Human rights theorists and activists often present the idea of justice (or injustice) in the relational contexts between the state, its people, accountability, and the rule of law (Gready, 2008). Therefore, the units of analysis regularly revolve around the government, the legal structure that sustains it, or the civil society being governed most times improperly. Furthermore, utilizing jargon and juristical terms is seen as an ordinary and necessary practice by either theorists or activists.
Such an assumption of the usual practice in campaigning for justice is not wrong. However, it has the potential to place the locus of human rights debates far away from the limited knowledge possessed by the ordinary. The habit of using phrases such as impunity, extrajudicial, or even the term human rights itself could create a sense of apathy amongst the people to the matters that are actually closely related to their everyday lives.
Thus, it is crucial for both theorists and activists to re-interrogate such a practice to close the gap between their research or campaign with the people’s understanding of human rights issues. Amnesty International tries to do so in 2020 — fifty-nine years after its establishment — when they released the Humanity Playbook in order to reduce to the usage of jargon and legal terms in their campaigns, e.g., reducing the use of the word human rights and attempting to replace it with humanity, for instance. (Amnesty International Indonesia, 2020).
Another problem that arises from preserving such a habit is the intentional (or unintentional) sidelining of the mundane, corporeal understanding and articulation of the idea of justice (Väyrynen, 2019). The recurring theme of analyzing state actors, rules or regulations, as well as the civil society does not take into account the existence and the importance of our bodily labor. Such a practice, henceforth, is counter-productive with the efforts, for instance, to reduce the use of jargon and legalistic terms since both theorists and activists turn a blind eye on the people’s way to comprehend and assert the idea of justice on a daily basis.
Moreover, neither the conscious nor the unconscious attempts to dodge everyday practices consider the relevance of spatiality in defining justice or injustice. Since space is a politically constructed idea, it affects the production of justice or injustice (Soja, 2009). Our corporeal manner, therefore, is highly influenced by our whereabouts, e.g., our behavior during a protest that took place in front of a presidential palace might differ from our attendance in a rally in a business district. Elsewhere, a state’s apparatus mannerism might be inconsistent when he talks inside a presidential palace compared to when he is encountering a mass protest on the streets.
The Confrontation between Sumarsih and President Joko Widodo
To better explain the arguments mentioned above, the split-second encounter between Maria Catarina Sumarsih, the co-founder of the Black Umbrella movement (Aksi Kamisan), and President Joko Widodo on 24 January 2019 might provide a practical example (Jakartanicus, 2019).
At that time, Aksi Kamisan was organized in a business-as-usual fashion. People gathered in front of the Presidential Palace on a Thursday afternoon, the majority wearing all-black outfits and carrying black umbrellas, bringing banners and posters with the demands to end human rights atrocities, and shouting songs of protests; Sumarsih was one of them.
Subsequently, a convoy from inside the Palace emerged: President Joko Widodo, heavily surrounded by the armed forces’ motorcade, came out in his Mercedes Benz platted RI 1 on it. The only way that the president’s entourage can go to wherever they were heading was through the place where Aksi Kamisan took place.
Upon realizing such inevitability, Sumarsih moved closer to the street where the president’s car eventually passed by and shouted, “Long live the victims!” In exchange, President Joko Widodo glanced at the crowd and smirked from the comfort of his Mercedes.
Such an encounter involves extremely mundane activities. On the one hand, Sumarsih’s action required years of bodily movements — such as crying over her son’s dead body killed by the armed forces on 13 November 1998, organizing Aksi Kamisan every Thursday since January 2007, or the endless discussion with activists — to be materialized. In that particular moment, the act of raising her fist while shouting is also a sight we have seen in many protests or other everyday routines.
Sumarsih’s action even required the realization that she was, in fact, standing on a turf that bestows upon her a sense of power. The area in which Aksi Kamisan took place every Thursday is actually deemed illegal by the police to be used for mass gatherings. However, Sumarsih was (after years of hard-fought, back and forth negotiations) eventually able to utilize it anyway, and the police gave her permission to do so. Such an “agreement” gives power to Sumarsih to capitalize on such a privilege and act upon it.
On the other hand, President Joko Widodo’s response (or lack thereof) also involved corporeal activities and spatial understanding. The glare and smirk he gave were bodily movements we see on a daily basis. However, the fact that he was inside a car surrounded by motorcade also gave the notion that either he was helpless to stop by and talk to Sumarsih or, on the contrary, that he was powerful beyond measure, constructing the idea that the convoy was indeed a show of force.
Nevertheless, the brief encounter between Sumarsih and Joko Widodo shows that the way people understand and express their idea of justice or injustice could be demonstrated through a display of ordinary motions from their respective geographical whereabouts.
Humanizing Resistance and Its Impact
One need not assume that fighting for justice involves a comprehensive understanding of the relationship between the state, the law, and the civil society at large. Nor does it has to use the sophisticated, often pretentious use of jargon and legal terms. Justice or injustice could happen, given meaning to, and revealed through our everyday activities, wherever we might be. As such, the act of sipping a cup of tea, smoking a cigarette, or raising fists during a riot is, in fact, an act of resistance.
This, nonetheless, does not mean that the impact of shouting one’s demand during Aksi Kamisan would be similar to, for instance, mobilizing thousands of people to occupy the parliament building. Indeed, there will be differences in the impact amongst each way of understanding and expressing resistance. Therefore, the hierarchy of effects needs to be explored in further research.
Amnesty International Indonesia. (2020). Humanity Playbook [PowerPoint slides].
Gready, P. (2008). Rights-based approaches to development: what is the value-added?. Development in Practice, 18(6), 735–747.
Jakartanicus. (2019, January 24). Jokowi Menonton AKSI KAMISAN dari Dalam Mobilnya [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mmbomo9ymv4&t
Soja, E. W. (2009). The city and spatial justice. Retrieved from https://www.jssj.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/JSSJ1-1en4.pdf
Väyrynen, T. (2019). Mundane peace and the politics of vulnerability: a nonsolid feminist research agenda. Peacebuilding, 7(2), 146–159. https://doi.org/10.1080/21647259.2019.1590081