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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

No longer winter in America: Lessons for Kenya

First published Sunday Standard, April 2, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

Viewed from Nairobi, North America appears even more polarized, intolerant and a deeply conflicted society since the last year’s elections. Looking more closely, something is stirring again that may not have been seen since the 1960s and it may have some lessons for us also.

Since the elections, over 1,000 attacks have happened against individuals and institutions associated with people of color, Muslims and Jews among others. Churches, mosques and synagogues have been vandalized and torched. Citizens of all racial, gender and sexual identities have been intimidated and attacked in public or in their own homes.

Provoked by new travel bans, hundreds of muslims found their visas denied or revoked on arrival by several airport authorities. Last month, the 2017 African Global Economic and Development Summit took place without any Africans when all 100 African delegates were denied travel visas to attend the annual conference. One wonders what the impact of this policy will be later this year when thousands of African, Arab and Asian students willing to pay exorbitant foreign fees seek student visas.

Even the internet has failed to escape. The rise of new psychographic technology, big data analytics, twitter bots, Facebook algorithms and fake news websites seem set to manufacture public consent on a scale never been imagined. The era of the alternative fact is upon us indeed.

This week also, the US foreign policy stool seemed set to lose its third leg. Proposals are being considered to cut funding assistance to the United Nations by 50% and USAID by 30%. America’s global influence will now have to rely on trade and defense in a world increasingly being dominated by China and India.

Polarization politics inevitably isolates those that practice it. The travel bans has already received a sharp rebuke from the African Union. Removing constitutional protections, increased policing powers and looking away when human rights are violated is high risk behavior for politicians not just in America but everywhere in the world.

The social cost is already being seen in America. Ironically under these circumstances, America’s once lazy democracy could be on the verge of being great again. Live streaming court cases and congressional hearings now rival the Kardashians and even Oprah Winfrey on most of America’s television and radio stations in popularity.

Current opinion polls suggest that 87% of Americans still believe in open and fair national elections, 79% uphold the right of citizens to politically protest and 64% advocate for news organisations to be able to report news freely.

For the first time since the sixties and seventies, active citizenship and acting in the public interest is cool again. Millions of citizens now know their state and federal officials and thousands, many of them women, are considering running for state positions themselves. Attendance at town-hall meetings have swelled ten-fold resourced by civic organisations.

Within the first 48 hours of the travel ban, citizens and companies contributed $42 million into the legal defense fund of the American Civil Liberties Union. Thousands swarmed America’s airports supported by pro-bono lawyers filing habeas corpus and gathering affidavits from arriving immigrants. A campaign is now underway to turn cities into sanctuaries of safety for undocumented workers. Austin, Seattle, San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland have already evoked state laws to prohibit racial profiling, detention and deportation.

Constitutional values of non-discrimination and justice are on people’s lips and the placards on marches. Remarkably, most mobilization has been peaceful and free of arrests. Even the numbers of the highly successful multi-city women’s march may be eclipsed by the Climate march planned this month.

The power of Americans organizing today is simple. Vividly connect all the issues, organize in the spaces where injustice takes place and keep it peaceful and inclusive. Occupy the narrative. Undocumented workers are not just immigrants but DREAMers paying taxes and contributing to American economy while building a future for  themselves and their families.

Some of my readers may miss America’s message to us. One or two current and aspiring leaders may even fear the prospect of activist Kenyan citizens. They may prefer to entertain them in rallies, bribe them with bank notes and comfort them with false promises. They can learn something about popular leadership from Alexandre Ledru-Rollin who once said, “There go the people. I must follow them for I am their leader.” Leaders who listen and follow their people don’t need to buy their support.

Responsible and empowered citizenship cannot exist in the same mind space as hopelessness, uncertainty and fear. If Kenyans are to serve higher than self, then we need leaders to believe in us. Not the some of us who share their gender, class, ethnicity or sexual orientation but in all 44 million of us. Until we get these leaders, we can borrow a leaf from America today. Our choices and collective actions have far more power to affect our lives than any context. Nothing is pre-destined, everything in our future depends on what we do today.


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