because they were foundational to the creation of the plenum, its relations, and hence its power.

Participants found themselves having to constantly reiterate that there was no leader, nor anyone “standing behind” the plenum; having constantly to tell journalists that there was no spokesperson (and having to disavow those who tried to claim that role); having to repeat that the plenum was truly open to everyone, that all participants were equal, and that the plenum really did not want to take power.  Its meeting practices were attempts to enact these claims.  And yet a variety of elements, including the very plurality and diversity of its participants (including the multi-generational differences that Nataša documented in her article), threatened the ability of the plenum to live up to the performative and evidentiary demands of its non-normative claims. Indeed, various events, actions and circumstances were interpreted as evidence that the old norms of politics were in play.  For instance, there were those who wanted to transform their leading participation in the protest into a quasi-leadership role in the plenum, and attempted to assert such a role inside and outside of plenum meetings.  The activists and others carrying out the logistical and organizational work ended up being seen as a de facto leadership class; moreover, the fact that the logistical organization of the plenum and its working groups could not be performed in public in the same way as the general assembly contributed to a suspicion that the agenda of the plenum was decided ahead of time.  These are just a few examples; there are many more.

Perhaps most vexing were disagreements about the relationship of the plenum to the caretaker cantonal government to be appointed until the next elections.  Some regular plenum participants felt very strongly that they should name this government; some even felt they should serve in that government, and that made it hard to sustain the claim that plenum participants had no desire to take power.  This caused the Tuzla plenum to lose its mass character as a popular social form.  Eventually, the numbers of participants in the general assembly fell dramatically.  Once the care-taker government had been named, most of the workers left and meetings became much less frequent; the final general assembly meeting, held in an art gallery about eight weeks after the first plenum, numbered in the dozens rather than hundreds or thousands.  In Arendtian terms, many participants were no longer persuaded by the non-normative claims upon which the plenum had been founded and around which people gathered, so its legitimacy eroded, and its power ebbed.  Moreover, participants like the disemployed workers sought direct negotiation with the new government rather than go through the more cumbersome instrument of the plenum.  And we should also not discount the fact that this kind of organization is hard work and many of its most active supporters and participants became exhausted.

There are a few points worth noting from what I just described. The first is that there seems to be an unstable relationship between political violence and potentiality: violence can be a tactic, albeit a highly unpredictable one, in a demand-based politics (such as the demand that a premier resigns).  It can also produce a rupture in the usual order of things, and if it happens within the context of a mass gathering, it might create the potential for something new to be inaugurated into the world of political practice.  But it is not enough to do it on its own (unless that “something new” is more violence).  Such inauguration would require the kind of power generated when people gather for collective speech and action, it would require a space of appearance in which that collective action can happen and it would require time.  One question I am left with is: if violence might be part of creating an opening, what part does it—or the threat of it—play in maintaining that opening?

Dr. Nataša Garić-Humphrey is a Lecturer at the Department of Anthropology at Northern Arizona University. She completed her Ph.D. from University of California San Diego in 2018. She works at the intersection of political, psychological, and activist anthropology with a specific focus on political subjectivity where she critically examines the importance of inserting “the moral self” within political theory. Her research takes a closer look at the ways people manage their moral orientations within the context of hegemonic power and (re)make their moral selves to engage in and confront larger political and socioeconomic processes. Dr. Garić-Humphrey currently works with citizen activists in Bosnia-Herzegovina, looking closely at the processes of people working on their selves through self-care and self-reflection in order to obtain a state of normality in an atmosphere of economic struggles, social injustice, and post-war trauma. In her latest piece, published in PoLAR and titled Negotiating “True” Politics: Intergenerational Dynamics During Social Uprising in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Dr. Garić-Humphrey investigates social relations during protest activity from an intergenerational perspective and critically engages with Jacques Rancière’s notion of the political.

Dr. Andrew Gilbert is a broadly trained anthropologist with over 20 years of research experience, most of it in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He is currently Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto Mississauga and Senior Researcher at the University of Toronto Ethnography Lab.  A full description of his research and writing can be found at www.andrewgilbert.com.


Dr. Azra Hromadžić is a cultural anthropologist with research interests in the anthropology of international policy in the context of state-making in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina. Her book, Citizens of an Empty Nation: Youth and State-making in Postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina (University of Pennsylvania Press), is an ethnographic investigation of the internationally directed postwar intervention policies in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the response of local people, especially youth, to these policy efforts. The book was translated into Serbian in 2017 (Samo Bosne nema: Mladi i građenje države u posleratnoj Bosni i Hercegovini. Beograd: Biblioteka XX Vek).  Several years ago, Azra initiated a new project that ethnographically researches aging, care and social services in the context of postwar and postsocialist Bosnia and Herzegovina. She co- edited (with Monika Palmberger) a volume titled Care Across Distance: Ethnographic Explorations of Aging and Migration which was published with Berghahn Books in 2018. Hromadžić spent the spring semester of 2017 as a Fulbright Scholar in Bosnia-Herzegovina where she conducted research and taught at the University of Bihać. This experience propelled her to begin a new research project on riverine politics, imagination, tourism and infrastructure in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Azra is the recipient of the 2017 Daniel Patrick Moynihan Award for Teaching and Research, the 2017 Excellence in Graduate Education Faculty Recognition Award and the 2014 Meredith Professors’ Teaching Recognition Award. 

Dr. Larisa Kurtović is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Ottawa. She is a political anthropologist who conducts research on activist politics, postsocialist transformation and the aftermath of international intervention in postwar Bosnia. Her ethnographic analyses of popular mobilizations, political satire and nationalist politics, have appeared on the pages of the American Ethnologist, FocaalHistory and Anthropology and Critique of Anthropology among others. She is currently writing a book entitled Future as Predicament: Political Life After Catastrophe based on her long-term research in postwar-Bosnia, as well as working on a future graphic ethnography about syndical struggle and political possibilities with anthropologist Andrew Gilbert and graphic artist Boris Stapić.


[1] https://www.penn.museum/sites/k12/field-trips/international-classroom/

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. 1972. Crises of the Republic. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

—. 1998. The Human Condition. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. First published 1958.

Bolemonday. 2014. “Pharrell Williams–Happy (We Are From Bosnia and Herzegovina).” YouTube, accessed on March 5, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MdmRH39hiBk

Bourdieu, P. 2004. “Gender and Symbolic Violence,” in Scheper-Hughes, N. and Bourgois, P. Violence in War and Peace. Pp. 339-342. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

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Dikeç, Mustafa. 2013. “Beginners and Equals: Political Subjectivity in Arendt and Rancière.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 38(1): 78-90.

Garić-Humphrey, Nataša. 2020. “Negotiating “True” Politics: Intergenerational Dynamics During Social Uprising in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 43 (1): 69-86.

Gilbert, Andrew. 2013.  “War and the Politics of Historical Imagination in Bosnia-Herzegovina.” In Srđa Pavlović and Marko Živković (eds.) Transcending Fratricide: Political Mythologies, Reconciliations, and the Uncertain Future in the former Yugoslavia. Baden-Baden; Nomos Verlag. 165-188.

Hromadžić. A. 2020. “Closings and Openings: On (Im)Possibility of Translation.” The Disorder of Thingshttps://thedisorderofthings.com/2020/07/06/closings-and-openings-on-impossibility-of-translation/

Jansen, Stef. 2015. Yearnings in the Meantime: ‘Normal Lives’ and the State in a Sarajevo Apartment Complex. New York: Berghahn Books.

Mbembe, Achille. 2020. “The Universal Right to Breathe.” In the Moment Critical Inquiry Blog. April 13, 2020. Translated by Carolyn Shread. https://critinq.wordpress.com/2020/04/13/the-universal-right-to-breathe/. Originally appeared in French as: “Le droit universel à la respiration,” AOC, April 6, 2020. https://aoc.media/opinion/2020/04/05/le-droit-universel-a-la-respiration/

Povinelli, Elizabeth. 2012. “The Will to Be Otherwise/The Effort of Endurance.” South Atlantic Quarterly (2012) 111 (3): 453–475.

Rancière, Jacques. 2010. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. Edited and translated by Steven Corcoran. New York: Continuum.

Razsa, Maple. 2015. Bastards of Utopia. Living Radical Politics after Socialism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Scheper-Hughes, N. and P. Bourgois. 2004. “Introduction: Making Sense of Violence.” In Scheper-Hughes, N. and Bourgois, P. Violence in War and Peace. Pp. 339-342. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.




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