Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Date with Impunity

For some time, I had been wanting to write a post about impunity and 'insecurity' in Argentina, and the ways in which these discourses co-construct one another and materialize in everyday life. After a friend of mine was robbed by two different taxi drivers, we had discussed the reactions of her Argentinean colleagues which seemed to downplay the incidents. Indeed, my friend had the sense that her robberies were inquired about less seriously than how another colleague was recovering from a common cold. While street crime may be viewed simply as a fact of life for many urban dwellers which explains the nonchalance, I still wondered about the particularities of these silences and dismissals, and how narratives of crime and victimhood are gendered, racialized, marked by other social differences. And also, what is violence anyways, when and for whom?

Though I'm still ruminating on these questions, I did have the opportunity to engage with the material side of my inquiry at 10am last Wednesday. Returning from the park with my bicycle, I noted a young man crouching near the side of a battered blue car, two houses down from my own abode. As I neared my door, his crouching became the entry of a good portion of his torso into the passenger's side window, wherein his upper half was hidden by a windshield sunshade. I hesitated long enough to ask myself is this a bad idea? before taking my phone out and walking closer.

I stood several feet away from the torso and took a photo. I waited. The boy torso remained bisected by the window and continued about its business presumably trying to remove a stereo. As my silent photo-taking had shockingly little effect on either the torso or my ability to identify the thief, I ramped it up a notch with this no-nonsense reprimand:

"Que estas haciendo?" What are you doing? "Deja de robar este auto." Stop stealing that car.

No response. Boy torso continues its wriggling work inside the battered blue car.

"¡Hay policias a mitad de cuadro!" There are police half a block away! I said indignantly. It happened that at just that hour, less than a block away were two of Capital's finest metropolitanos helfpully directing traffic where stoplights had failed.

Still no response. But wait, a passerby!

"Che, señor, señor, este chico esta robandao de este auto. ¡Ayudame a avisar a los policias que estan alla!"
Hey dude, Mr., this kid is stealing from this car. Help me tell the police over there!

Passerby continues passing by.

"Hola. HOLA. Dije, SI ME PODES AYUDAR, este chico esta robando de este auto." Hello. HELLO. I said CAN YOU HELP ME, this kid is stealing from this car.

Passing by continues, with some mumbles.

I return to the torso and my ineffectual wining. I'm taking pictures of you, I tell him. Torso continues struggling to untether something inside the battered blue car. I continue my wining. After a few seconds, the kid withdraws from the car with a look of mild "no me rompes" annoyance and walks unhurriedly away.

With phone in hand, I cycle down the block to where the police are directing traffic, only to catch up with Mr. Fuckface Passerby on the way.

I can't resist, it just comes out: "Asi pasó la dictadura, gente como vos." I tell him. This is how the dictatorship happened, people like you. Strong words, no less complexified by the fact that I could make more or less the same argument about the U.S. to some U.S. citizens who have behaved in similar ways or worse.

Calling the police officer over, I explained what I had seen, showed him photos and impatiently answered his questions that, yes, this had occurred less than a block away. Yes, on this street. Yes, while you were here directing traffic. "And how was the boy dressed? In stripes? Oh, it's too bad that ...." He didn't finish his sentence/fashion judgement? just repeated "it's too bad" as he scribbled my details on the back of his traffic log, reassuring me that someone would get in touch. Right. Inútil.

Heading back down the block, I left a note in the car for the owner, telling him about the photos. When Pedro called, which I learned is the name of the owner of the battered blue car, I discovered that he works in the factory across the street, has an accent like he's travelled to work here and doesn't have access to a computer to view the photos. That is when it hit me, the tragicomical perversity of this mid-morning, midweek burglary: one poor kid steals from another while a rich girl takes photos it's possible no one but she will ever see.

At some point in living in Argentina, the question arises of who you think you would have been if you had lived during the dictatorhip, how you would have acted, would you have been politically active or just focused on surviving, staying safe? For a moment after the incident, I felt like I knew the answer, that I would be someone who gets involved. But my smugness was shortlived as I recalled my hesitation outside my door (¿me meto o no me meto?) and I felt that the impossibility of knowing who we might be in other times, as other selves, when there is much more at stake. It's relatively easy to intervene when a teenager breaks into a factory worker's battered blue car, at 10am on a Wednesday, in front of your house on an ugly block in Villa Crespo. It's easier still to approach the police if you're white, female and foreign, and show him photos on your iphone. It's easy to yell at the jaded, sleep-deprived gnocchi late on his way to work who treated you just like any other young person on this block in the V Crep -- with fear and withdrawal. It's intervening in violence that is less easy to see, that takes place in other kinds of cars, over days, in meetings and boardrooms, within families. Those forms of violence are the hard ones to denounce. You can't photograph them on your iphone.

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