This week, Georgia’s prisons were reformed.
This could never happen in America. There is no event that would cause every prison guard to be suspended, that would cause the police to be sent in to run America’s prisons, that would cause conditions to improve overnight.
In California – arguably America’s most liberal state – the state prisons were so bad that the US Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional last year because it was “incompatible with human dignity.” By all accounts, the city and county prisons could be even worse. And that’s just what we know about. The US has the world’s highest incarceration rate and in 2008 over 17,000 minors were sexually abused in America’s prisons.
Two weeks ago, all indications were that Georgia was aspiring to be just like America (in this as in so many other ways). Then a series of videos depicting prisoner abuse went viral, and suddenly Georgians were up in arms.
Well, not arms. The Georgian people protested, exercising their democratic right to peaceably assemble and petition their government for the redress of grievances.
In response, the Georgian government did not crack down on protesters (like the American government does) by putting up “free speech zones” and infiltrating dissident groups with undercover police officers and illegal warrantless wiretaps and email hacks. The Georgian government did not deploy the secret police (as in Syria, an actual dictatorship) to brutally murder random civilians in retribution for the demonstrations.
Instead, the Georgian government suspended the prison guards, ousted the people responsible from the government – right up to the Cabinet level with the resignations of Khatuna Kalmakhelidze and Bacho Akhalaia – and took immediate steps to prevent future abuses.
Again – this would never happen in the U.S. Could anyone imagine even one Cabinet-level resignation in the U.S. over a prisoner abuse scandal? President Bush didn’t accept Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation after Abu Ghraib, and no one’s even thinking of resigning over all of this.
The Georgian people are angry. Outraged. As well they should be. However, it must be noted that this information was in the public record, reported on to Georgian Parliament year after year, and no one cared to do anything about it until now.
This is what democracy is. The people demanded action, and the government took action. When the people were content to leave things be, the government let things be.
A lot of Georgians seem to think that democracy means having a virtuous government. It does not. Democracy means having a government that responds to the will of the people.
Some people have pointed out that the timing of this episode – two weeks before an election – is suspicious. Some say that President Saakashvili was content to allow abuses and has only now made changes because the election is coming. That may be so – but that’s the point of having elections. Elections are the incentive for politicians to do what the people demand. Politicians are supposed to govern in such a way as to convince the people to vote for them.
But of course it’s not just about elections. It’s about exercising those rights to assemble and to speak and to petition your representatives. It’s about what Georgians did this week just as much as what they’re going to do next week.
Democracy is a tough responsibility. For years, Georgians have benefited from incorruptible police officers and one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Georgians knew that meant locking up a huge number of people – about 1 person in 187; the fourth highest in the world per capita – and in a small country like Georgia with large extended family connections, almost everyone knows someone who knows someone in prison.
In other words, the Georgian people may not have directly seen video evidence of prison abuses, but they heard reports about them. For a time, they did nothing, and neither did their government Now, they’ve chosen to act – and I have to give them credit because in the US there are no mass protests over prisoner mistreatment – and their government acted as well. Hopefully, the Georgian people have learned that they cannot stand by and allow injustice to occur – that they all bear the burden and responsibility of making sure that their government governs with justice and respect for human dignity, and that if they abdicate this responsibility, they will end up like Americans: a nation in decline, whose leaders offer no real alternatives in terms of substantial policy, whose people sit by and allow the senseless torture and slaughter of millions of people throughout America and the world in their name (that is, when they’re not cheering it on).
It’s nice to live in a country that’s discovering the power of democracy, rather than spurning it.
And to the cynics who say that things will go back to normal right after the elections: don’t let them. Keep investigating. Keep listening to the NGO reports and the Ombudsman’s reports. Keep marching. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise. Democracy is a tough responsibility, and a constant one, but the payoff can be magnificent.