The New York Times reported in November 2019 that a “federal judge has ruled that the government must provide mental health services to thousands of migrant parents and children who experienced psychological harm as a result of the Trump administration’s practice of separating families.” The legal scholar interviewed for the article calls this a groundbreaking decision, noting that the court utilized the “state-created danger” doctrine to hold the government reliable for the violence and resulting trauma inflicted on migrant families through their multifaceted determent and detention practices. (In past cases, this has been applied to cases of e.g. exposure to toxins in public work places or exposure to extreme cold by police officers.) The news article itself evoked sympathetic images and character tropes well-worn in public discourse, such as the impoverished, heteronormative, decent and distraught migrant mother and child exposed to the violent techniques of the state. In the public imaginary, there is also the trope of the bad hombres and rapists, of hordes of pathologically criminal, dark skinned madmen assaulting our national borders, used to justify so-called determent policies. Both of these representations of the migrant figure compete for our attention and seek to spur us into action.
Jasbir Puar in her sharp analysis helps bring into critical focus that both kinds of representations can be traced to technologies of containment and care, both create and maintain bodies made susceptible to and in service of domination under the economics of neo-liberal, colonial, racial capitalism.
In the US there are currently over 200 immigrant prisons, 60-73% of those detained are held in privately run prisons (as compared to private prisons holding 9% of the otherwise detained) – this is for all immigrants held, not just the migrants detained at the southern border. A critique and critical analysis of the image of the migrant as threat is perhaps more readily available in scholarly as well as public discourse. For the sake of brevity, I will just note that migrant detention centers, forced separations, non-consensual drugging, are not new inventions by the current administration, but have echoes in historical and current state technologies that violently contain and capacitate diverse people into social groups made available for profit to the nation state. For example:
- privatized migrant detention centers echo and expand the private and public prison industrial complex, “managing” black and brown bodies for profit;
- forced separation and scanty documentation echoes the kidnapping of indigenous children in school prisons (stripping of parents, language, culture);
- non-consensual drugging, and medical debilitation and murder by disregard in dehumanizing imprisonment also have multiple echoes from forced sterilizations of brown and/or disabled women, to medical experimentations and drug trials on black and brown people;
- most recent attempts at changing/adding immigration laws continue the racist, xenophobic history of their development, always applied in response to imagined “pollution” of the national white able-bodied “stock.”
Arguably, the court decision mentioned above (if and how it would be put in practice is still to be seen) seems to take a sympathetic stance on the issue, intervening on behalf of a distraught migrant figure. Analyzing with a disability and debility lens, as demonstrated in Puar’s work, cautions us to celebrate too quickly a court issued mandate to deliver mental health treatment.
Using Puar’s line of analysis, we can trace how debilitating trauma can become a tool of the nation state that creates racialized “mad people”: unruly, distressed, unbecoming, disposable in the eyes of the nation-state yet necessary in their precarity and correct-ability. If this court decision is implemented, it may contribute to the capacitation of migrants as traumatized, but profitable group, usable within the medical care industrial complex. (Puar argues that accepting the taxonomy of the state [migrant, immigrant, asylum seeker, refugee, resident alien] means risking participation in the normalization of debility and the state’s aim to incapacitate, punish, contain, debilitate, and disable particular groups to make them profitable and useful.) Further, the court ruling leans on merging human rights and disability rights frameworks, a conceptual move that individualizes trauma that is debilitating capacitated communities, while concurrent racialization mechanisms withhold capacitation into disability “proper” (disability as property of white heteronormative citizen bodies). Mental health diagnoses can do political work through individualizing symptoms that are a mark of community trauma. For example:
- typical media reports cast suicide committed in (or because of) ICE detention as an individual failure to properly “deal” with trauma, and this individualizing can be concurrent with a racialization of symptoms
- some recent theories of suicide, suicide among Japanese Americans has been connected to individualized shame that is rendered “culturally specific” to Asians – a mechanism that veils the trauma of WW2 Japanese internment camps and the lingering and generational trauma effected
- the diagnostic label “residential school syndrome” for kidnapped indigenous children turns the gaze away from state violence on communities, their non-human relatives, and land by locating effects of indigenous genocide in individualized mental health symptoms only.
Puar assists us in noticing how actions and policies geared towards “adequate treatment” of particular capacitated groups can be part of the connective tissue between immigration, psychiatry, and criminal justice systems that marks out non-whiteness for institutional control. When the aim of political and social action is to cure the pain of border bodies with mental health services, granting entry status, or other kinds of “healing fixes,” they can amount to rehabilitative technologies that assimilate bodies into domination. Capacitation of migrant bodies as pitiful, mentally ill, debilitated individual makes them useful as objects and consumers of care yet retains traces of their perceived economic burden, maintaining their precarity and disposability under control of the nation-state.
How then ought we imagine critical interventions, especially as we concede that our embodied imagination is shaped in living / surviving / resisting with-in the reach and dynamics of the neo-liberal state? How do we nurture our moral imagination and configure political resistance?
I have great appreciation for Puar’s work, especially because she so decidedly grounds her analysis in embodied experiences of those disabled and debilitated, whose lives and intellectual contributions are rendered disposable. Below, I want to sketch out a couple of existing and potential avenues for analysis that center crip knowledge of concepts such as interdependence, mutual care, and radical acts of love (concepts often romanticized and flattened). “Crip,” as introduced by Robert Ruer, is the intersection of disability and sexuality, queerly related. Crip ways of knowing center on exposing and reproducing disjunction, limits of knowing, and conceptual messiness, though certainly always under pressure from neoliberal domestication and containment into forms of identity politics.
In crip spaces, we see how identity paradigms enforced by white supremacy, ableism, sanism, and settler colonialism can be navigated productively through a kind of crip knowledge Mingus calls “access intimacy.” Mingus describes processes of developing an understanding of access needs, an understanding that does not come as automatic magical recognition. It is a process and learnable skill, knowledge that is generated in learning to ask questions about needs and respecting embodied knowledge – and then creating that accessible space together. This kind of access intimacy skill can be taken into the political action sphere. For example, Caleb Luna, a fat, brown, queer, femme, activist with Fat Rose, makes connections between indigenous, disabled, fat, queer, black, brown, and other communities that are “being intentionally starved, institutionalized, and tortured,” that are “being separated, shut away, controlled, disposed of, incarcerated in prisons, nursing homes, fat camps, psych institutions, or generally told they are the problem for society’s woes.” This was part of an organized an action called “Close the Camps” – a solidarity event with detained migrants that used as their framework for forging connections the experiencing of disposability in a nation state that prioritizes capitalist values of independence and racist, colonial imaginings of national belonging. Here, we see access put forth in terms of life, not rights-based access to services. Here, political action is informed by a recognition that state technologies control and debilitate life, and solidarity is built around removing that which prevents flourishing of life rendered disposable.
Another model for action and strategies are crip-made care webs: trauma-informed, crip-grounded accessible spaces that seek to create just and sustainable mutual care. In care webs, there is knowledge of complexities of navigating a white colonial (racist, sexist, homophobic, fat phobic, queer phobic, etc.) care industry complex. Care webs practices embody reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit, and echo pre-colonial and anti-colonial complex webs of exchanges and care, sites of political organizing and community. Care webs often do not follow a progressive success model and are centered on sustainability of resources and life.
Note: Since I wrote this essay at the end of 2019, we began living in a time of a global pandemic and surging national protests and insurrections in the struggle for greater racial equity and ending violent state technologies. During this time, care webs, mutual aid networks, sprang up nationwide, connecting persons with resources in the ways described above. At this moment, what I was able to notice in my local context is the creative navigation of converging embodied needs and political aims: connecting embodied needs for housing, health care, bail funds, protest mobilization and support, recognition of indigenous sovereignty, strengthening of sustainable resource exchanges and ecosystem care, etc. Crip knowledge creation about access also includes our relatedness to land and non-human life, it dignifies all human embodiment, but also decenters anthropocentric modes of activism. For example, Eli Clare connects monocultures and disposability of ecosystems with eradicating abnormal human differences. We can see this in disability activism liberation of all living systems and the land as integral to the liberation of our own communities, as we are all share one planet. There is much creative work done in webbing all kinds of persons into networks of mutuality that are also sites of organizing and political action and re-imaginations.
In the last several months, the technologies enacted at the US southern border conflict and the trauma inflicted there have found ripples inside the nation-state. (It seems no accident to me that the bodies deployed for violent suppression of protests in cities such as Portland, Oregon are homeland security agents suppressing domestic resistance to symbols, technologies, and systems of harm. After all, the threat to the state is that borders drawn between bodies are “illegally” crossed in acts of mutual recognition and solidarity.)
Responses to the many crises and inflicted traumas in the multiple border zones we witness today are needed. I wonder what it might look like if, rather than focusing on court and rights based advocacy, we seek to support the bodily and mental well-being of all persons, human and non-human, caught up in technologies of violence with a crip lens that seeks access to life, life as it desires to flourish in specific contexts? What could it look like if we collectivize not around “normal” affinity groups, the kinds capacitated through the state technologies Puar describe, but collectivize outside the sanctioned identities, in overlaps of “misfit”, where we care from and within the variability of our embodiment? What would it look like to strategize towards creating spaces where care webs can flourish, where access to well-being and mental health is shaped by those “webbed into” mutual care, who get to define what they need, how, and when, and in which the messiness of interdependence is taken into account? What would it look like to create possibilities for not a one-size fits all, but for contextual, precarious, and shifting interdependencies to emerge? By messiness of interdependence, I notice that typically, accepting care often can mean accepting queerphobia, transphobia, fatphobia, sexphobia from care attendants, vulnerability to abuse by caretakers. Power imbalances frequently cause abuse and neglect for the person receiving care, but low wages and exploited labor for the person providing care are also part of the dynamic. Interdependence exists, whether it is laced with mutuality and respect or with struggle and exploitation.
Answering these questions requires moral imagination, spiritual resilience, and political courage. Crip communities as epistemological base can point us to the potential for multiple forms of radical political imagination in the midst of struggling and surviving multiple layers of trauma; imagination that is not contingent on being able of body, mind, or emotions, but built into deep-possibility models of social transformation. For example, there is crip epistemology in the HOW of surviving during enslavement, colonial invasion, racist policing, debilitation as workers within the care industry complex – evading the state systems of policing, controlling bodies that dangle access and care in exchange for taking away control, autonomy, and dignity. More questions that emerge include: What body epistemologies inform us of surviving even when the borders that keep us contained within the possible and liveable have shifted? What experiences of unconditional friendliness are possible when opportunities are created where bodies debilitated by the racist, colonial, capitalist nation-state claim space in the public sphere as critically mad and in pain? When meaning making preference is centered on the unruly, disposable, unbecoming people in the behavioral, functional, cognitive, sensory, and emotional variations resulting from debilitation, to borrow Simi Linton’s phrasing? Crip epistemologies, and related emerging modes of analysis in these contextual and precarious communities are critical to heed, especially in our time of an intensifying climate crisis, pandemic-exacerbated multiple vulnerabilities and debilitation, and an increase in overt violent disabling/debilitation by agents of the state in response to domestic protests.
Buffalo, NY, July 2020. With appreciation to Jasbir Puar, for always making us think more complexly, so we can imagine more boldly.