Opinionista Marianne Thamm 31 July 2018

Elin Ersson and the lesson of human solidarity and not taking illegal orders in monstrous times

It was the earth’s shadow we saw cast during the once-in-a-100-year “blood moon” eclipse at the weekend. Our shadow side, our dark side as humanity in the 21st Century, is our increasing alienation, atomisation and intolerance. Which is why young Swedish student activist, Elin Ersson, who refused to sit down on a plane when Afghan passenger seeking asylum in Sweden was threatened with deportation, represents a small flame of hope for ordinary people across the globe resisting an increasingly authoritarian world in a time of big man politics, rising populism, nationalism, hatred and warmongering.

Most of the damage was collateral
But still inspired some debate
All the principles of why all the people we love
Are the same as we also can hate

You just roll with the punches
Until you can’t feel a thing
You just roll with the punches

– American folk rock band Dawes –

lyrics by Taylor Zachary Goldsmith, Blake Matthew
and Simon Mills

Elin Ersson did not roll with the punches. She still felt something.

Which is why her extraordinary protest on board a Turkish Airlines flight from Sweden to Turkey on 27 July has struck a chord. Ersson refused to sit down until a 52-year-old Afghan asylum seeker on board the plane and who was being deported, was escorted to safety.

Ersson live streamed the protest on her Facebook page. The 14-minute clip shows the student and migrant-rights activist standing her ground in the face of increasing threats from fellow passengers who howled for her to sit down. She reiterates constantly that she is not breaking the law in any way.

As long as more people are standing up then the pilot can’t take off,” she says.

Ersson agreed to “comply with the rules” and reminded all of those who tried to take her camera and force her to sit down that “this is all perfectly legal and I have not committed a crime”.

The New York Times reported that Ersson had not intended to fly to Turkey when she boarded the flight and that her protest was to highlight the ongoing ill treatment and deportation of refugees from Europe.

Journalists Christina Anderson and Megan Specia wrote that Ersson’s video struck a nerve with millions as it reverberated across social media and cast a harsh light on the policy practised by Sweden and other European countries of forcibly returning rejected Afghan asylum seekers to their homeland, one of the world’s most dangerous places,” adding that while her protest “at least temporarily halted that particular deportation, there is no indication that the policy will end. Thousands of Afghans who unsuccessfully seek sanctuary in Europe are routinely returned against their will”.

In her clip Ersson can be heard telling airline staff to “Don’t touch my phone” between audible shouts, in English, by a fellow male passenger for her to “sit down”.

I am not going to sit down unless this person is off the plane,” she responds, her cheeks reddening as the situation appears to escalate.

A crew member comes along and tells the student “Take your seat and turn it off.. or leave the aircraft… the pilot said we are going to Istanbul,” he informs her.

I don’t want a man’s life to be taken away… I am doing what I can to save a person’s life.”

She then urged more people to stand up in solidarity with her and the man which they did, eventually.

A young woman’s protest inspired in others, who knew what they were witnessing was wrong, to do what was right. And they did. And that is the lesson.

Politicians, those who currently view themselves as “world leaders”, you might have noticed, are not our friends. It is in their interests that ordinary people become “followers”, not citizens with agency, and that we turn on and police each other and do the “job” of the state.

Divided we fall, globally.

It is in the interests of elites that we turn on each other instead of them.

All across the world, and many are concentrated in South Africa, are humans like Ersson who will not be cowed into submission by an increasingly lawless ruling class.

And when law enforcement authorities dress like characters in a video game and protect the state against citizens rather than the other way around, only a collective legal rejection will stop it.

These gestures of resistance and protest must be made public. That they occur within the bounds of the laws and freedoms citizens of so-called democracies still enjoy serves to highlight that freedom requires eternal vigilance.

Salute young Elin Ersson and many many others across the globe who are prepared to claim and speak out for the freedom of all fellow human beings.

These are times that call out for collective small acts of human solidarity that hopefully will, in their numbers, repel the atavism of authoritarianism, hatred and greed.

You cannot lynch me
and keep me in ghettos
without becoming something monstrous yourselves
And furthermore; you give me a terrifying advantage.
You never had to look at me.
I had to look at you.
I know more about you than you know about me.
Not everything that is faced can be changed;
but nothing can be changed until it is faced

– James Baldwin. DM


In other news...

July 18 marks Nelson Mandela day. All over the country, South African citizens devote 67 minutes to charitable causes in memory of Madiba. It's a great initiative and one of those few occasions in South Africa where we come together as a nation in pursuit of a common cause. An annual 67 minutes isn't going to cut it though.

In the words of Madiba: "A critical, independent and investigative free press is the lifeblood of any democracy."

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