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Darfuris Get Their Moment in the Sun…Sort Of

June 3, 2009

I wasn’t going to cover the recent event Saving Lives: March for Darfur, which took place on May 22nd and was hosted by the Save Darfur Coalition, but then it ended up getting almost no coverage from both the media and the organization hosting it, so I figured someone should draw some attention to it, right?

You might remember, back in the day, when I wrote about the possibility that Darfuris working for and with the save Darfur movement may be marginalized by the Westerners who run the show. Well further evidence to support that hypothesis can be found when one compares the differing efforts put into an event on April19th and the event on May 22nd, both of which were hosted by the Save Darfur Coalition, took place in front of the White House and expressed the movement’s dissatisfaction with Obama’s response to the crisis. The April one was a funereal event that I covered before and the May one consisted of “Darfuris and Sudanese from all over the United States…calling for the Obama administration to take more rapid steps to avert the forthcoming crisis in Darfur, and lead an international effort to find peace once and for all.” Potential participants were told “Please join us in a call to save lives.” The idea seemed to be that, unlike at past events, SDC isn’t just having Westerners advocate on behalf of Darfuris this time, but empowering Darfuris to advocate for themselves.

Before we explore the differences between these two events, think about which one should have been more prominent and given more attention and resources by SDC: The funereal event, whose keynote speakers were mainly Darfur advocacy leaders (read: Westerners) or the Darfuri event, the message of which seemed to be controlled almost exclusively by Darfuris. If you want to help Darfuris, shouldn’t they be the stars of the show? Shouldn’t SDC urge save Darfur activists to be most concerned with what Darfuris are saying about the conflict? Shouldn’t they work hard to make sure that Darfuris have the most well-attended event, even if it takes the spotlight from themselves?

Apparently not, as illustrated in the effort put into the two aforementioned events.

The extent of Save Darfur’s advertising of the May protest was pretty much just a blog entry posted on the day of the event. It was also in the “events” section of the SDC webpage, so if you typed a DC address in there, you’d find it, but they seem to do that even for very small events. The April rally, however, got swept up in the momentum of SDC’s advertising campaign surrounding Genocide Prevention Month (more on that in the next paragraph). There was a blog post two days before the April event urging people to attend and two emails encouraging people to attend events during Genocide Prevention Month. No emails for the May protest were sent.

Additionally, the May event was held on the Friday afternoon (1:00pm, to be exact) before Memorial Day. That means before tourists have arrived in the city but after everyone who’s leaving for the holiday has already fled DC. When will the next Darfuri-controlled event be held? Super Bowl Sunday? Comparatively, April is Genocide Prevention Month, when activists presumably already have Darfur on their minds and are more likely to attend events. Also, the April event was held on a Sunday, so people with Monday through Friday jobs could attend without having to try to fit it in during their lunch breaks, which is what they’d have to do for events held on weekdays. Furthermore, April 19th doesn’t conflict with anyone’s holiday plans, unlike May 22nd. Finally, on a weekend, 2:00pm is the ideal time for such a rally: Activists don’t have to get up early, there are tons of passersby who may stop and join rally, thus adding to the crowd size, etc.

Also telling is the difference in resources dedicated to each event. At the April event, there was a big ol’ stage and a lovely, talented lady – albeit with an eccentric sense of fashion – playing the violin.

Janis Joplin went down to Georgia. (Flickr)

Janis Joplin went down to Georgia.

It had fancy, professional signs…

Actually, this isn’t a rally at all.  The city just hands out random signs to hobos to disguise the city’s homelessness problem. (Flickr)

Actually, this isn’t a rally at all. The city just hands out random protest signs to hobos to disguise the city’s homelessness problem.

…and slick banners.

Okay, you caught me.  This isn’t the April rally, this is really a photo from the Obamas’ yard sale.  The folding chairs and camera equipment went quickly, but people were really disturbed by the banners with the names of past genocides on them.  (Flickr)

Okay, you caught me. This isn’t the April rally, this is really a photo from the Obamas’ yard sale. The folding chairs and camera equipment went quickly, but people were really disturbed by the banners with the names of past genocides on them.

It also had big name “celebrities” of the Darfur movement as speakers and attendees.

 “…then I apply Coif Oceanique Tousled Wave Crème by Frederic Fekkai, which is a texturizing product that comes in a little tube…” (Flickr)

“…then I apply Coif Oceanique Tousled Wave Crème by Frederic Fekkai, which is a texturizing product that comes in a wee little tube…”

The May event had no grand stage with fancy, silken-haired attention seekers as speakers, but rather a guy with a bullhorn and protesters with mostly homemade signs.

“1!  2!  3!  4!  SDC would help us more!  5!  6!  7!  8!  If they cared about our fate!”  (Flickr)

“1! 2! 3! 4! SDC would help us more! 5! 6! 7! 8! If they cared about our fate!”

Additionally, while he could be found front and center at the April event and at the Sudanese embassy protest (You know, the ones that got all the press coverage?) Jerry Fowler isn’t pictured in a single photograph at the May event. Apparently, he couldn’t be bothered to attend the protest and show solidarity with Darfuris on the Friday before Memorial Day. Maybe next time Darfuris should pull a civil disobedience stunt.  Perhaps Fowler would show up if he could be gratuitously arrested.

“I wonder why those cameras over there aren’t pointed at me.  How I can get them to pay attention to me?  Someone bring my Stratocaster and cowboy hat!  Yes, the red one.  It’s an emergency!” (Flickr)

“I wonder why those cameras over there aren’t pointed at me. How can I get them to pay attention to me? Someone bring me my Stratocaster and cowboy hat right now! Yes, the one with pink faux fur trim. It’s an emergency!”

Attendance, as you might expect, also differed. Admittedly, the April event should have gotten a lot more attendees, but the crowd was still a lot bigger than that of the May event.

“Damn it!  I thought this was the line for Baggage Claim, not for Shoddily Made Memorial Structure!  This always happens to me!” (Flickr)

“Damn it! I thought this was the line for the Baggage Claim, not for the Shoddily Made Memorial Structure! This always happens to me!”

What’s more, photos of the May event may artificially inflate the number of people in attendance because the protest was held the same day as a Sri Lankan protest and “activists raising awareness about the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka joined the Darfur activists.” So some of the people you see milling around may not even be there for the Darfur event.

Come for the Sri Lankan event, join the Darfuri event because it’s there, stay for the pie!  (Flickr)

Come for the Sri Lankan event, join the Darfuri event because it’s there, stay for the pie!

After the April event, SDC covered it in four separate blog posts, while coverage of the May event included only one blog post. This is in stark contrast to greater coverage of the May event by the ENOUGH Project’s blog, where they posted an entry which was more descriptive and longer than SDC’s. That’s embarrassing: SDC hosted the event, and the freakin’ ENOUGH Project’s description of it was longer and more detailed!

Obviously, SDC considered one protest a major event and the other a more minor event. Don’t get me wrong: it’s fine, in theory, to have two events of differing prominence. After all, you only have so many resources, right? But notice that the one that gave Darfuris a chance to actually speak their own minds was the littler one and the one led by Westerners was the more prominent one. What’s more, this prominent event was followed up with a publicity stunt protest in front of the Sudanese embassy, again led by Westerners, which drew even more attention. This is just another indicator of a disturbing attitude I’ve seen throughout the whole save Darfur movement: Darfuris are great when they’re quietly suffering thousands of miles away, like they’re supposed to. But when they actually want to have a say in their own advocacy movement – to own the means of production, you might say – there’s suddenly no support to be found from the save Darfur advocacy community. Apparently, they’re just supposed to sit there, look pretty and – above all – never try to steal the limelight from Darfur advocacy leaders who like to ham it up for the cameras.

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