Editor's note: I last posted on the talk of European activists and squatters at the MoRUS – Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space, in New York City in September of '15. The speakers at that event were part of a U.S. speaking tour, “To Change Everything,” organized by Crimethinc. The group has just posted their report on their very extensive travels across the continent. This included a swing through the southwestern border region, where anarchists and activists labor on behalf of displaced U.S. migrants, and indigenous people. This activism is all but ignored in day-to-day news and left discourses, so I felt it was important to repost – (with their permission) – a part of the full blog post concerning those issues here.
Last month, we concluded the To Change Everything US tour, bringing together anarchists from Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and North America to compare notes on the uprisings and social movements of the past decade. In the course of 65 days, we presented 59 events in 57 towns, speaking with well over 2000 people altogether.... We had a wonderful tour. For those of us from the US as well as overseas, it is instructive to take in the entire country in a single continuous trip....
Crossing one of the bridges in Tijuana, only few meters from one of the most militarized borders in the world, I look down at an empty canal that used to be a river. Yet another sign of the drought plaguing this part of the West Coast. No water has run there for a while, but only a few months ago this canal was full of life: the encampments of deportees.
The United States deports hundreds of people without papers to Tijuana, Mexico every day. The cartels often get first pick of the deportees, taking women and men of their choosing. Some for sex, torture, and death, some for the drug business. Others end up living in the canals, some not even speaking Spanish since they spent most of their lives in US. Most have nowhere to go.
Earlier this year, Tijuana authorities “cleaned” the canal. When you walk across the bridge now, you no longer see tents and a river of people. But everywhere in the city, you see the silent reminders of thousands and thousands lost in the machinery of the border regime. Abandoned shoes here, an empty sleeping bag there.
[Editor's note: A year in release now, "Exile Nation: The Plastic People" film documents this sad and shameful situation.]
In the evening, when dusk falls on the city, we walk through the red light district, still full of sex tourists. We stop in the square next to a church and set up the table for Food Not Bombs. “Free food,” comrade shouts in Spanish. In a second, the square that looked empty becomes alive. People come out of the dark corners, grab food, and disappear back into invisibility.
I stop after a steep hike for a second to catch my breath. I look around. No shade, everything looks the same, even cactus are lying rotting across the path. Death, nothingness, desert for as far as the eye reaches. Even though it is early November, the temperatures are still high; the absence of humidity dries me up and a bottle of water barely suffices to keep me hydrated.
Unexpectedly, we reach the top of the ridge and climb down into the bottom of a canyon. I hear the last sound I had expected in the middle of the Arizona desert: water. We follow a little stream until it runs into babbling waterfalls. I sink my legs into the cutting cold water. Relief.
“This is very rare,” explains our comrade who took us to the desert. “Most people who cross US-Mexico border don’t stumble across this kind of oasis. A lot of them become dehydrated or have heat strokes. Some of them die.”
The only water they see is the bottles left along the route, along with food and first aid supplies, by tireless comrades determined to help people survive the deadly desert crossing.
“I sometimes wonder if this is enough,” my comrade ventures, his eyes locked to the horizon. “Maybe we’re just doing humanitarian support work when we should be looking for ways to fight borders more directly.” His forehead furrows, his cheeks beaten up by the rough desert wind. I wonder how many lives he has already saved.
This takes my thoughts back to Europe, to the millions of refugees from Middle East, risking their lives to cross border after border, only to arrive in lands where people are organizing themselves into fascist formations and gated communities. What will it take to bring down Fortress Europe?
The Mohave desert.
We’ve been driving through the desert for hours, having watched the sun rise over the dusty bleak khaki and orange expanses of northwestern Arizona. Yet arriving at the home of our host in Tempe, on the outskirts of Phoenix, we blearily file out of the van onto soft green grass, a well-manicured lawn that wouldn’t look out of place in any well-watered suburb east of the Mississippi. I’m reminded of something I read once that attributed the shrinking of the Colorado River—which no longer reaches the Gulf of Mexico, an environmental reversal of staggering proportions—to the expansion of the Phoenix metropolitan area, with over four million people flushing toilets and watering lawns. So maybe it’s that dim recollection, or just my weariness from the overnight drive, but as I stumble into the apartment, for whatever reason my mind keeps slipping back to that vivid green lawn glistening against the pale concrete sidewalk, a southwestern non sequitur whose very normalcy reveals an incomprehensibly vast apparatus of control deployed against the unforgiving landscape. A mode of producing a certain form of life that renders others impossible, that by its very structure erases or immiserates many as it eases a gauzy, sedative veil over the eyes of the few it ostensibly benefits. Neatly trimmed green grass lawns in the desert as a biological neon advertisement for itself, the tenuous triumphalism of the American Way of Life™ over and beyond any and all constraints of common sense or ecological capacity, the banal aesthetics of ecocidal power and self-destructive collective denial.
But before long, my bleary mind is diverted from such concerns by the siren song of a well-stocked bookshelf, brimming not only with classic and contemporary anarchist favorites but substantial blocs of intriguing history, theory, fiction, and even an ample smattering of titles pertaining to some of my more specific and obscure interests (pre-revolutionary Irish history, the 1990s journal Race Traitor, and other divergences too embarrassing to enumerate). Unable to sleep past 9 AM in most circumstances—unlike my tour mates, who are already sprawled snoring on the couches—I resign myself to a few hours of gleeful solitary delving into the treasures of this well-curated collection. But before I manage to slip down that rabbit hole, I’m swept into conversation about politics in Arizona, a peculiarly horrifying landscape in which the right wing arrives to protests visibly armed with semi-automatic weapons, neo-Nazis rub shoulders with Republican officials in scheming how to hunt and exploit migrants, and identity politicians and nonprofits deploy guilt-driven notions of “allyship” to domesticate resistance that might exceed their limits. Or so it would seem; this is my first time in the state, and amidst my sleep deprivation I’m struggling just to keep up with the litany of different protagonists and conflicts, both inter- and intra-, let alone evaluate them critically. I emerge from the conversation with two impressions. First, that this area might be a fruitful space in which to introduce some of the critiques and questions we have been discussing on the tour. Second, that we’re stepping into a minefield in which a complex web of local alliances, conflicts, and backstories raise the stakes in ways we may not fully understand. Gulp.
Blink—did I doze off? It’s afternoon, and we’re scrubbing the last traces of beans and guacamole from our plates with tongues or tepid tortillas before scrambling back into the van to head to the event. As one of our tour mates has lost his voice, tonight will be my first time presenting the introductory and concluding chunks of our presentation, and I feel like a high school student cramming for an exam, sifting through sheets of notes and trying out different phrasings as I mumble to myself in the back of the van. In an innocuous strip mall, amid laundromats and pre-fab Chinese restaurants, we find ourselves at a surprisingly cozy cafe, already humming with people setting up rows of chairs and laying out zines and pamphlets from a range of different projects. As my tour mates set up our literature, mingle with the arriving crowds, and attempt to sift through the range of groups and personalities in anticipation of the discussion to come, I hole up in a corner, trying to shoehorn the last bits of what I plan to say into my overstuffed couch of a brain. My body tingles with that exhilarated, not quite frantic anticipation of a challenging but not overwhelming ordeal to come.
The panel is beginning; my mind is racing. We’ve agreed that four of us from the CrimethInc. tour and three O’odham folks will share the stage. They will open with a welcoming and introduction, followed by our presentation, and then they will share some of their responses as well as discussions of their struggles locally. We’ll share the Q & A and discussion afterwards. As the rumble of conversation dies down and attention focuses on the stage, the O’odham comrades stand and one sings a song of welcome in his native language, then, in English, greets us and the audience. With a flash of embarrassment, I recognize the tingle in my sinuses that foretells tears rising to my eyes. To be welcomed—somehow this gesture cuts to the heart of some powerful and previously unspoken disquiet and longing inside of me. Beyond any discourse of “rights” or entitlement, amidst the shameful histories of conquest and deception and betrayal, the simple act of being welcomed onto the land where someone lives feels indescribably powerful, humbling.
And yet the welcome is not merely for the crew of us who’ve arrived in the van and will leave a few hours later, some of us likely never to return. It’s also directed at the folks from settler backgrounds who do live in the area; in one subtle gesture, the welcome both reveals and defuses the tension that crackles beneath the surface of a “radical” gathering of mostly non-native folks on occupied indigenous land. I watch the faces of folks in the audience as they are welcomed into the place that perhaps they thought of as already “theirs.” Such a welcome performs a nuanced operation, reminding us of the submerged violence that our very presence connotes while encouraging us not get stuck in guilt over it. Rather than excusing or justifying our feeling of entitlement to be here in the first place, it invites us to contest and transform our relationship to the land we inhabit—whether for a night or a year or a lifetime—and to the unjust reality that structures our occupation of it.
In defiance of received wisdom about the limits of American attention spans, the joint panel and discussion lasts a solid three hours and beyond, and nearly the entire audience remains raptly attentive throughout. At last, we reluctantly conclude to enthusiastic applause, and break into a litany of thought-provoking smaller conversations as the night slowly winds down. Unfortunately, the hectic tour schedule demands that we once again drive overnight, so after barely twelve hours in the area we’re boxing up the zines and books, bidding our new friends farewell, and piling back into the van once again to drive south. Feeling energized from all of the challenging conversations, I offer to drive, but a perceptive tour mate sees the slightly deranged quiver of sleep deprivation in my eyes and gently but firmly insists that I climb into the back. It turns out that I’m actually too exhausted to disagree.
As I drift off, packed amidst my friends in our sardine can of a tour van, I reflect on our too-short trip through Tempe/Phoenix. Over the course of the evening’s panel I’ve absorbed more about indigenous and anti-colonial politics in the southwest than I’d learned in years of anarchist organizing beforehand. In the part of the US I’m from, discourses of race have been constructed around a foundational black/white binary, with a growing Latino/a migrant population perched somewhere around or between. Indigenous peoples and struggles, despite their ongoing presence and the fierce resistance of folks like Lumbee anti-police organizer Eddie Hatcher, remain relegated to history or obscurity in most discussions of race and power, even among activists or radicals. In the context of Arizona, however, some of the largest and most actively organizing indigenous populations in the so-called US rub shoulders with an enormous Mexican and Central American migrant population, which is internally divided along lines of citizenship and status, language, education, and other factors. While these groups are often jointly targeted by a reactionary white settler/citizen population, they don’t necessarily share strategies or interests as “people of color,” with divergent perspectives and goals around their relationship to the state, the border, and the land. And white would-be allies, be they earnest liberal activists or militant anarchists, may inadvertently reproduce some colonial dynamics in their approaches to organizing in this context.
But what would it mean to extend these analyses of settler colonialism, border imperialism, and the complex nuances of white supremacy to other contexts? How can anarchists and other radicals connect to indigenous resistance in places with very different colonial legacies? How might our anarchist critiques of nationalism be complicated by indigenous concepts of nationhood and territory? Are we, as one of our O’odham comrades said, in fact “all indigenous to somewhere”? How do white people engage with that question without reinforcing narratives that have been appropriated by European fascists? How can we overcome the limitations of identity foisted on us by states, markets, and oppressive social systems, while cultivating a deeper sense of who we are rooted in a land base and an organic community, not predicated on borders or exclusion?
We still have a lot to learn. But listening deeply to each other, building connections and building trust, we might find that our seemingly insurmountable differences could become a source of powerful strength. Eventually, inevitably, the last well-manicured green lawn will vanish from the desert. How, and how soon, and whether there will be any humans left to see it replaced by the regeneration of desert flora and fauna, is ultimately up to all of us.
I’ll close with a few links to projects by our O’odham comrades:
Akimel O’odham Youth Collective
The struggle against the Loop 202 freeway
O’odham Solidarity Across Borders
…and some politically motivated music:
Hip hop from Phoenix: Shining Soul
Akimel O’odham Ska Crust from the Gila River Reservation: Requiem
A live audio recording from the last stop of the recently wrapped-up To Change Everything tour, an international panel discussion featuring stories and lessons from participants in some of the better and lesser known uprisings of the last few years.