Antiblackness and Undoing the Territory of Migrant Justice
by Farrah-Marie Miranda
Scenario 1: A South-Asian cis-man, and leading organizer with No One Is Illegal (NOII)- Toronto, posits himself as the media spokesperson in the protests against the G20. Several organizers, including many women of color disagree with his decision. He is arrested on the first day of the protests, slapped with trumped up charges and threatened with deportation. The group raises tens of thousands in legal fees, mobilizes community support, and ensures he is able to continue organizing in the face of restrictive house arrest conditions. His charges are dropped and he continues to maintain an informal leadership role within the organization.
Scenario 2: A queer Black woman does an interview for a right-wing news station on behalf of NOII-Toronto. The host and another guest on the show mock her. Posted online, the video spurred a slew of racist and sexist comments directed at her. Some organizers feel that she discarded group protocol in the way she conducted this interview. In response to the anti-Black racism directed against her, no organizational statements are issued and little to no support is provided. She brings forward concerns of anti-black racism within the organization and is met with defensiveness from several of the group’s organizers. She leaves the organization as a result.
Shortly after this last incident, after a decade of organizing with NOII-Toronto, I stepped away from the organization. My retreat had more to do with my need to heal from state violence and an unhealthy relationship than it did anything else. Along this journey, I have learned something important; it is that healing cannot happen without also acknowledging and being accountable for the ways that I have hurt others. The aforementioned scenario of anti-black racism is not a one-off incident. It is part and parcel of a migrant justice agenda that reproduces rather than challenges what theorist Katherine McKittrick (2006) refers to as “a landscape of systemic blacklessness.”
Anchoring this argument in the NOII context, I first explain that migrant justice politics has the radical potential to undo what activist-author Harsha Walia (2013) calls “border imperialism”. Second, I argue that the failure of migrant justice politics to meet its potential rests on its erasures and appropriations of Black struggle. Third, I argue that for migrant justice politics to pose a serious challenge to border imperialism, we must destabilize the category of the ‘migrant’ to understand how racialized hierarchies of citizenship privilege and oppress Black and non-Black migrants differently. Finally, I suggest that strategies aimed at addressing these shortcomings must move beyond a politics of inclusion and assimilation, to one of destabilizing identities and building relationships across both material and conceptual borders.
Radical Potential of Migrant Justice
No One Is Illegal is a decentralized volunteer-run network of migrant justice groups operating out of cities across Canada, that share a common political vision rooted in anticolonial, anti-capitalist, ecological justice, Indigenous self-determination, anti-occupation and anti-oppressive politics (No One Is Illegal, 2014). But what do we mean when we use the term migrant? For me, and many others, the term ‘migrant’ acts similar to Cathy Cohen’s conceptualization of the term ‘queer’, to
symbolize an acknowledgement that, through our existence and everyday survival, we embody sustained and multi-sited resistance to systems (based on dominant constructions of race and gender) that seek to normalize our sexuality, exploit our labour… constrain our visibility [and restrict our movement]. (Cohen, The Radical Potential of Queer Politics)
A migrant justice politics committed to undoing interlocking systems of oppression, has the radical potential to bring together all those deemed marginal. Activist-author Harsha Walia (2013) argues that NOII’s radical potential lies in its critique of border imperialism, a critique that sets it apart from more mainstream immigrant rights movements. Implicit in its approach is the radical potential to disrupt discourses that emphasize the benevolence of Western states such as Canada in accepting those fleeing violence and poverty. Rather than slipping into a framework that calls for more kindness or generosity on the part of the Canadian nation-state, migrant justice politics frames capitalism and empire as the root cause of mass displacement. This critique, when channeled into a framework for organizing, “facilitates a convergence of a range of social movements” (Walia, 2013). NOII’s radical transformative potential also lies in its multi-layered approach: “While organizing from an anti-state framework, NOII also strategically navigates the state apparatus in order to win tangible victories for those facing detention and deportation”; and in doing so,“provides lessons on maintaining principled positions, while expanding communities of resistance through effective broad based alliances” (Walia, 2013). Major policy gains have been fought for and won as a result of these alliances.
In Toronto, campaigns such as Education, Not Deportation, and Shelter | Sanctuary | Status, have curbed immigration enforcement at schools, shelters, and other sites of service provision, ensuring wider access to essential services for the undocumented.These gains have inspired similar organizing efforts in cities across Canada. In its very name, No One Is Illegal “emphasizes that all human beings are inherently worthy and valuable, and that policies that illegalize human beings are legal and moral fictions” (Walia, 2013). Finally, the radical potential of NOII lies in its commitment to taking “leadership from marginalized communities, particularly communities of color and Indigenous nations impacted by state controls and systemic oppression” (Walia, 2013). In its guiding principles, NOII-Vancouver (Coast Salish Territories) emphasizes its commitment to building solidarity with Indigenous sovereignty struggles:
As we struggle for the right for our communities to maintain their livelihoods, we prioritize building alliances and supporting indigenous sisters and brothers fighting displacement. We recognize that those colonial and capitalist forces that create war, poverty, and destruction throughout the global South are causing dispossession of indigenous peoples within the global North. Therefore our work must be carried out in solidarity with the struggles for the self- determination and justice of indigenous communities.
Craig Fortier (2013), a scholar and an activist with NOII-Toronto for many years, argues, and I very much agree that, “the significant work exerted by organizers in NOII-Vancouver has provided a model example for migrant justice organizers throughout Canada with respect to the long-term and committed nature of Indigenous solidarity.” But, despite a surrounding discourse that deconstructs racialized categories of citizenship, migrant justice politics as articulated by NOII groups, often posits a simple dichotomy between those deemed ‘migrant’ and those deemed ‘Indigenous’.
Erasures & Appropriations of Blackness
Certainly, within specific contexts, various aspects of our complete identity, including race, class, sexuality and gender, are mobilized or drawn upon to make sense of a particular situation (Cohen, 1997). But these efforts at acknowledging and working across difference fall short when it comes to confronting the issue of anti-Black racism. Migrant justice politics, as it is articulated by NOII groups, remains riddled with disappearances, denials and erasures of Blackness, while simultaneously appropriating the political and cultural strategies of Black liberation struggles.
Take NOII-Vancouver’s seven demands, for example:
1/ “Dismantle Fortress North America;” 2/ “Stop border militarization and the expanding security apparatus;” 3/ “Status for all;” 4/ “End to detentions and deportations;” 5/ “Dignity for immigrant workers;” 6/ “Abolishment of temporary foreign worker programs;” 7/ “Fundamental transformation of migration controls.”
Subsequent to each of these demands is text highlighting Chinese exclusion, Japanese internment, and the violence enacted on Sikh migrants aboard the Komagatamaru. The text goes on to address the reality of post 9/11 national security measures that have been used to criminalize immigrants, “particularly those of South Asian, Muslim and Arab descent.” By way of omission, this statement negates the ongoing legacy of enslavement, exclusion and exploitation of Black and African migrants on this land.
Oddly, this statement of demands, which fails to acknowledge the exploitation and oppression of diasporic African peoples in Canada, simultaneously relies on a Black aesthetic to convey its message. We see here, how appropriation and erasure work as two sides of the same coin.
The image consists of a protest sign, bearing a 1960s style silhouette of a person wearing an afro, raising his fist in the air. Inscribed below the image, is the famous slogan of the Black Panther Party: “All Power to the People.” Nadijah Robinson (2014), in her article, ‘Black art is not a free for all’, says she’s “watched people become politicized, shaping their new political identities after bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Assata Shakur, Angela Davis and Frantz Fanon… watched as folks become activist celebrities using radical ideas from Black Power and Civil Rights movements to shape programs that do not benefit Black people.” Migrant justice politics is no different. No One Is Illegal groups have relied on the cultural symbols of Black liberation movements in the United States to bolster an aesthetic of cultural defiance and people of colour pride, while often failing to take action against anti-Black racism, within and outside our movements.
Here’s another example. In 2009 and 2010, the arrival of Tamil migrants aboard freighter ships MV Sun Sea and MV Ocean Lady became part of a national state-sponsored discourse around human smuggling. Passengers aboard these ships “were depicted by politicians and the media, to be dangerous and disease-carrying; associated with terrorists, human smugglers, and law breakers” (Miranda, 2014); and accused of violating the boundaries of Canada’s imagined community (Hier and Greenburg, 2002). Their arrivals were turned into a public spectacle and used to churn out a highly racialized discourse of risk and security (Bradimore and Bauder, 2011). The Canadian nation-state used these incidents to drum up a climate of fear and hysteria, under which it advanced draconian “antihuman smuggling” legislation.
Within NOII-Toronto, we refrained from arguing that the migrants aboard the Sun Sea and Ocean Lady were not guilty of smuggling, because such an argument would only legitimate state imposed characterizations of the term. Instead, NOII-Toronto issued a statement on the topic, celebrating human smuggling as “a time-honored tradition, enshrined in common practice and international law.”
In conjunction with posters such as these, we issued a statement titled, ‘In Defense of Human Smuggling.’ The statement celebrates the fact that “tens of thousands in the United States who, with the assistance of dedicated abolitionists like Harriet Tubman navigated the underground railroad to find freedom from slavery.” Such celebrations inadvertently reinforce the myth of Canada as an innocent bystander to the slave trade. And, more importantly, they present Canada as a safe space for those fleeing Jim Crow laws and anti-black racism and segregation in the United States. Afua Cooper (2007) intervenes in this mythology, reminding us,
First, that Canada was a colony of France and Britain, two of the largest slave traffickers. Second, because the Atlantic slave trading activities connected diverse economies, for much of the slavery period, there was a brisk trade between the capitalists of eastern Canada and the slaveholders of the Caribbean… Third, recent scholarship discovered that at least 60 of the slave ships used in the British slave trade were built in Canada. Most important, enslavement of Africans itself was institutionalized in Canada. The enslavement of black people existed from least 1628 to 1834.
Inconsistent with our invocations of slavery and Black liberation aesthetics is the fact of real silence around the institutionalization of anti-Black racism in Canada (Cooper, 2007). As Turner (2012) points out, for enslaved Africans fleeing the southern United States in the 1900s, Canada was anything but a safe haven. For the over 1,000 Black/African people who migrated to Saskatchewan and Alberta during this period, American style racism, as Shepard (1996) notes, was not only alive and well, but it was also fuelled by anti-Black media narratives.
Led by the Edmonton Board of Trade, and supported by groups like The Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire, 3,400 Whites signed a petition demanding that the federal government slam the door shut to Blacks. An order-in-council was issued to bar Blacks from entering Canada; it was approved by the federal government on August 12, 1911 and repealed a few months later in favour of more covert ways of controlling Black immigration such as sending agents to the source to dissuade Blacks from coming. (Turner, 2012)
In producing the imagined landscape that is now called Canada, traces of Black migration were systematically erased (McKittrick, 2006; Turner, 2012). By privileging the histories of non-Black migrants within migrant justice politics, we produce an organizing space that perpetuates disappearances, denials and erasures of Black presence on this land.
Destabilizing the ‘Migrant’
Rather than homogenizing the experiences of, say, descendants of slaves or indentured laborers within a presumed pan-people of colour experience, NOII primarily organizes with those who are racialized immigrants and refugees, or undocumented migrants. (Walia, 2013)
There are a number of problems with the above logic. The first is a matter of language. In the same way that it insists that, no human being is illegal, migrant justice politics should also insist that no person is a slave. Enslavement, like illegalization is a process enacted upon an individual or a group. In a Facebook post, Jezebel Delilah X (2015) of Everyday Feminism suggests that to refer to enslaved African diasporic peoples as slaves is to strip them of their individuality, cultures, heritages and sovereignty, “positioning them solely as the the victimized and oppressed property of slave owners and the state.” Slavery in turn, becomes understood as an identity “as opposed to a horrible violence enacted on a group of people with severe rippling affects that impact, in varying ways, all people who exist in former slave-owning states.” Delilah goes on to argue that the danger of such terminology is that “it removes us from recognizing … fanciful cultures of abolitionism and survival.”
The second problem with this logic, is that it can be used to gloss over the fact that there are very few Black and African organizers within our movements. In over a decade of working with NOII-Toronto, I witnessed many self-identified Black and African activists enter and exit the organization. Many of them, at one point or another, expressed an interest in organizing around issues of police brutality and unjust incarceration. I cringe now, thinking of how I, and other non-Black people of colour, argued that group did not have the resources to take on this work, or suggested that Black organizers take up this work within organizations that focus explicitly on prison abolition and policing. Despite these exclusions, it is crucial to note that within No One Is Illegal groups, the question of who we are and what we do, is ever-evolving. What started off as an explicitly anti-detention, anti-deportation and anti-war agenda, for example, has transformed into a broadened, intersectional commitment towards decolonization.
But decolonization, as Walia (2013) defines it, “is a dual form of resistance that is responsive to dismantling current systems of colonial empire and systemic hierarchies while also prefiguring societies based on equity.” For NOII to truly embrace the radical and transformative potential that lies in Walia’s definition of decolonization, we must move beyond the Indigenous-migrant binary, to understand how settler colonial power and anti-Black racism structure white supremacy in Canada. If left uncomplicated, the fixed category of the migrant creates within it what McKittrick (2014) might call a kind of safe space, a “fantasy that replicates rather than undoes systems of injustice.” We must not allow forms of border exclusion that particularly impact Black communities to become simply termed ‘migrant’ justice issues.
Beyond a Politics of Inclusion
Borders and walls that are supposed to keep the undesireable ideas out are entrenched habits and patterns of behavior (Anzaldua, 1999).
In the wake of a burgeoning #BlackLivesMatter movement, non-black activists within NOII groups are beginning to acknowledge that we cannot continue to sweep issues of anti-black racism under the rug. Despite on paper acknowledgements that “the building of intentional alliances should avoid devolution into tokenization” (Walia, 2012), NOII groups seem to make an effort to feature Black/African speakers at public events; but, without addressing the ways in which anti-black racism is structured into the frameworks of migrant justice organizing, such practices work to deceptively promote the perception that the spaces of NOII political organizing is friendly to Black folks.
Marie Jolie took to Facebook this week, highlighting the dangers of such tokenization. Her widely circulated post speaks to the exclusion of Rwandan genocide-survivors at a recent “Refugees Welcome” event hosted by NOII-Vancouver. Jolie (2015) argues that the group dismissed concerns from members of Rwanda’s genocide survivor community in the lead up to the event, and continued to host Jean de Dieu Hakizimana, a man they argue is widely known as a genocide-negationist in the Rwandan community. She explains that,
At the event, two women members of the Rwandan survivor community attempted to publicly challenge the false representation by Jean de Dieu Hakizimana. Their attempts to ask questions were blocked by organizers who said there was not enough time. At the end of the event, the women approached the organizers to express their concerns. At that point, Jean de Dieu Hakizimana approached one of the women, an elder in our community and made violent misogynist threats to her in the Rwandan language-Kinywarwanda. When she challenged what he was saying, he struck her in the face, in full view of NOII-Vancouver organizers.
NOII Vancouver has issued a public apology and accountability statement on this incident after pressure to do so but, in response, Jolie has argued that the NOII statement does not respond to requests made in the open statement to NOII organizers. Acknowledging that there is a lot of work to do with regards to addressing anti-black racism within our movements, NOII-Toronto organizer, Syed Hussan (2015) writes that,
the work of coming together around issues also demands an unlearning of anti-Black racisms in particular within social justice movements. That unlearning includes groups and organizations taking collective steps towards internal transformation and being held accountable.
Unfairly, conversations about anti-black racism within migrant justice politics tend to be relegated to the realm of internal meetings and omitted from the forums, rallies, and public teach-ins that NOII groups organize, the forums where the most people can benefit from these discussions. To move beyond a politics of inclusion towards a politics of accountability requires a level of integrity that many of us have yet to demonstrate. Queer, African writer, Luam Kidane (2014) eloquently reminds us that,
whatever is built must be flexible, responsive, compulsively changeable. Whatever is built must riff on the theme already playing, enhancing without copying, whatever is built must be willingly dismantled; to imagine unchanging monuments is to imagine ego.
Her words are a counterpoint to the often facile narratives that I have embraced in representing migrant justice and all that it entails: enraging stories of deportation; moving narratives of campaigns hard fought and won; militant organizing by women of colour. While celebrations of victories and relationships are vital to movement building, so too are recognitions and admissions of our mistakes, our losses, and the hurts we have caused along the way.
Farrah Marie Miranda is an artist, writer and educator working at the intersection of performance, new media and the law. You can find her on Twitter at @farrah_marie
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