Haymarket Books has a book club. Every month I pay a fixed amount and periodically I get a package containing the books they published within a period of time, which is how Border and Rule by Harsha Walia and We Do This ‘Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba arrived at my home on the same day. This created a dilemma, which book would I read first?
I am more familiar with Walia’s work in part because my son recommended her to me and also because I have friends who organize with migrant agricultural workers. For one summer I worked with refugees at a settlement house where families and individuals stayed before they moved into more stable housing as their claims made their way through the system. I spent four months listening to their stories and in that way became convinced that borders, and bordering regimes, did more harm than good. My maternal grandfather came to Canada with documents based on his wife’s first husband, his own name does not even appear on his grave marker. I am less familiar with Kaba, and fairly new to abolitionist thinking although as I look at the trajectory of my life I can see that becoming abolitionist was inevitable. For twenty years as a social worker I saw how being criminalized served nobody, not the guilty and certainly not the innocent. I’ll say more on guilt and innocence later.
I also organize a book club. Every month I recommend a handful of books that revolve around a theme, books by mostly Black and Indigenous North American authors, and in that way I put these books in conversation with each other. They fill in each other’s gaps and create connection, and in our hyper-connected world, we sorely need connection. Angela Davis has said that our histories do not unfold in isolation, and yet so often our stories are told in isolation. There are gaps in Native American studies where Black people should be. There are gaps in Black studies where Native people should be. And we know about the gaps in what passes for standard curricula.
So I decided to put the books in conversation with each other and I read them together, alternating chapters and in that way the two books filled in each other’s gaps and formed a connection that can be encircled by a broadened understanding of abolition. To be an abolitionist is to understand that no one is illegal.
These books do not provide us with a clear roadmap or even an articulated destination. People want to know what we’re going to replace all this with, and they gesture vaguely at everything. Sure you want to tear down borders and prisons but what will you do instead? It’s the wrong question. As we make shifts away from capitalism, away from borders and prisons and all the different ways that walls and boundaries dispossess and define us; as we make these shifts towards relationship and towards collective reciprocity and allow the land where we live to define us instead of defining the land, something new will emerge. So our task is to hold a vision of the world we want and then do what is in front of us with who is in front of us. To agitate until they are also angry at the disparities, to educate them on how these disparities are created and maintained, and then to organize them into demanding a better and more just world. Our task is to build the things that do serve us, and in that way push aside that which does not.
Both books talk about how our imaginary is limited by the boundaries that enclose us while also illuminating how alternate ways of being already exist in front of us. Most of us simply don’t have access to those alternatives. Neighbourhoods without policing exist. Certain global citizens move easily across borders. Who is the land for? The sun and the sand for? You guessed, it’s all for the best.1Lyrics for Godspell: All for the Best by Stephen Schwartz, Range Road Music Inc.
What was interesting to me as I read were the places where I left one writer and encountered the other. For example, late in Walia’s introduction she cites Sara Ahmed who describes strangers as those who are made strange and then goes on to talk about how we live in reciprocal relationships whether we recognize it or not and that this reciprocity requires a new way of thinking about those people who bordering has rendered strangers. Walia then makes this critical point: these strangers with whom we are in reciprocal relationship, recognized or not, must be the authorities of our emancipatory movements. I go from there to Kaba asking what a world without policing would look like and reminding us of the limits of our imaginations because of the way that our lives are limited.
These strangers carry possibility with them. Possibility we cannot imagine because we are inside these walls. It is not their responsibility to free us, but we will not become free without them. My friend who organizes with migrant farm workers in Southern Ontario often speaks about working alongside people rather than advocating for them. It is so easy to talk about being a voice for the voiceless or advocating on behalf of those who lack our positioning when in truth our voices drown out theirs, and our position is part of those social borders that render them strange. So it is these strangers, these peoples who exist outside borders and inside walls with whom we are in reciprocal relationship who must guide our emancipation.
No Perfect Victims
There are no perfect victims. Not in prison. Not in refugee camps.
Promotional material that circulated about Cyntoia Brown often pictured her in pigtails, showing us the 16 year old girl she had been when she stood trial instead of the 31 year old woman who had been in custody for 15 years. This desire for innocent victims pervades the way we talk about sex work and sex crimes and survival sex and sex trafficking, flattening them all into one thing that positions women as victims without agency because these are the only victims who deserve our care and concern.2Kaba, 2021, pp. 36-38 I read this description of Brown immediately after reading Walia’s descriptions of the way that the war on terror flattens and redefines Muslims as an enemy that cannot be contained within their own borders and so need to be excluded from ours, an enemy who could be anyone.3Walia, 2021, p. 55
In 2015 the images of Alan Kurdi, the dead toddler washed up on a Turkish beach, circulated on social media just as child-like images of Cyntoia would do 4 years later, but while our sympathy was aroused, our desire for structural change was not, and individuals may find freedom even as the structures themselves are reinforced. Walia recounts the story of Behrouz Boochani, the Kurdish-Iranian journalist who wrote a memoir by text message while incarcerated in an Australian offshore migrant detention facility. In it he detailed the abuses of the facility and he won a Nobel Prize for literature, which he was unable to accept in person. New Zealand eventually granted him sanctuary, but what of all the others who were also incarcerated but did not write their memoirs? Like Boochani, Cyntoia’s story is not unique. The organizing around them is necessary and right, but so long as they are imagined as innocent victims they pose no challenge to the state or the system and our organizing challenges the wrong things, leading to the wrong kind of reforms.
Two axioms from Walia’s book stand out in this regard:
The law constructs illegality and racism constructs the illegal.4Walia, 2021, p. 79
Innocence is a limiting stance because criminality is a political construction.5Walia, 2021, p. 83
Walia is writing here about the way that we talk about migrants, dividing them into good immigrants and bad immigrants as exemplified in Obama’s rhetoric around DACA and the enforcement of immigration laws, saying that the US would deport “Felons not families. Criminals not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.”6Walia, 2021, p. 59 My work with refugee claimants 20 years ago taught me how quickly their stories complicate our easy binary of good and bad, of legal and illegal, of innocence and guilt. These narratives inevitably fall along racial lines, both constructing and maintaining racial categories that coincidentally uphold whiteness.
I come to these sentences after reading Kaba’s essay on her ambivalence about Darren Wilson’s indictment, the failure of the state to criminalize killer cops and the meaningless of it when they do. The law decides who is allowed to be violent, and under which circumstances. It decides who is a citizen and able to access the rights of a citizen and who is not. And laws change. Marijuana is increasingly being decriminalized or legalized, and yet for decades its illegality was the pretext for sending at least three generations of Black men to prison. When combined with “tough on crime” laws like three strikes, something that is now legal put men in prison for life. I reflect on these books while Derek Chauvin, the cop who killed George Floyd, is on trial and his defense, like that of so many killer cops, is that he was following his training and is therefore innocent. The desire to save the innocent is a shaky foundation upon which to build a movement, and these ideas about innocence shape the reforms that we demand and accept, ultimately working to serve a state that does not serve us.
Kaba ends her book with a reminder that abolition is not only an end to prison; it is an end to the rule of poverty, violence, racism, alienation, and disconnection. It is the practice of transformation.7Kaba, 2021, p. 196 With those words resting in my mind I go into Walia’s chapters on the way that nationalism both creates and reinforces violence, racism, alienation, and disconnection. The way that these external bordering regimes are extensions of the imperialism that built Canada, the US, and Australia in the first place and then Walia reflects Kaba’s ideas in her own conclusion.
Empires crumble, capitalism is not inevitable, gender is not biology, whiteness is not immutable, prisons are not inescapable, and borders are not natural law. We can abolish the organization of difference.8Walia, 2021, p. 215
We don’t know exactly what a world without all this *gesturing broadly* will look like. But our willingness to make the effort is to choose hope.