Utah based Operation Underground Railroad (OUR) has attracted a great deal of attention since it was first endorsed by Glenn Beck, an American conservative political pundit, in 2013. This new addition to the already crowded field of anti-trafficking organisations “us[es] cutting-edge computer technology and human intelligence [to] go into the darkest corners of the world to help local law enforcement liberate enslaved children and dismantle the criminal networks.” It is this type of language that identifies OUR as yet another disturbing example of a ‘raid-and-rescue’ organisation. As Kamala Kempadoo has demonstrated, these interventions represent the latest version of the ‘white man’s burden’, with a ‘civilised’ West offering salvation and protection to ‘the rest’. While such sentiments are common, OUR takes things one step further by sending, essentially, gun-toting vigilantes to foreign countries in the pursuit of ‘hope and freedom’ for enslaved children.
A cursory assessment of OUR’s website shows that the organisation is able to capture the public’s attention by exploiting the stereotype of the ‘saviour’ and the ‘saved’. The site’s main page features Tim Ballard, an ex-CIA agent and CEO of OUR, paternalistically stroking the head of a black child. Next to the image is a link to The Ride to Freedom, a five-minute vignette discussing the process of posing as child traffickers to free child slaves and arrest the perpetrators. The “Promise” page likewise presents a photograph of a young girl who may or may not have once been a slave—though her complexion and clothing suggests she is from a ‘third world country’, and hence, vulnerable to enslavement.
OUR CEO Tim Ballard holding a 'liberated slave' in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Screenshot from ourrescue.org.
The OUR method is marked by armed infiltration and an autonomy of action that comes from not being tied to a government agency. The organisation’s YouTube channel gives viewers an inside look at rescue operations and those who are being ‘saved’. The ‘Rescue’ page features a first-person image of an armed OUR member infiltrating an open-air market and forcing everyone to the ground. Highlighting the practical application of OUR supporters’ donations has been a particularly effective tool in garnering financial support. By donating ‘a Lincoln’ ($5), one can ‘help save a slave’. One particular video features a TV actress appealing for donations to ‘join the Jump Team’ and ‘free children’.
Operation Underground Railroad has also taken advantage of the public’s interest in topics that are ‘trending’ among celebrities and public figures. On 16 March 2015, OUR officially announced its merger with the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, to ‘combine efforts in the fight against human trafficking’. Smart, a Utah native kidnapped at the age of fourteen and missing for nine months, has been at the forefront of anti-trafficking activism in the state for several years, making regular presentations at schools, concerts, and conferences. Smart’s support for OUR has been a marketing and PR dream for the organisation, as it connects local activism against human trafficking to their established international portfolio. It gives legitimacy and credibility to a business model that might otherwise have attracted more critical analysis.
YOURrescue, the sister site of OURrescue, offers a particularly shocking outlet for ‘kickstarter’ campaigns aimed at funding rescue missions. A quick glance at the on-going campaigns elicits such quaint phrases as ‘rescue their innocence’, ‘liberate the captive’, and even ‘rescuing 40 child slaves for Katie’s 40th’ (see below). These campaigns not only perpetuate the image of the slave (who is almost always non-Caucasian) as ‘Other’, but they also satiate the public’s appetite to ‘get something done’. This in turn reinforces the delusion that all it takes to save the world from slavery is money and guns.
YOURrescue campaign. Screenshot from yourrescue.org.
The popular appeal of OUR and its humanitarian visage needs to be examined further. The organisation’s ‘on the ground’ team consists of mostly ex-military personnel, while the office staff focuses on business, marketing, and international relations. Given that Operation Underground Railroad gets its name from the nineteenth-century effort to assist slaves in the American South fleeing to the north, one would expect this organisation to place more interest on the historical, political, and economic context in which various forms of unfreedom thrive today. Indeed, the website’s ‘Become an Abolitionist’ page features images of Abraham Lincoln with a caption describing the president as the ‘original abolitionist’, disregarding any anti-slavery efforts pre-dating Lincoln. Such misconceptions place American—or, more broadly, Western—ideals at the forefront of international humanitarian efforts.
Operation Underground Railroad has taken the model of ‘raid and rescue’ to its logical conclusion, with ex-CIA agents engaging in covert operations and militarised interventions. OUR shares very little in common with historical abolitionists, but instead forms part of a larger trend where militarised ‘solutions’ have been applied to an ever increasing range of cases. Militant activism disregards a variety of domestic and international political and social concerns, particularly regarding sovereignty and personhood. As NGOs such as OUR vie for power and influence with governments and local authorities both home and abroad, we need to encourage a broader public discussion of these ‘raid and rescue’ groups and their destructive repercussions.