On 25 January many Georgians are expected to hit the streets in protest for 8 years prison sentence handed down by the Georgian court to Giorgi Giorganashvili for the possession 0.375 grams of Burprenorphene (Subutex), an opiate. Giorganashvili claims the drugs were planted to exert pressure. The protest will be coordinated by the White Noise movement – an increasingly influential movement claiming Georgia’s drug policy is inhuman.
On 6 January the venerated Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church has included the call for humanizing the repressive drug policies in his Christmas Epistle. The top level politicians from President to the Justice Ministry officials responded with a choir of approval. Something important is afoot: a marginal issue only five years ago, reversal of repressive drug policy has become the mainstream policy premise, but as the latest outcry shows, much remains to be done.
As in many areas or reform, Georgia’s civil society can claim the credit for a successful advocacy campaign. It has been massive, dedicated and social media savvy. It has been known as the White Noise Movement, and perhaps it is a precursor of the new type of policy campaign.
A string of court victories
In May 2013 Beka Tsikarishvili musician, filmmaker and photographer was arrested for possession of 70 grams of cannabis. As Georgia’s criminal code draws no distinction between “soft” and “hard” drugs, at the time he was potentially facing a jail term of 7 to 14 years. A campaign “Beka is Not a Criminal” was launched by his friends, which took the social media by storm and spilled over into national headlines as a demand to decriminalization of soft drug possession for personal use.
In 2014 with the help of EMC, a human rights NGO, Tsikarishvili has successfully challenged the constitutionality of the criminal code’s article under which he was charged. In 2015, the Constitutional Court of Georgia has ruled that possession of less than 70 grams of cannabis should not be punishable by imprisonment.
In 2016 the further Constitutional Court ruling in a separate case stated that the private use of cannabis is not criminally punishable by prison term.
On 30 November 2017, in a landmark ruling with reference to Article 16 of the Constitution which provides for “the freedom to develop own personality”, the Court also ruled that everyone is free to choose one’s means of relaxation, and private consumption of marijuana should be decriminalized.
From “Beka is not a Criminal” to White Noise
These legal battles were won as a result of gradual awareness building and advocacy efforts that have engaged wider and wider circles of civil society, found allies in the media and politics. Casting the light on the absurdity of repressive drug policy was one of the key successes of “Beka is not a criminal” campaign. The monthly court statistics showed that approximately one third of convictions were for drug-related offenses, usually involving youth and implying prison terms.
The first positive ruling by the Constitutional Court helped lift the spirits of the campaigners and encouraged them to step up the efforts. In November 2015, the activists behind the initial campaign launched the White Noise Movement, a platform that aimed at shifting focus from a rather a personal story of Beka towards the issue of reversing repressive drug policy. Video manifesto issued by the White Noise Movement in November 2015 framed their agenda in civil rights terms. “They do not fight against drugs, they fight against us, the citizens and they want us to fade away from political life,” the video claimed.
By using charged messages, holding press conferences and discussions, and capitalizing on success of the previous campaign in the social media, the movement quickly gained visibility. Starting 2016, it has also proven that no longer confined to social media, it could mobilize crowds in the streets for the cause. Referring to widespread accusations that the police would plant drugs on suspects as a pretext of arrest, the White Noise activists said the drug repression policies were a tool for repressing underprivileged Georgians.
Naja Orashvili, notable member of the movement who also is one of the founders of the trendy electronic music club Bassiani, said in one of her videos: “White Noise means the voice of invisible people. Those people whose voices we don’t hear in society. People addicted to drugs and drug consumers are demonized, they live under stigma and stereotypes... White Noise Movement is their voice.” The activists say “Narcopolitics that represents a mechanism for excluding citizens from economic, political and social life, it is an easy source of income for the state budget and for those claim their narrow political interest to be the public opinion.”
The Movement went to prove that the public thought otherwise. Taking to the streets In June 2016, White Noise Movement held a massive and widely publicized rally in Tbilisi against repressive drug policy, attracting massive crowds. The protest was exceptional as it was not linked to a partisan political agenda, neither headed by a political movement.
The trigger was the anniversary of Levan Abzianidze’s death, a 56 years-old taxi driver from Georgia’s second largest city, Kutaisi. Abzianidze, was stopped by the police and reportedly forced to take a drug test, dying soon after release. Protestors said his death was caused by diuretic pills that police forced him to take. Under slogans “Decriminalisation is inevitable”, “Abzianidze was killed by the state”, “Narcofascism needs to be destroyed”, “Repressive Narcopolitics must end” the protesters marched on Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare, Rustaveli Avenue.
But unlike many other Tbilisi-based social movements, the White Noise staged rallies outside the capital as well. These were liked to suicide of 22-year old Demur Sturua, from rural Samtredia municipality. His family said local policeman pressured and beat Sturua to reveal drug users in his village, which reportedly led to suicide, as confirmed by the contents of the suicide note. The policeman in question was suspended and voluntarily surrendered to justice. He was subsequently acquitted by the court.
The Movement was able to heighten its pressure and gain even larger political relevance in 2017, when the police arrested Tbilisi-based rap duo “Birja Mafia” on charges of purchase and possession of drugs. The rappers made a video ridiculing the police and put it on YouTube, triggering the outrage of police officials. The arrest – the duo claimed the “party drugs” were planted on them – followed this debacle, allowed the White Noise to claim that police used drugs for repressing free speech.
In June 2017, the protesters hit the streets again in protest for detention of Birja Mafia. Outrage was large enough to force the Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili to react. He released a statement addressing the youth: “every step and every decision that the government takes aims at ensuring a free and civilized environment for you, for the future of our country.” PM Kvirikashvili also noted that “existing drug policy is excessively harsh and requires liberalization.”
Yet another landmark in attracting political support was reached. One of the rappers was released in the investigation phase, due to lack of evidence. The investigation regarding the second rappers case, as well as regarding the claims of police malpractice is still ongoing.
White Noise’s Repertoire of Contention
The White Noise Movement is loud and hits the officials hard on social media and in the streets. But it has also worked to build coalitions and lobby for legislative change. As a part of coalition of NGOs “Georgia’s National Narcopolitics Platform” the movement helped draft the bill which now undergoes review in the Parliament. More liberal drug policy, including de-criminalization of soft drugs and treatment, rather than imprisonment of hard drug addicts can bring ten thousand people out of prisons and back with their families, the Movement claims.
Advocacy is still backed with visible media and social presence. On 10 December 2017, the White Noise held a concert to back the legislative changes. Around 20 local hip-hop artists performed for the concert-cum-protest. The combination of traditional street protests with social media-driven flash mobs, high level of presence in traditional media presence, by bringing its message to the capital as well the regions, by engaging youths as well as their parents, by talking to elite as well as fringe groups - the White Noise is a trailblazer in driving a new generation of political and advocacy campaign in Georgia. Even more impressively, it has eschewed political tagging, even though its cause was taken on by some parties, such as Girchi – a fringe but highly visible, liberal and social media-savvy outlet.
The movement’s social media campaigns as well as street rallies use distinctive black-and-white styling, a hashtag and even a specially developed Georgian typescript. In Georgia: where the forms of protest are sometimes even more important than the substance of political action itself, white noise’s attention to such detail was crucial to draw a distinct visibility and help its success.
Towards new politics?
Youth-led social movements are growing in Georgia. The White Noise protests brought together diverse crowd which usually keeps its distance from traditional partisan cleavages. Protesting drug policy, they found their agenda, framed in the language of civic freedoms. Intertwined with Tbilisi’s growing raving scene, the quest to change and challenge the established orthodoxies becomes ever more visible and important for decision makers to reckon with.
Recently shown ability of the Georgian youth social movements do mobilize and collaborate across the divides may show us a glimpse of the new politics. In many ways, the White Noise campaign has already generated an important momentum for change. But the battle is not won yet.
There are strong voices in the Georgian parliament and in police establishment that fear decriminalization of drugs. Some fear that the Patriarch’s statement will be interpreted in a way to challenge the White Noise-inspired bill in the parliament with a competing, more conservative document and would thus never make it to the floor of the Plenary.
“The War on people must end” – this is White Noise message for 2018. The year will show whether they will bring their campaign to legislative conclusion. But whatever the outcome, the White Noise already made history. It remains to be seen which movement will try to replicate their success, and what would be their preferred topic.