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Despair and Disparity: The Uneven Burdens of COVID-19
In solidarity with the people residing in North and East Syria, groups across the U.S. are asking the multibillion-dollar grocery chain Trader Joe’s to de-shelve products from its Turkish suppliers. Rojava solidarity groups, organizing under a coalition hashtag of #TJsBoycottTurkey, launched a “Trader Joe’s Boycott Turkey” petition. The coalition also scheduled a communications zap that encourages a coordinated flurry of emails and phone calls to corporate headquarters for Wednesday, April 15 and Thursday April 16, and sent a demand letter. This campaign comes approximately six months after Turkey’s military invaded northeastern Syria, bombing and killing at least 450 people and displacing at least 200,000 Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians and others as part of a mass ethnic cleansing crusade.
Prior to the pandemic, Turkish air strikes incinerated 9 of 11 public hospitals in the region, leaving people extremely vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. Now, there are just 40 ventilators, 35 ICU beds and not a single testing kit for a population of approximately 4 million.
And, to make matters worse, people cannot enact basic hygiene standards because Turkey has been severing the water supply to the region.
Throughout April, Turkey and its mercenaries are reportedly still bombing villages in North and East Syria. Thomas McClure, a researcher with Rojava Information Collective (RIC) — an independent, volunteer-staffed organization based in Rojava that aims to provide journalists and researchers with well-sourced, accurate information — told Truthout that another large-scale invasion may be imminent. “It’s a constant threat…. It’s something that comes up a lot.” There has been “a lot of Turkish drone activity over the Shebha region, also a certain gathering of Turkish forces in Azaz which is the nearest city under their control … our sources there say it [an invasion of additional regions] seems possible.”
The invasion of North and East Syria — a region that is also known as Rojava or the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria — has been widely condemned in the U.S. by the Kurdish diaspora, the anti-authoritarian left and politicians on both sides of the aisle. Despite widespread condemnation of Turkish imperialism, the World Health Organization is refusing to directly help people residing in Rojava during the COVID-19 crisis and very little UN aid has reached the region.
Trader Joe’s — which seeks to brand itself as off-beat, friendly, affordable and conscientious — sells at least five products from Turkish suppliers, including Fig Bites Made with Turkish Figs, Organic Turkish Dried Figs, Honey with Honeycomb, Sun Dried Apricots and Organic Turkish Apricots. The coalition’s demand letter states that by stocking these products, “Trader Joe’s is unintentionally complicit with Turkish war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Rojava activists aren’t the only group demanding action from Trader Joe’s. In March, Trader Joe’s workers organized a union calling for adequate protections and compensation during the pandemic. The workers called for a boycott of the chain and launched a petition demanding hazard pay at a rate of time-and-a-half plus guaranteed wages in the event of a forced store closure.
The collective behind the Boycott Turkey campaign, however had been organizing prior to the pandemic. Rojava and Kurdish Solidarity Seattle came up with the idea behind following a rally in October against Turkey’s invasion. Jay, a spokesperson from the collective who preferred not to disclose his full name, told Truthout, “A lot of us felt very outraged by [the invasion] and passionate about wanting to do something about it … there was a lot of energy [at the rally], and that’s where we met a lot of people who are organizing with us currently.”
Kurdish women’s perspectives influenced the collective’s organizing strategy. “One of our Hevals [Kurdish for “friend” or “comrade”] went to a Kurdish women’s conference in Europe,” Jay said. “Boycotting Turkish goods was a big focus for a lot of the Kurdish women, especially in grocery stores. We chose Trader Joe’s because, from our knowledge and experience, Trader Joe’s does care about its image and tries to be conscientious about the products on its shelves.”
The RIC said people in Rojava are boycotting Turkish goods to the extent possible.
“If you walk around the city of Qamishli, the de facto capital, you will see, for example, big posters showing a bomb in the place of a tin of Turkish tomato paste; bullets in the place of a string of Turkish sausages; white phosphorous in the place of a Turkish cleaning product,” RIC researcher Thomas McClure told Truthout. “They [Rojavans] feel like buying Turkish products is like buying bullets for the Turkish army to kill their children, so of course they are against it.”
But the U.S and the European Union have sanctioned Syria, resulting in an economic and humanitarian crisis. “There is very little manufacturing here in northeastern Syria, and so because of the [U.S.] economic embargo — which in some cases has been lifted … still makes it difficult to import machinery you might use in the manufacturing sector here,” McClure said.
These sanctions still affect Rojava, even though the people have declared autonomy from the Syrian regime. The revolution that inspires Jay, and people around the globe, began in 2013, after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was forced to relocate his troops to quash widespread dissent against his regime in the south. A power vacuum formed in the northeast that allowed for a large population of Kurdish people to declare autonomy from Assad’s rule. Inspired by the teachings of the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, they began to organize a stateless society based on the principles of democratic confederalism, a structure that rejects centralized bureaucracy and emphasizes bottom-up decision-making, women’s liberation and ecological sustainability.
Many U.S.-based supporters of the Kurdish struggle are attracted to democratic confederalism. Jay was exposed to the struggle as a former medic in the U.S. Army. He was stationed near Kurds in Iraq for a year. “I really came to love Kurdish culture and the warrior spirit, especially without a state and with so much persecution,” he said. “When I became an anarchist, I learned about Rojava and the Kurdish question and about democratic confederalism. It was something that was a natural combination of previous experience with Kurds and my political views.”
But this revolutionary project, adjacent to Turkey’s hostile border, has always been precarious. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has openly cited Hitler’s Germany as an example of effective governance, has long expressed a desire to exterminate Kurdishness.
However, Erdoğan isn’t Turkey’s first leader to persecute the Kurds. Since Turkey’s founding in 1923, Kurdish people have experienced racism and economic marginalization. The Kurdish language was criminalized, and after a brief respite, is criminalized again today. In response to such oppression and the state massacre of over 13,000 Kurds in Dersim between 1936 and 1939, a group of Kurds founded the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the early 1970s. The PKK mounted a fierce armed insurgency to defend themselves against the Turkish government throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, and is considered a terrorist organization by many states throughout the world today.
Despite decades of lethal oppression, the movement hasn’t died. According to McClure, prior to the pandemic, the Rojava revolution remained strong in regions that haven’t been evacuated.
In solidarity with the revolution, following Turkey’s October invasion, New York City-based groups held rallies against the Empire State Realty Trust, a company that leases an office to Turkish Airlines in the Empire State Building. The airline, which is half-owned by the Turkish state, flies to more countries than any other airline in the world.
“It is shameful that one of the country’s most iconic buildings is being used to burnish the reputation of an authoritarian state with ties to ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated militias,” Matthew Whitley, an organizer with the New York City-based Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council, told Truthout.
Whether the Empire State Realty Trust or Trader Joe’s will fold with pressure remains to be seen. Historically, Trader Joe’s has a mixed record: The company has been more receptive toward demands surrounding environmentalism than human life abroad and its workers at home. Following pressure from Greenpeace in 2010, the company agreed to drop seafood yielded from unsustainable practices by December 2012. More recently, a Greenpeace campaign against plastic use that included a far-reaching petition and several rallies, led to a company announcement that it would cut 1 million pounds of single-use plastic from stores by the end of 2019. (Trader Joe’s announced it exceeded its original goal, but Greenpeace told Truthout they have been unable to independently confirm this information because it is not publicly available.) However, following a 2009 campaign to de-shelve Trader Joe’s Israeli products in solidarity with Palestinians against the Israeli apartheid, the company never announced the discontinuation of any products.
In response to worker organizing around COVID-19 protections and hazard pay, the chain announced it would provide meager bonuses, which one worker described as “a slap in the face.” Another worker told The Daily Beast, “What’s it going to take before the company realizes they can’t rely on empty platitudes? Someone fucking died because Trader Joe’s won’t pay high-risk workers to stay home.”
In late March, Trader Joe’s managers held union-busting talks with the staff, and its spokespeople are framing union activity as opportunistic and full of mistruths in the media.
Jay said the Rojava solidarity coalition will show solidarity with Trader Joe’s workers throughout their campaign. “We encourage people to take an active role in a decentralized way and do what we feel is necessary to bring attention to this,” he said. “However, we don’t want to see any front-line workers targeted or harassed, as they are just working-class people trying to get by … we have reached out to the Trader Joe’s union and would love to participate in mutual aid with them around a common target.”
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