A Deeper Look At the Libyan Slave Trade As A Black American
I remember the hours that I spent learning more about the Libyan Slave Trade a few days ago clearly. I had agreed to write an article for Teen Vogue about it and did what I usually do upon knowing that I’d be writing something important — I tirelessly researched.
As I read article after article, the stories of these migrant’s experiences came into focus: people being forced have sex with their siblings in connection homes, being whipped with electrical wire while forced to beg their family for money on the phone, women sold into prostitution, thousands of migrants drowning annually in sunken boats, detention center officers subjecting migrants to abuse, lack of food and water, or being abandoned in the desert by smugglers.
One video of a man speaking about his experiences struck me the most. In a chilling portion of the video, he described what happens to so many migrants after they die,
That’s when the organ trafficking starts. That’s what it’s all about. Organ trafficking. They remove the essential organs before finishing the whole. I know what I’m talking about. I’m not just talking to talk. I’m talking about what I experienced. What I saw with my own eyes. They decapitate the African bodies. They take the organs they need to sell to the westerners. There are American and French boats on the sea under the pretext of extracting oil. It’s all business. It’s not oil.
There is the initial shock of what we know of atrocities in our backyard and abroad. Then there is the truth that we know next to nothing of the truth at all. The man spoke candidly to this point in the video when he said, “Where are the videos from 2013?”
As a black American, so much of the lens of my politics is naturally focused on the implications of Trump’s era of politics and the degradation of the lives of people of color in the United States of America. This is not to say that my focus is never on the conflicts, crises, and events of other countries, but it is to partially acknowledge the massive privilege that I have being born into the Empire, the base of so-called “democracy” (The United States of America). But this is not an essay to simply admit my privilege as a black American reading about these events from a laptop screen. It is to doggedly explore the efficacy of our responses.
Going Beyond Social Media and Clicktivism
We all know the repetitive mill of social media hashtags and clicktivism. As an organizer and activist since high school and the arising of the Black Lives Matter Movement, I have detested this form of apathy for a long time. Even during the presidential campaigns before the inauguration of current United States President Donald Trump, I lived in Seattle and would often question friends that savagely supported candidate Bernie Sanders.
“Do you care about his stances on Israel?”
“What about his stances on drone strikes?”
“How can a presidential candidate claim socialist politics? Are most of his followers socialist as well? What is socialist about encouraging people to vote for an oligarchy, to participate in allowing the electoral college?”
My final point would usually be another vital question, “What are voters going to do to hold Bernie accountable if he does go into office? Is there a framework for this mass change or revolution that he totes? Can meaningful and long-lived change truly occur through faith and support of a presidential candidate?”
This was usually when people’s faces would turn sour. My questions were a direct confrontation with the apathy that I felt many people around me had beyond the act of voting in national/local elections or attending a sparse rally. For a long time, my notion of “the political” has been my struggle to live outside of the white power structure, to untangle all of the colonized notions that a black person is taught to have while growing up in the United States. Our history books are made by corporations, easing through revisionary explanations of Trail of Tears, indigenous children forced into boarding school, the implications and realities of plantation slavery and the list goes on. I remember a black teacher very candidly during Black History Month telling my class, “This month is about what African Americans were able to do first.”
Any black person today who has lived through a Black History Month can sometimes feel the twinge of betrayal as they sat in school and was taught the same narrative of The American Dream, only it was rephrased to include the notion that we (blacks)have come a long way. To expand this sense of distrust in the narratives about history that we are told, we only need to look at the world around us today and look at the reasons why the slave auctions and trades are currently occurring in Libya.
We know that this slave trade in Libya has been happening at least since 2013/2014 when the world became aware of the “migrant crisis”, largely in relation to Syrian refugees’ drowned bodies washing ashore. But this situation has occurred in Libya for a long time as well. Since the demise of Gaddafi (with the help of western powers, like the UN, the United States, and France), Tripoli has become the only government in Libya backed by The West, much of the rest of it controlled by these rebels and militias, who are able to use the slave auctions to fund their needs.
Furthermore, Europe appears to have a stake in the continuation of the slave trade. To say the least, a look at their silence and relative inaction in relation to the brutalization of African migrants in the past has been appalling. Many attribute this to the discrimination against many Sub-Saharan or darker skinned Africans due to a racial hierarchy in the Africa, the effective erasure of bodies that are not deemed valuable, except for the organs that can be harvested from their body and taken ships from European companies for sale to Westerners. It follows that, as the man in the above video claims, many European countries even fund private prisons or funnel money into the Libyan navy to “fight against illegal immigration and human smuggling”.
The Shadiness of Diplomatic Responses and Solutions of the Western Powers
When considering the answer to the question (What can I possibly do to help? Do we start petitions or call the UN? What do we do?) that many people are wondering, we must consider the words of one of my favorite rappers, Cardi B during a fiery condemnation of the United Nations in a video,
“I don’t understand why [the United Nations] not making it they [priority] to help what’s going on in Libya… You wanna know why they not making it their priority…or why they haven’t tried to help Libya…You know wanna why they don’t…because it’s convenient for them. They want free resources...they want they free goods and that’s why they don’t give a fuck.”
Cardi B speaks to the truth of what many marginalized bodies throughout the United States and other countries feel — a lack of faith in the mainstream solutions to problems created by the very same institutions.
The fall of Gaddafi had very much to do with the United Nations and Western powers, which included the UN instituting a no fly zone, Paris becoming involved after discussions about military action to be done, and the involvement of the United States, among other countries. President Obama would later say that the lack of care given to Libya after the fall of Gaddafi was his “worst mistake as president”.
Imperialism is defined as “the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation especially by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas; broadly.” By this definition, the United States operated internationally as an imperialist force, dipping its’ hands into the political situations of other nations in a cycle that only continues. Look at the United States and CIA’s role in giving Syrian rebels weapons in 2013. Recent CIA documents reveal previous plans to frame Cuba/Castro for the bombing various United States cities or “the use of biological weapons aimed at starving Cubans into an uprising”. Even on an internal level, there are events that many understand were the result of COINTELPRO and the U.S’ need to squish revolutionary movements within its’ own borders.
After years of being surveyed by the United States government via COINTELPRO, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Many believe this happened because of his notable condemnation of the Vietnam War with statements like,
If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.
Or the death of prominent Black Panther Party member, Fred Hampton, under a wave of suspicion from the local community against the Chicago Police Department, which led to the recent publication of the book “The Assassination of Fred Hampton”.
When we consider the role of corporations, power dynamics, and the imperialism of first world nations, the question of how to effectively change the lives of exploited migrants and all people changes from the traditional idea of how to act politically. When regular people (and not politicians or the elite) can no longer depend on their institutions to protect them (#TaxScamBill , travel ban, Hurricane Maria, Trump’s attempt to build a wall between the U.S.A .and Mexico, sexual misconduct accusations against Trump, the War on Drugs under Duterte’s rule in the Philippines, etc), the question then becomes one of revolutionary potential, “How do we take care of each other when our own governments aim to allow the degradation/exploitation of ourselves and others?”
Although diplomatic solutions may give some hope and some more unease, like the responses to the slave trade by President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria who said, “But for anyone who dared the desert and the Mediterranean without document to prove that he/she is a Nigerian, there is nothing we can do, absolutely nothing,” we must stretch our minds further to think of ways to show solidarity or to materially affect the situation of migrants in Libya.
What could we possibly do?
1. Speak candidly about what is happening.
A few days ago, I was struggling to understand the situation in Libya after having just browsed the headlines. My best friend and I fumbled through a conversation where we tried to make sense of what was happening. After a few hours of research, although I am no expert, I felt that I had a more firm grip on what was happening, therefore enabling me to have conversations with other people.
When making ill-informed judgments on what is happening abroad, especially as people of privilege in the United States, we make the error of what many politicians do in their diplomatic action steeped in imperialism. We spread misinformation and do more harm than good.
By talking candidly with others, you begin to insert a narrative that many people choose to ignore. The beginning of any social movement or significant social change is the understanding that we refuse to go back to ignorance, apathy, and inaction. As Philip B. Agnew from the Ferguson Dream Defenders once said,
Our unwavering belief in this movement is based on a simple premise: we cannot unsee what we have seen… and there is a better way.
2. Understand what local institutions, public figures, or officials are implicated in the Libyan slave trade. Then pressure them.
A classic strategy of many organizing circles is to identify the power structures and institutions that allow these atrocities to happen. Whether it be gathering a group of friends to find out what officials in the United Nations or their local governments aided in political decisions that helped make the Libyan slave auctions possible or organizing a demonstration outside of Libyan embassies, like those that did so in Paris and Abuja.
When we map out the many ways that our institutions and figures are connected to events that degrade and destroy the lives of marginalized bodies, we begin to see the interconnectedness of our struggles with the struggles of others as well. This is a core element of effective, meaningful solidarity.
3. Raise funds and donate them to causes or institutions that provide material needs to migrants.
Although to many, greed and imperialism is the root cause of why many migrants are facing such atrocities, it is undeniable that raising money and putting it in the right place can help to some degree. A few months ago, I was shaken like so many others by the news of what happened in Charlottesville.
The shock of such events often paralyze us, force us into a corner and we only end up reading, watching. My friends and I quickly came up with the idea to host a fundraiser. We received donations from community members and hosted a dance. We raised over $700 and donated most of it to a man from Ohio that was struck by the car in Charlottesville.
This didn’t fix the overall root problem of systemic racism and the political divide eating away at so many people in the United States, but it was a material way to use communal emotion to work towards something better. When we take the opportunity to build and act with the people around us, we see who our friends are in the struggle towards a better world. We start to carve out a reality where a tragedy abroad means a tragedy at home as well, so we have no choice, but to act.
Though these three ways of enacting change to do not eradicate the slave auction, they are stepping stones to starting discourses in your community about the Libyan slave trade, extending the issue beyond your immediate circle and ideally, encouraging others to act as well. In the words of James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
It is time to face the issues around us and abroad together.