Refugees are People – Alternatives to a Photo

To call the image of Aylan Kurdi ‘tragic’ doesn’t seem to be enough. The word can’t carry the necessary levels of revulsion, horror, anger, upset, not only at the image itself but at the fact it has gone ‘viral’ today. To even write that in the context of a dead three-year old boy feels so, so wrong.

Aylan and his family, hailing from Kobanî in Syria, were attempting to get to Canada, where his aunt Teema and other family members lived. The authorities in Canada had already rejected an application for refugee status made by the family, with the fact that the UN does not register Syrian-Kurdish refugees in Turkey as refugees and the Turkish state does not give them exit visas cited as ‘complexities’ leading to the decision.

Aylan’s father, Abdullah, survived. We don’t know what he thinks about his son’s corpse making front pages around the globe and popping up on social media sandwiched between Buzzfeed lists and the Miley Cyrus/Nicki Minaj ‘beef’. Who knows if anyone has even asked him? He may plan to take the bodies of Aylan, Aylan’s brother Galip and their mother Rehan back to Kobanî but the image will endure long after even Abdullah is dead. It belongs to us now, weaponised as a means to ‘make people care’.

It’s said 11 other people died in the drowning which claimed Aylan. The UNHCR states that over 2,500 have died in recent months attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Fortress Europe. Amnesty states that over 1,700 died in the same circumstances in the period January-April. In Syria and Iraq alone, some 15 million people have been displaced (to elsewhere within and externally) in the past few years, while poverty, war and persecution has led millions to flee Libya, South Sudan, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Myanmar, Nigeria, Ukraine and more. This is not a new problem – the UNHR stated in June that the number of people displaced in the world was at its highest point since World War II –  yet Aylan’s image is being shared with a previously unseen sense of urgency and purpose.

Clearly some good will come from this, yet it is profoundly troubling that we as a society instrumentalise the image of a dead child in order to ‘make people care’. Without wishing to diminish the complexity of the situation, the countries contibuting directly to the refugee crisis are almost without exception ones which have been subject to colonial, imperialist interference by the countries now hand-wringing over how many refugees to take, scrapping sea rescue operations and whether to use gunboats to deter the people from coming. Decisions have been made in afternoon meetings which have wreaked havoc on the lives of people thousands of miles away. Now we replicate this mindset, taking it upon ourselves to share images of death in order to ‘help’. Whether dead or alive, it would appear that we like our ‘victims’ to be silent and subservient. Contrast the spreading of Aylan’s image with the response to images of the on-air news shooting in the USA or of Western victims of ISIS – the latter is widely seen as morally reprehensible and met with condemnation. The bodies of ‘Westerners’ are seen as worthy of dignity and respect, not to be used as propaganda in order to ‘raise awareness’ (a motive which, in a dark irony, ISIS almost certainly uses to justify its own sharing of brutalities). It’s a mindset and dynamic present in the ebola outbreak, where images of dying black bodies contrasted with ‘human stories’ of Western victims. The racism at its core of this mindset is underlined by its presence within countries like the USA when it comes to sharing images of black victims of violence:

Though these images highlight and often expose injustice, they show human beings at some of their most vulnerable moments. Personally, if I am ever murdered or beaten, I don’t want it to become a public spectacle for critique, entertainment and observance. We consume these images for public debate and recycle them as energy to push our protests, whether it is for a protest sign or to hear Peter King say, “If you can’t breathe, you can’t talk.” In our observance of incidents, we rarely stop to ask ourselves what the victim would think of our gaze.

The common thread here is that, however well-intentioned the sharing of the images are, the people in them are seen as ‘the other’, as fundamentally different from ourselves. They are seen as weaker, less able to speak for themselves, less complicated human beings, lacking in their own agency. They are seen as people ‘we’ need to save and if they keep quiet while we do it, all the better. One fundamental problem here is that it presents the problem as a humanitarian one, rather than a political one – we need to save them but there is far less focus on how we contribute to the creation of the issue in the first place.

Yet it’s clear that sharing such images can feel like doing something (and a common response to the above criticisms is ‘well what are you doing about it?) Their sharing may reflect a deeply-ingrained insidious mindset (which none of us are untouched by) but can come from a place of impotence, a sense of our own powerlessness. Here are some ideas for what we can do instead of sharing such images:

1 – If you want to post about this on social media, use that small platform to amplify the voices of those directly affected. There are interviews in newspapers, sites devoted to documenting the stories of those at the Calais camp, organisations led by migrants which seek to strengthen their own voices, events like Refugee Week and groups like Counterpoint Arts which seek to support the expression of people who have been migrants or refugees. Make an effort to find these voices – however imperfectly framed they may be (e.g. filtered through a Guardian interview) it is infinitely better in promoting our common humanity.

2 – Wherever possible, use ‘people’ instead of ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’. The latter terms aren’t to be shied away from but language matters here.

3 – Support and be led-by organisations already working in this field. Refugee Action, Migrant Rights, the Red Cross, Asylum Aid, Bail for Immigration Detainees, Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, Migrant Offshore Aid Station, the Refugee Council, Refugee Legal Centre, Music Against Borders, Doctors of the World, Asylum Welcome, Calais – People to People Solidarity, Scottish Refugee Council, the Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees, Refugee Women’s Association, Student Action for Refugees. There will be many more, including local groups. I’m sure all could use your donations but get in touch if you want to help and listen to what’s needed.

4 – Educate yourself about the facts of immigration and asylum. Some of the organisations above are good places to start with this but this brief book is a great primer. This is a brilliant read on the UK’s long, rich foundation of immigration while this makes a level-headed positive case for its benefits. There are already strong myths which have taken hold regarding the current ‘crisis’.

5 – Educate yourself about government policy on immigration and asylum. Understanding this exposes the stark hypocrisy of politicians like Yvette Cooper, who supported every aspect of New Labour’s regressive asylum policy. The Migration Observatory has a lot of good briefings while organisations like Liberty tackle the UK’s egregious policies. There are briefings on different aspects, such as the labour market, and pieces which tackle the common myths head-on. Understand the difference between ‘migrant’, ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ but ask reject the narrative of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’.

6 – Understanding the political context of immigration and asylum, make links to other issues. The current ‘debate’ is intertwined with Islamophobia and wider racism. It is linked to our foreign policy, with London Review of Books articles on our role in Syria and Iraq being a wealth of information. It is linked to the arms trade and our support for despotic regimes. It is linked to climate change. It is linked to our history of colonialism. It is linked to the politics of trade, debt and aid. Re-politicise the images we are seeing and understand our own agency here.

7 – With this knowledge, try and influence the ‘debate’ in your own way. Speaking up whenever the people around us are engaging in anti-immigrant sentiment is difficult and uncomfortable but one small way in which we can directly make a difference. Call out the media when it repeats myths, makes factually incorrect statements and perpetuates stereotypes. Write to politicians at every level demanding they fight the poisonous atmosphere around this issue. IfListen to and support those affected. Support those working in linked areas.

All of us living in countries such as the UK benefit from Fortress Europe. Understanding the violence inherent in that fortress is essential but it doesn’t mean we have to feel powerless and reduce our action to further dehumanising people or signing a petition. I probably wouldn’t have written this if the photos of Aylan hadn’t appeared everywhere but that doesn’t mean the photos should be uncritically accepted as ‘making a positive difference’. We need to educate ourselves and keep fighting this fight, long after these photos have vanished from the public consciousness into Google’s archives.

‘Collateral Murder’, Brendan Eich and the refusal of elites

It was on this day in 2010 that Wikileaks released the video, obtained via Chelsea Manning, which brought them both to public attention and made Western war crimes in Iraq unavoidable. Or so you would think. It’s entirely anecdotal but while most folk I know have heard of Wikileaks and Manning, the words ‘Collateral Murder video’ still largely draw a blank. Instead, as has happened with the revelations stemming from Snowden, the issues became focused around whistle-blowing and the treatment of the individuals whose bravery had allegedly enlightened the world. Still, if people generally still don’t seem to focus on the more shadowy actions of their governments (much easier to focus on the shadowy actions of the approved baddies) the actions of Manning and Wikileaks undoubtedly contributed to the broad suspicion which has so far stopped an outright ‘intervention’ in Syria (though our governments have continued to provide financial aid and arms to ‘Syrian rebels’). The cold ‘beauty’ of the ‘Collateral Murder’ video was that it pierced through the usual blather about how foreign policy and war are far too complicated for you or I to understand and simply presented an amoral act. The military voices in the video sound sociopathic, completely divorced from any notions of right and wrong. To paraphrase Ballard, it rubbed our face in our own vomit and forced us to look in the mirror. This is the reality of war, of ‘humanitarian intervention’. Yet if it seemed for a brief moment to offer a utilitarian lucidity in our approach to government, that hope has since faded.

There was, of course, a substantial anti-war movement across the Western world regarding Iraq. Perhaps the perceived failure of that movement has something to do with why so much of our political action has become neutered, ensnared in trite petitions and finger-pointing at others. This was an awful act committed by our governments, in our names even as we marched en masse against it. Where does that leave democracy? Sure, Blair has become a pariah in many circles now but none of our leaders or parties have really paid any price for what they did. Alistair Campbell still regularly pops up as a media commentator. Supposed leftists eagerly await the Presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, who has continually defended her support for the war and repeatedly supported extra-judicial assassination via drone warfare. The Snowden revelations have been met with a collective shrug from the majority of the population. This is politics stripped of all thought, all meaning, all hope. It’s about being seen to support the ‘goodies’ and oppose the ‘baddies’. The brutally simple message of ‘Collateral Murder’ has sank back into the fog of misinformation and ignorance. We once again think that this stuff is just too complicated.

This apathy and aversion to critical thought has, of course, been apparent in the LGBT movement and I’ve written about its abandonment of Chelsea Manning many times (almost entirely prior to her identification as Chelsea, so apologies for the references to Bradley). Our LGBT leaders and media face almost no opprobrium for allying with arms dealers, tax avoiders, the military and companies like Goldman Sachs, PWC or Barclays which have horrendous records on human rights and progressive politics. Yet, in a further example of just how beyond fucked our LGBT politics is, this week the LGBT internet flew into a rage over the fact that the new CEO of some fucking internet browser company had donated in support of Proposition 8. Apparently using Mozilla was fine when he was merely Chief Technical Officer of Mozilla was fine. And there was no question of boycotting Javascript, which he helped to create, cos that would be a bit of a hassle. Let’s also ignore that countless employees of firms like Apple, Google and Microsoft also donated to support Prop 8 or that President Obama was himself opposed to gay marriage in 2008. Hillary Clinton only came out for gay marriage last year. But heck, this is 2014 and YOU WILL LIKE US GODDAMNIT!

Few would defend Eich’s donation but the perversity of a political movement which will happily align itself with companies dealing arms to brutal despots while hounding someone for opposing gay marriage 6 years ago is clear. Do we hound prominent LGBT journalists like Dan Savage, Andrew Sullivan or Johann Hari for their vocal support for the Iraq war (amongst many other sins)? Indeed, can you imagine any CEO being faced with a fire storm like this because they oppose trade unions, strong rights for workers, avoid tax and fleece taxpayers via ineffectual monopolies? Of course not – in fact someone like Richard Branson, who does all of these things, is one of the most prominent and admired businessmen in the world. Similarly Steve Jobs, who built Apple on the back of horrendous labour practices and who sent a solitary smiley face in response to news that he’d gotten a lowly Google employee fired, is near canonised.

Why don’t we care about this stuff? I suspect it’s the same infantilisation which so characterises our approach to government: we think this stuff is just too complicated and best left to the serious white folk in suits who know what they’re talking about. Once you’ve abandoned that critical space, you’re wide open to the absurd, trite marketing which assures you that companies DO LIKE YOU! If Brendan Eich had a history of using child labour or campaigning against welfare, dissemination would have ruled the day and he would still be in his post. His views on gay people, though – those we think we can parse.

It’s reductive and insulting. Chelsea Manning is someone who exemplifies for us that we can pay attention to the things that matter. We can educate ourselves about what our governments and corporations do. More than that, we must, because it’s largely being done in our names and with our money. We should be wary of rushing to quick judgements or actions (so typical of the clicktivism movement) but we should also never accept that these issues are too difficult for us and best left to the ‘experts’. That path leads to unchecked power and tyranny.  ’Collateral Murder’ did not distort or misinform – it merely demanded that we pay attention. Doing so honours not only Manning’s bravery and those we see murdered in the video but the countless, nameless others who are harmed in our names on a daily basis.

 

Solidarity with Chelsea Manning

Today marks the beginning of Chelsea Manning’s 4th year in prison and a week of action to mark this grim anniversary. After years without trial – years in which she was subjected to torture – her court martial finally begins next week. Abandoned both by the traditional human rights organisations and by the single-issue morons of Gay Inc, her name is still not widely known and few people are perturbed by her experience. Fewer still will see a link between Manning’s actions and what happened in Woolwich last week yet Manning’s efforts to bring the brutality and illegality of the ‘war on terror’ as experienced on the ground clearly has profound implications as to why so many are so angry at certain parts of the West. Indeed, it’s often argued that Manning’s actions directly led to the US winding down its activities in Iraq far more swiftly than they otherwise would have.

I’ve written about Manning several times so I won’t repeat myself. One point to note however: next week also sees the ‘equal marriage’ Bill reach the House of Lords in the UK and already the usual crowd are whipping up self-victimising melodrama over it. Many of these people don’t even seem to understand what powers the House of Lords have regarding the Bill. Pay attention to the self-flattering hysteria which is whipped up when these debates are happening and compare it to the deafening silence on Manning, a clear example that the rhetoric around perceived slights against LGBT people is increasingly only applied when it doesn’t actually rock the boat or challenge authority too much. Many don’t seem to understand that rights, particularly rights which are bestowed by national governments, mean almost nothing – it’s the lived experience of people that matters. This is why we need to defend the rights of those who break the law in efforts to hold unchecked power to account. This is why we need to understand that notions of ‘equality’ can never, ever be reduced to a legal framework. Solidarity with Chelsea Manning.

Edit – Soon after posting this I saw this piece from the brilliant Ian Cobain on the UK’s appalling human rights record. It follows on exactly from what I wrote above and underlines it perfectly. Compare the sound and fury generated by ‘equal marriage’ rights to the attention given to issues of torture, immigration, justice and so on. This is, of course, not something confined to gay activists but rather widespread amongst those of a ‘liberal’ bent.