Sunday, February 26, 2017

Underground Imaginaries

Harriet Tubman's birthplace on the Eastern Shore of Maryland:
"A Grandmother Has Been Deported With Just £12 In Her Pocket Despite Living In Britain For The Past 30 Years. Irene Clennell was put on a flight to Singapore on Sunday before she had the chance to speak to her lawyer, or see her British husband to say goodbye." - from Buzzfeed 
As a child, my overactive imagination was captured by some story in one of those 'True Histories' books about the Underground Railroad, the network of friendly allies, safe houses and known routes which helped a small number of enslaved people escape the Southern states to Canada and the Northern USA in the first half of the 19th century. It was a straightforward story, of good versus evil, and of the strong helping the 'weak'. A story about the heroism of Harriet Tubman and hundreds like her, and one which of course chimed with my nascent guilt about my own privilege. 
There is a good article by Kathryn Shulz in the New Yorker which describes how the Underground Railway was reported and mythologised, how history has placed a misleading focus onto white allies, particularly religious people such as Quakers, while not always highlighting the far greater risk faced by black people, particularly former slaves, who worked around the network. It doesn't shy away from exploring the complex reasons which make someone in safety help someone in danger, and the range of emotions, some perhaps more worthy than others, which draw us to the story today.
"In terms of content, it describes one of the darkest eras of American history; in terms of form, it is, in a way, the perfect American story. Its plot is the central one of Western literature: a hero goes on a journey. Its protagonist obeys the dictates of her conscience instead of the dictates of the state, thereby satisfying our national appetite for righteous outlaws."
I'll always love the story, and I think the message that I first understood aged six or seven - that it is the duty of the privileged to work for the freedom of the oppressed - still holds true.
There are two other important lessons to be learned from the Underground Railroad which came to me later: firstly, as so many great freedom fighters have shown, 'All immoral laws must be disobeyed' (Marcus Garvey). Secondly, the only people who can truly free the oppressed are the oppressed, or as Brecht neatly paraphrased Marx:
'Es kann die Befreiung der Arbeiter
nur das Werk der Arbeiter sein.'
This is relevant now, as in these dark times people emerge all over the place contributing in scattered, elusive ways to an 'underground railroad' of our own, both here and across the Atlantic.
How far will you go?
An earnest young anarchist told me in Lesvos last summer that we should first give our passports away to Syrians stuck in Greece or Turkey; only after doing this, taking this risk, symbolically showing our solidarity, could we fully participate in the migration struggle that is marking our epoch. I disagree, but the passion of his words stayed with me. They stayed because of the powerful, simplified demand that all activists prove their conviction and commitment (although I disagree with this, because it in itself enshrines privilege as a necessity for engagement: you have to be pretty white, provably European, presentably 'innocent', probably middle class to get away with this even once).
Over the last few years, I have seen the strategies employed by migrants and refugees to create a road where all roads have been closed: by sharing scant food, by making and disseminating maps, by giving away (and selling) their own hard-won documents at their journeys' ends. Many parts of our contemporary 'railroad' are exploitative and abusive, and all are dangerous. The blood on the hands of people smugglers is neither negated nor erased by the the blood on the hands of our governments. There are heroes, both migrants and long-term residents, who will remain unsung until the shame of Fortress Europe is revealed as one of the great horrors of its time. Now, to name these people or even to praise their tireless work too specifically would be to expose them: those with the right papers to censure, public threats or imprisonment, those without to deportation and danger.
However there are a few examples which bring hope, such as Cédric Herrou, the olive farmer on the French-Italian border who got off with a suspended fine after a wave of public support for his aid to migrants. The great Movement for Justice reveals not only the strength and solidarity of migrant communities under threat, but also the flexibility and innovation of contemporary movements: there are big actions, small actions, letter-writing and direct actions on runways and mass bussed-out demonstrations at isolated rural detention centres. For those able to participate there is always risky work to be done, but anyone can join in. 

For me personally, seeing familiar faces from the Calais camp at a London 'Refugees Welcome' march was like a ray of sun emerging between banked grey storm clouds. These people had "ended" their journey (not that anyone ever does), yet they came out to demand justice for those still stranded on the way: they had not been welcomed to the UK with open arms, but they were nonetheless citizens in the real meaning of the word, walking the overcast streets of London to show they fully assumed both the rights, and the responsibilities, that citizenship should contain.

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