The System and the 'Criminal'

By Abel Merawi

Nelson-MandelaJune 12, 2020 ( -- “Until the lions learn to write, every story glorifies the hunter.” This is an African proverb that tells the story of the oppressed. It shows how the system, run by the powerful, has the power to label those who oppose it as criminals. Consider the following three cases to understand the concept.

Nelson Mandela was labeled criminal and served 27 years in prison to be released in 1990. Only four years later, he became the first black president of South Africa and served his country from 1994-1999.

Rosa Parks began her activism by rebelling against a system of oppression. She was brought to court as a criminal. But her refusal to bow down to the system and her vital role in the Montgomery bus boycott made her a prominent figure in the civil rights movement.

Che Guevara was an Argentine revolutionary who fought for freedom wherever he saw oppression. He was not bound by national borderlines, and he is known for the major role he played in the Cuban revolution. But for the Bolivian forces and the CIA, he was a threat to the system. And so he was captured and executed in 1967 at the age of 39.

The list can go on, but this will suffice to show the labeling power of those who run the system. Sadly, it is not just the system that believes this false narrative. It is shared by the devote followers of the status quo who prefer things to remain the same. Those who oppose the system are labeled dissidents or rebels. The rebel should be properly defined as one who is against a system founded upon exploitation. In most cases, it is the minority who represent the system. The majority is oppressed and they are expected to accept this reality.

From the study of sociology and criminology, I find the theory of functionalism to be a reflection of this reality. The theory of functionalism considers people as machines and passes judgment based solely on actions. In dealing with society, the functionalist takes a collective approach and views them as parts of a single unit who serve the same purpose. It compares them to body parts and argues that everyone should play the part they are given. Translated into real life, the politician should remain a politician and the daily laborer should accept his life and serve the society. Accordingly, the individual who desires change and a better life because s/he is threatening the overall system.

If you think functionalism is just a theory, perhaps you need to take a closer look at the world. The life of African Americans, beginning from slavery times up until the present, is a clear mark of functionalism. During slavery, black people who taken captive from the homeland because the colonialists wanted to grow sugarcane and other crops. Their life was seen as a function that supports the dream of the colonizer. And so many were lynched because they wanted to breathe the clean air of freedom. The reality we currently witness in America is no different in theory because those who made the system still label blacks criminals. The rosy picture of America had never had a place for African Americans, and so systematically label them as criminals.

To show the life of African Americans, I will not be using the words of scholars who theorize from a safe distance. That will be an insult to the struggle. But I will use the following extracted lines of Tupac in his song ‘Trapped’:

(Verse 1) You know they got me trapped in this prison of seclusion
Happiness, living in the streets is a delusion …
Tired of being trapped in this vicious cycle …
(Verse 2) They got me trapped, can barely walk the city streets
Without a cop harrasin’ me, searching me, then askin’ my identity …
One day I’m gonna bust, blow up on this society
Why did you lie to me? I couldn’t find a trace of equality.
(… shows skipped line in between)

The whole song narrates the life struggle of the systematically oppressed. The system stands as a barrier to the black man, but improving his life requires breaking this barrier, which is sadly called a criminal act. All around the world, the dichotomy between the oppressor and the oppressed continues to exist. My country, Ethiopia, is no different.

In Ethiopia, the government has labeled young people as criminals in various times. During the time of Emperor Haile Selassie and during the Derg regime, national agendas were raised by university students. They were called revolutionaries as if it is a bad thing. After Derg came the long and still continuing rule in different guises. Young people still continued to raise national agendas, but they were no longer revolutionaries. Especially after the historic and sad 2005 Ethiopian election, young people were identified as ‘dangerous hooligans’. Then, opposition parties from every region began using the youth as a weapon. In all this labeling game, no one bothers to stop and ask what these young people want!

The way I see it, it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out, the main question is economic. The students who graduated year after year are promised a pipe dream. The system promised them jobs and a better life if they do their part. The students did perform their part, but the system has failed to keep its promise. To make matters worse, instead of finding a solution to unemployment and high living costs, most politicians shift the question to ethnicity. This way it became easier to label them criminals.

In reality, the real criminals are hidden behind laws and regulations that make them untouchable. It is not a crime when big businesses systematically take the homes of people, but it is a crime when residents oppose such actions. It not a crime when public goods and infrastructures are not fairly distributed, but a crime when people rebel against inequality. In the end, it is more important to find a solution to the underlying problems instead of rushing to label people as criminals.


Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

Trust as an Economic Force

Do You Trust the Government?

Our Online World

Fame Mistaken for Expertise

The Heavy Burden of Healthcare Workers

A Time to Reflect

The Plague by Albert Camus: Fiction Becomes Reality!

History of Pandemics in Ethiopia

Human Struggle Against Pandemics: Historical Perspective

Crisis Profiteers

You Can Make a Difference

Rule of Law for a Free Society


The Origins of Law

Determinants of Market Value: Part II

Determinants of Market Value: Part I

Your life Matters Too

Manifestations of Artistic Expression

Achievements vs Natural Accidents

The Grip of Sacrifice

Injustice is Never Justifiable

Education Demands of the Future

Job Security, Life and the Unpredictable Future

The Shift From Racism to Culturism

Sacrificing Meaning for Power?

Culture and Market Forces

Intersubjective Reality

Seeking Cosmic Justice

National Myths: Makers and Destroyers of Nations

Are We Truly Free?

Maturity: The Prerequisite to Freedom and Democracy

Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group

The Value of Work

The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System

Intellectuals and the People

Where Are Our Pathfinders?

The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders

The Truth Behind Humanity

The Seven Virtues

The Seven Deadly Sins

What is the right thing to do?

Building National Identity

Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change

Mob Violence

Living the Truth as a Human Being

Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them

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