Hawk Newsome, Black Lives Matter. All rights reserved.
From Australia’s offshore prison on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, the author and filmmaker Behrouz Boochani, who has been incarcerated there for five years, sent an impassioned appeal to Australian academics to mark a National Day of Action on October 17:
Definitely Manus and Nauru prison camps are philosophical and political phenomena and we should not view them superficially. The best way to examine them is through deep research into how a human, in this case a refugee, is forced to live between the law and a situation without laws. There are laws that can exile them to an existence where they have recourse to no law.
In this situation, the human is living as something in between a human and another kind of animal. How is the Australian government able to keep two thousand innocent people, especially children, under these conditions in remote prisons for years in an age of revolutions in information technology? How can the government convince Australian society to maintain this policy, when so much damning evidence is available? …
It’s not the first time in modern Australian history that the government is perpetuating this kind of fascist policy. Just remember the Stolen Generations, and what governments have done and still do to First Nations people. The government has now reinvented those barbaric policies at the beginning of the 21st Century, but this time to also inflict them on refugees.
We should ask questions about this again and again, and it’s the duty of academics to do research that unpacks where these policies stem from, why they are maintained and how they can be undone. It’s the duty of academics to understand and challenge this dark historical period, and teach the new generations to prevent this kind of policy in future.
This message could be a manifesto for the Deathscapes project. Crossing visual culture, aesthetic politics, critical theory and social justice activism, Deathscapes is a transnational research project that documents racialized deaths in custody across Australia, Canada, the United States, the UK/EU, situating them within the shared contexts and interrelated practices of the settler state as they are embedded within contemporary global structures.
Through the inclusion of the UK and EU, as historical points of origin for settler colonialism, the project traces the continuing processes of racialization in these places, and what Nicholas De Genova describes as the often disavowed “brute racial fact” of the current European border regime.
Deathscapes connects past and present practices through which states have sought to render selected subjects “something in between a human and another kind of animal,” enabling in turn the deaths of these subjects in the custody of state agencies: deaths at the hands of police, deaths in the presence of coast guards and border patrols, deaths in prisons, holding cells and immigration detention centres.
Sovereignty, the border and the settler state
The delineation of the border is central to the project of the settler colonial state, as it overrides the borders of pre-existing nations and assumes the right to determine who may or may not enter the new territorial entity of the settler nation. As Patrick Wolfe argues, the eliminatory logic of settler colonialism, with its aspiration to expunge the presence of the Indigene from the land and to assert its own usurping sovereignty in its place, is predicated on overrunning existing borders and establishing new ones in their place.
Redrawing the borders secures settler colonial ownership of the new national entity in space as well as time, and assumes the power to confer or withhold citizen status within it.
Indigenous peoples, displaced, dispossessed and stripped of national status, themselves become refugees on their own land losing, among other crucial rights of sovereignty, the right to offer hospitality within their borders.
In connecting Indigenous deaths and other racialized deaths, such as those of refugees and migrants within settler states, the Deathscapes project does not collapse the differences between these groups, but rather aims to make visible the shared strategies, policies, practices and rationales of state violence deployed in the management of these separate racialized categories.
One of these shared practices, as already indicated, is the assertion of sovereignty as the sole prerogative of the state, along with the accompanying prerogative to control the movement of bodies within those borders.
Agents of trafficking
Following this logic, Muscogee scholar Sarah Deer has argued that colonialism in the Americas has long relied on the trafficking of Indigenous people across borders to establish and secure settler dominance over the land. Considered as a practice internal to settler states such as Canada and the US, rather than one through which the global south attempts to infiltrate the global north, trafficking becomes visible as an act of territorial violence against Indigenous women, in particular.
Understood within the framework of the settler colonialism, the states of Australia, Canada and the US are revealed as themselves agents of trafficking rather than helpless bystanders or enlightened enforcers of international law. Kwakwaka’wakw scholar Sarah Hunt invokes this logic when she asks, “If human trafficking is about forced movement, exploitation, and the misuse of power in controlling the bodies of marginalised people, who has control over the movement, labour and bodies of Indigenous girls and women in Canada?” The settler state’s “misuse of power in controlling the bodies of marginalised people” at the same time offers a framework for understanding the Australian government’s contemporary practices of forcibly moving refugee and asylum seeker children and families to offshore island prisons.
Attending to strategies of sovereign territoriality thus makes it possible to connect forms of violence directed against refugees and Indigenous groups in new ways, for example by tracking interrelations of historical and current practices of displacement and enforced mass movement, of transportation and deportation. Even as the project marks the historical differences that distinguish practices of displacement and enforced mass movement, it also traces the lines of connection that interlink these same practices.
So, for example, the iconographies of the Middle Passage find their returns in today’s desperate and brutalizing voyages from African coasts. The separation of children from their parents in residential schools in Canada and missions in Australia find their echoes in the current US policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border; in the context of the latter, African American scholar Jelani Cobb reminded us in 2017 that “the separation of families has deep roots in the American past” and that the separation and sale of children, “was such a common feature of slavery”.
A central resource
The relationality and connectivity between, and across these histories and practices are key to the design of the Deathscapes website. The site documents selected case studies of where deaths and violations happen, as well as providing the social and critical tools to examine how these deaths are understood and responded to.
As a resource that is both archival and analytical, and for use by multiple publics, the website is aimed at addressing a challenge often faced by researchers studying shared circuits of knowledge and modes of governance: the difficulty of accessing information about state violence through a central resource. The transnational focus and methodology adopted by the project invites website visitors to identify key continuities that inscribe racialized deathscapes across diverse locations, and to connect the differential dimensions that might appear to be confined to an individual nation-state, beyond and across the individual stories.
The Deathscapes site visually links deaths in custody across the different states, layering images and text and developing key categories that operate across the case studies. The cases currently on the site (still in progress) include the death of Indigenous elder Mr Ward inside a prison van operated by G4S as he was transported across the Western Australian desert; the death of Anastasio Hernández Rojas who was beaten and tasered to death by US border agents as he was being deported to Mexico; and the death of Jimmy Mubenga in the custody of G4S guards as he was being deported from the UK.
The case studies are visually as well as analytically linked. The layered use of images and text presents a multi-dimensioned analysis that aims to connect the deaths transnationally to one another, while also linking back in time to the colonial genealogies of current practices. In the case of Mr Ward, for example, his removal from his land can be situated against a long history of Indigenous people being transported for long distances in manacles and chains for incarceration in offshore prisons such as Rottnest Island, off the Western Australian coastline.
Two separate sections, Inspirations and Galleries, present a snapshot of the transnational and multi-dimensioned underpinnings of the project, drawing on performance, poetry and visual art as well as critical theory and activist manifestos, while Engagements encompasses a range of activities, including publications, talks and dispatches, where team members present immediate reports from unfolding inquests. These case studies, dispatches from inquests in progress, and activist art projects all work together to make connections across technologies of punishment and criminalization, and sites of incarceration and punishment.
The latter are often operated by the same private contractors, as in the case of domestic and ICE prisons in the US; or in Australia, in “on-shore” and “offshore” prisons. In Australia the former are populated disproportionately by Aboriginal prisoners, whereas the latter are designed to hold asylum seekers who arrived by boat.
A site of resistance
In seeking to connect practices and places of state violence, the Deathscapes website is also concerned to foreground transnational practices of resistance to the systematic targeting and punishment against racialized peoples: Indigenous, Black, refugee and migrant groups. Deathscapes situates itself within these transnational practices of resistance and works to underscore the critical significance of establishing solidarity movements whose aim is to expose and, ultimately, to end regimes of racialized punishment.
On a recent visit to Australia, Hawk Newsome, a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement, spoke at the inquest for the Indigenous Dunghutti man David Dungay, whose death in Long Bay prison was accompanied by cries of “I can’t breathe.” Standing with Mr Dungay’s family and supporters in a powerful show of solidarity, Hawk Newsome underscored the transnational racial violence that continues to kill people in both Australia and the US: “It’s the same story, different soil. It’s the same thing from Long Bay to the USA. In Sydney, his name is David Dungay. In New York City, his name is Eric Garner. Eric Garner called for his life 11 times. David Dungay called for his life 12 times. These eerie similarities cannot go ignored.”
The refusal to ignore the chilling similarities in racialized custodial deaths across states animates the Deathscapes project: same story, different soil.
The London Launch of the Deathscapes project takes place on Thursday, 8th November 2018, 6-9 pm, at Goldsmiths, University of London. More information and where to register (free of charge) for this event is available here. The event is being live-streamed and recorded.
Cobb, Jelani. “Juneteenth and the Detention of Children in Texas,” The New Yorker June 19, 2018.
De Genova, Nicholas. “The ‘Migrant Crisis’ as Racial Crisis: Do Black Lives Matter in Europe?,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 41, 10 (2018): 1765-1782.
Deer, Sarah. “Relocation Revisited: Sex Trafficking of Native Women in the United States,” William Mitchell Law Review 821 (2010).
Hunt, Sarah. “Colonial Roots, Contemporary Risk Factors: a cautionary exploration of the domestic trafficking of Aboriginal women and girls in British Columbia, Canada,” Alliance News 33 (July 2010), 27-31.
Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native,” Journal of Genocide Research, 8:4 (2006): 387-409.