Bodies Without Borders
Today President Obama is scheduled to break his silence on the Dream 9, a group of immigration reform activists who made national headlines when they self-deported two weeks ago in an act of civil disobedience and were subsequently detained at the border. Their action comes at a crucial time for Obama’s administration, which alone will have deported 2 million people by the end of this year. Meanwhile, the Dream 9 have been on hunger strike since Thursday, July 25, and although a total of seven Dreamers will now be permitted to fight their cases, the US still waits for long-term reform as Obama’s immigration reform bill sits stalled in the House of Representatives.
Prompted by the restriction of phone use, the hunger strike resulted in solitary confinement for six of the nine activists. Four have been returned back into the general population, but two - 24-year-old Lulu Martinez and 22-year-old Maria Peniche - remain in isolation for “inciting a demonstration.” The charge, while outrageous, is in fact no small estimation, as their hunger strike was joined one week later by 70 women in Eloy Detention Center, where the Dream 9 are being held.
The action at Eloy points to a larger pattern in resistance against suppressive and often inhumane policies across the globe, many enforced by the hands of the United States. This year has been one rife with hunger, with mass hunger strikes raging from Guantanamo Bay (100 detainees on hunger strike since February) to the prisons of California (which began with 30,000 prisoners on hunger strike on July 8), to the prisons of Israel (23 Jordanian and Palestinian prisoners currently on hunger strike). All of these organized protests are connected, not only because of the action that unifies them but because of what they are directly or indirectly striking against: a power- and money-driven government that will indefinitely detain innocent men to justify war, that will allow corporations to make profit off of prisons, and that will continue to funnel billions of dollars into an occupation bent on maintaining an apartheid state. This, again, is the same government that has upheld the most aggressive deportation policies in the history of the United States.
The hunger strikes - as well as the policies that they are protesting - are not coincidental events, but rather orchestrated acts of civil disobedience, which is what occurs when it is clear that compliance with the law has failed. The prevalence of hunger strikes across movements this past year evidences a steady erosion of civil liberties, a revocation of human dignity, and perhaps most obviously, the absence of legitimate government channels through which one may voice concern, leaving thousands with only their bodies as the last available means of protest against a government controlled by corporate powers that would otherwise leave them to die in silence.
The prevalence of hunger strikes this past year harkens back to a moment of escalated action in the not-too-distant past. From 2011 to the present, the world has been witnessing a wave of self-immolations committed by over 100 Tibetan protesters, mostly monks and nuns, in protest against oppressive Chinese rule. It has been identified as the biggest wave of self-immolations in 60 years a number too large to be disregarded as coincidence. And it was of course the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia that served as the final burning straw that ignited the Arab Spring.
If we recognize this pattern as an outcry for justice, then we must also have the intuition to realize that the wave of hunger strikes that we are witnessing places us in a pivotal moment in history, where the plea for justice is being made not only to those who control the systems, but to us, the witnesses, who will either stand idly by while thousands starve isolated behind closed doors - or who will hear their silence and recognize their struggle as part of our own. It is an appeal to the state, but it is also an appeal to the conscience of the greater public. But as the LA Times jarringly asked this past week: what if the public has no conscience?
Though to some, the actions taken by the Dream 9 and the subsequent hunger strike may seem extreme, but these actions share the sentiment that lies at the heart of civil disobedience - human beings taking their bodies, their final resources, and using them to demonstrate systematic injustice. In the past few decades, the public has witnessed the limitless potential that lies within the use of bodies for action. Indeed, we have watched bodies do incredible things, but seldom have we been spurred into demanding long-lasting reform. Now is the time to take up the challenge. Bodies have occupied public space, they have marched on Washington, they have sat at lunch counters, they have laid down dying in cathedrals. They have been sent across borders, and now we must bring them home.
These acts of escalation are more than protests against inhumane treatment in facilities owned by private institutions - though they are certainly that as well. They are loud, clear, resounding cries to bring humanity into a system that is so clearly mislabeled as “justice.” And in their calls for humanity, we hear echoes of our own movements across the country and across the globe. if movements fail to recognize their struggles as intrinsically tied to those occurring in Eloy, Guantanamo, Pelican Bay, and beyond, they acknowledge and accept that organizing is not a right, but rather a privilege - administered only to those who already have the right to be seen and heard.
If, instead, we recognize these links, there begins to emerge a pattern of intentional silence, of secrecy, of excessive force, and the presence of institutions - government or corporate - that benefit from it all. Beneath this, there is a fear that we will hear each other, and now is the time to do so. Movements are political, yes, but bodies are also political, just as they always have been, as struggling labor forces forming picket lines, as sites of violence beaten by police or sent to war, as vessels of liberation combatting the realities of gender inequality, and now - both figuratively and in the most literal sense possible - bodies are the only means left when we seek to break down borders.
Follow Katrina on Twitter @KCDanger.