JusticeForZak: the role of social media, dispersed communities, civil society and traditional institutions in the quest for truth and justice
If it weren’t for a) the video documents as tools for negotiation b) this subtle pressure from a distance that is exerted by a dispersed audience -a quasi-community- we would now probably have a new December of 2008 -when thousands of young people took the streets of Athens and other big cities in wild manifestations to react on the assassination of a 15-year old boy by a policeman. For the time being, all the traditional roles attached to the status quo are being performed as expected: the microsystem around Omonoia square nesting stores of small scale entrepreneurs moving in grey zones, the police complex and its innate connections with this microsystem, the media complex, the medical/forensic complex, the judicial complex. They all reacted in line with serving the systemic homeostasis in the most atavistic manner: by adopting from the stock of versions of the story available that stand on the conservative side. As each day draws to an end the versions of the story are gradually reconstructed, just an inch or two closer to respond to the tolerance threshold of this dispersed progressive audience. This audience holds a power that probably is not aware of. Later, as the proof of the video documents helped in mending a concise story justifying the versions of the people vs the versions of the ideological state apparatuses -as defined by Louis Althusser- (namely the police, media etc.), the mechanisms employed by these apparatuses unraveled: procrastination, reluctance to investigate properly, cover up of evidence, unjustified clemency towards the obvious perpetrators of violence.
This dispersed audience has been exposed to and trained by previous political events, like the witch hunt against HIV+ female drug users doing occasional sex work around Omonoia square back in 2012. The scene is disturbingly similar: same place, similar actors, similar signifiers and constructed meanings. Since 2012, social media and the technologies of producing, disseminating and consuming social media content have become more abundant and increasingly more available among those specific dispersed audiences. The emerging civil society as a collective of this plethora of distant audiences came of age developing its political awareness and resources as a result of the aforementioned events and premises; At the same time, it became conscious of the instrumental power of new technologies as means of pushing their narratives against dominant narratives in the field of social meaning. A new sense of control and effectiveness for the civil society sprung out of this political/technological double. Thereby, this double is promoting a resolution in the symbolic level while it postpones the negotiation and actual resolution of anomy in the real-life social field. The resolution is transgressed, a revolution is postponed ad infinitum.
We should not overlook that this constantly pending and dynamic layout of a power map set in the backdrop of a wider political entropy can be fertile ground for sudden changes and overthrows of the current balances.
This is an extended version of a Facebook update I shared in my personal account just one day after the murder of Zak, a friend and colleague.
On Friday 21 September, Zak Kostopoulos, died as a consequence of brutal beatings in Athens Greece. Zak was an HIV+, sex positive, queer, human rights’ activist and defender, also raising awareness performing as drag queen Zackie Oh. From Friday night media reported that a thief died after trying to rob in a jewelry store. A video surfaced that shows the alleged thief to be beaten up by two unidentified persons while trying to escape the store. On Saturday, it was announced that this person was Zak.
Rumours started circulating in Greek media about the person being under the influence of substances, carrying a knife and entering the shop to rob. Mainstream media constructed the narrative of a junkie trying to break in and steal. Fringe media also referring to as faggot, AIDS-patient, ‘he was asking for it’, ‘it served him right’. Twenty days after we know that this was an orchestrated, business-as-usual, moral panic campaign that could only be dismantled mainly due to the persistence and the resilience of this dispersed community of activists and other citizens. It started the moment LGBTI activists and groups, drag queen groups, community lawyers and civil society actors openly questioned the version provided by media. On Sunday, it was claimed that Zak had entered the shop to escape a fight at a nearby café.
Given civil principles remained low in media discussions: the brutal beating up of a person which amounts to inhumane, degrading treatment and torture as well as self-justice is unacceptable. This discussion was mainly put forth by community and citizens in social media. There was an uproar for media -both mainstream and fringe- publishing polls moralizing self-justice and the right for property over the right for life. The fact that the store owner -later identified as one of the persons that assaulted- cleaned up the broken glass from the pavement, actually counterfeiting the crime scene under the docile if not protective gaze of police standing by, was also put forth by community in social media.
On Sunday, one of the two persons who beat up Zak, was put under investigation and has been released under restrictive measures since then. The second assaulter, a neighbouring store owner with links to extreme right groups, was identified three days later and was put under investigation. He was released under restrictive measures as well.
The following week, the coroners reported that the first autopsy was inconclusive regarding the cause of the death and that toxicological and histological examination results would be available later.
On Thursday, a video surfaced showing eight police men holding Zak down to handcuff him exerting excessive violence. The events in this video follow chronologically those from the first one. The Minister of Citizen Protection -in charge of the police- stated that they will investigate the case thoroughly.
On Friday, investigation concluded that there were no fingerprints in a knife that allegedly Zak was carrying. Media reported that a knife was found outside the store and it was thrown in the store after by an unknown person. A witness claimed that it was a food knife that Zak found from the café opposite and used to protect himself while he was held down.
On Wednesday 3 October a third video surfaced. This video comes from the CCTV of a store nearby. The events chronologically precede those of the previous videos. It depicts 3 persons bullying Zak in the pedestrian street before he seeks refuge to the jewelry store.
Today, twenty days after the event we can safely presume that day Zak was feeling insecure, was bullied, was chased, was assaulted, was brutally beaten in public, was lynched, was mistreated by the state officials that were supposed to take care of him at his most vulnerable, was actually murdered in bright daylight and post-mortem was defamed, stigmatized for what he were and what he were not and considered guilty. Zak had become what people from the communities he belonged to are considered: a naked life, a life like other lives that have been stripped of their value because they do not comply with a dominant system of values.
Zak seemed to stand in the crossroads of communities but always stray and queer to each and one of them: a gay man that celebrated recent LGBTI legislative initiatives in Greece like same-sex civil partnership and at the same time openly challenged the heteronormative aspects of it as a proud slut. A drag queen that did not fear to tread on white trash waters, unpolished with a nuance of rural goes urban poverty -quite a stretch for other queens. A gender bender in, out and in-between drag. A user of substances that felt alien both among the somehow glamourized use in MSM sexual contexts and even more among straight street users. An outspoken activist living with HIV among peers that seek to mainstream HIV by sanitization who in their way to big policy tables lose contact with their origins. A rootless migrant that created his refuge in Athens so as to escape the suffocating restrictions of the conservative greek relatives in the USA as well as the sensory deprivation of the greek village where his family buried him dressed like a groom.
Zak was a meltin’ pot, a manifestation of intersectionality, showcasing a challenge for us all: how do we go from talking about human rights to strategizing an implementation plan to defend them in practice?
Openness is the key here. That was Zak’s brave strategy, even though he was quite lonely in this everyday fight. The pledge from the side of the organized civil society should be to embrace this openly articulated diversity by employing sincere, unconditional and applied inclusion strategies.
The European AIDS Treatment Group launched a campaign comprising of photographs and a petition calling all relevant Greek authorities for a swift, thorough, independent and impartial investigation into the events so that the perpetrators of the violence are brought to justice.
This text was presented during the workshop ‘Breaking through Stigma, Discrimination and Intolerance’ in the frame of the International Health Conference Passion for Global Health. From Rights to Strategies (Berlin — 10.10.2018)