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  Number 409 | Agosto 2015


Central America

The power of theater on the Mexican-US border: Solid and liquid border vigilance (Part 4)

One of the most revealing theories in trying to understand what’s happening on the world’s most watched border is theatricality. More than the number of actors, what’s important in this drama is the number of media spectators: a militarized border is the best proof that “the homeland is threatened” ... by migrants, who the policing theater portray as doubly dangerous: they are not only “criminals” but also foreigners.

José Luis Rocha

In last month’s installment I considered various premises to explain the decline in migrant apprehensions on the US-Mexican border, an issue that has been researched very little. It’s often quickly and off-handedly dismissed, assuming that the migrant flow has dwindled due to changing economic conditions in the United States or explained away by saying that the presence of Border Patrol agents is a powerful deterrent and therefore it makes sense to put even more of them on the border.

I’ve already shown that the Border Patrol business is both very lucrative and very inefficient. Now, we must look further into what’s happening on the Mexico-US border; in so doing, we’ll come up against the power that drama has always had, for both good and bad. Theater is one of the most revealing hypotheses in understanding what’s happening on the world’s most watched border.

The power of theatrical punishments

The media coverage of the massive migration of unaccompanied Central American children shot huge holes in the theory of a declining migration flow, or at least demanded that it be scrutinized and nuanced. Border Patrol’s ineffectiveness has caught congressional attention and reports have been requested.

Pressed to redeem its reputation and continue feeding the private prison and military production contractors, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has offset its impotence at containing migration with dramatic operations in-country from the extended border. To justify continuing the surveillance industry’s growth despite its poor results, it’s making use of theater in the sense that the historian Edward Palmer Thompson used the term in his 1993 book Customs in Common: an instrument of political control needed because “much in the political life of contemporary societies can be understood only as a contest for symbolic authority.” The control draws on theatrical expressions because it needs to regain dominion over minds: “Such hegemony can be sustained by the rulers only by the constant exercise of skill, of theater and of concession.”

This particular theater’s most classical dramatic settings are the 18th-century gallows and other sites of public punishment and even execution, applied not to all criminals but only those who could be used to exemplary effect.

According to E.P. Thompson, the effect of the theater’s terrorizing components on class control depended on local advertising, provided by the crowds who witnessed the procession to the gallows, the gossip afterwards in the markets and workshops and the selling of leaflets with the victims’ ‘last words before dying.’

When it’s hard to dismantle the scenario

An essential element of this notion of theater is that the success of actions that could be described as theatrical isn’t calculated by the numbers affected. In fact the volume of victims punished in the theater of terror can be quite limited. Nor is it related to the implementing institution’s economic rationale in the case of those benefited by charity offerings in the theater of welfare. As with any theater, what’s important to making an impact isn’t the number of actors but of spectators.

That’s why this idea is closely related to the even more radical theories of the French Marxist theorist, writer and filmmaker Guy Debord, which we can take as an extreme version of where theater builds objective reality. In The Society of the Spectacle he postulates that a spectacle isn’t a collection of images but rather a “social relation between people mediated by images” and “a worldview that’s become objectified.” He adds that “the spectacle cannot be set in abstract opposition to concrete social activity, for the dichotomy between reality and image will survive on either side of any such distinction. Thus the spectacle, though it turns reality on its head, is itself a product of real activity. Likewise, lived reality suffers the material assaults of the spectacle’s mechanisms of contemplation, incorporating the spectacular order and lending that order positive support. Each side therefore has its share of objective reality. And every concept, as it takes its place on one side or the other, has no foundation apart from its transformation into its opposite: reality erupts within the spectacle, and the spectacle is real. This reciprocal alienation is the essence and underpinning of society as it exists.”

It’s that possibility of dichotomy, allowing reality to emerge from theatrical spectacle through a media-staged obsession with vigilance, that enables the attacks on the Twin Towers to justify militarizing a border well over a thousand miles away, with its effectiveness and the dangerousness of the areas where it’s being applied evidenced by the mere number of patrol agents—despite statistics on their performance and military technology.

Certain facts may challenge the common sense instilled by the spectacle, but it’s very hard to dismantle the stage. In the case of the US crusades in the Middle East, international relations expert Der Derian tells us that faith in what are portrayed as “virtuous” wars will never be shattered by events on the ground, even if it is temporarily shaken by data about them—for example that the Iraq war has lasted longer than World War II and has already cost 4,000 US deaths, over 90,000 Iraqi deaths, almost 2 million refugees and US$3 billion.

In the case of immigration policies, evidence may show that over a decade of militarization and investment in costly technology hasn’t curbed unauthorized migration, but it doesn’t matter. The show has begun and no gloomy report can interrupt it. A militarized border is the best evidence that the homeland is being threatened.

The theater of massive raids

The theater in what the American Civil Liberties Union calls the border’s “Constitution-free zone” doesn’t suffice; it must be extended further inside the national territory as its production of hegemony depends on it being spread throughout the country. That’s the purpose of the massive raids conducted every so often by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, to the delight of xenophobes and racists.

The latest migration policy bust this year took place on a stage that extended the border spatially. In just the first five days of March, ICE launched operation Cross Check, deploying hundreds of migration patrol agents throughout the country and arresting foreigners considered a threat to public safety. According to ICE, it captured 2,059 people from 94 countries, all with criminal records, of whom 476 had previously been deported, 58 were gang members and 1,000 had committed multiple crimes including murder, child pornography, robbery, kidnapping and rape.

A little further on, the ICE report clarifies that the majority of those who had committed minor offenses were accused of driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. Still later it warned that ICE—not the prosecution or the judges—considers these offenders, particularly repeat ones, a significant threat to public safety. The 476 who reentered illegally after deportation—almost a quarter of those picked up—will be sent on to prosecutors who could ask for up to 20 years in prison for this offense alone. The latest memorandum about the apprehension and deportation of undocumented migrants demands priority for threats to public safety, starting with gang members and convicted criminals. This is the sixth nationwide sweep since 2011. The previous five totaled 13,214 arrests.

Unquestionably, this is the banopticon in action: hunting people down with computerized technology to get rid of undesirables. A computerized selection process fingers them virtually. The process constructing the targets of these raids isn’t social—such as in the stigmas Erving Goffman studied—but virtual bureaucratic, cross-tabulating stereotypes and attributes to identify migrants society can’t swallow, those who aren’t US citizen material. That’s why intensified surveillance is needed, ranging from observing behavior in the street, tracking ex-convicts and monitoring vehicle speed and even internet browsing.

This surveillance cross-tabulates war, terrorism and common crimes and presents all those netted as a threat to security. Murder, drunk driving, fraud and pedophilia are lumped together and magnified through the media. To this is added undocumented reentry.

The border is everywhere

The results of these raids are ridiculous, not only relative to the total volume of 12 million undocumented migrants but even to Border Patrol’s annually declining captures, which still amount to hundreds of thousands of detentions on the border alone.

Noting this kind of disproportion in the exercise of coercion, Thompson advises paying attention to the ritual’s forms and expressions. For example, the photos of agents posed next to houses, roaming the Bronx and surrounding apartments.

This surveillance theater manufactures criminals. The raids themselves are powerful because they dramatize the range of power and spread alarm: there are dangerous elements in your neighborhood and we’re here to protect you. This theater proclaims that New York can be subjected to the same military surveillance as Bagdad and Gaza. The means is the show’s message and constructs its reality: Border Patrol is everywhere in the country. The border has no limits. It is elongated. David Lyon explains that when dealing with the migrant population it doesn’t matter where the “undesirable” migrant is, he can be detained anywhere.

The agents locate individuals in their homes using the banopticon’s technologies: censuses, municipal documents, shopping receipts, records that are well-established as useful for detecting undesirable and removable groups. US records are facilitating those of the migrants construed to be undesirable criminals.

The powerful link created
between migrants and criminals

Most US newspapers reproduce only the information DHS releases on its webpage. It’s curious but understandable: Who would dare defend criminals? Sarah R. Saldaña, the director of ICE, offered a statement that is intimidating to any media intending to play devil’s advocate: “This national operation exemplifies ICE’s ongoing commitment to prioritizing convicted criminals and public safety threats for apprehension and removal. By taking these individuals off our streets and removing them from the country, we are making our communities safer for everyone.”

Such statements are part of the theatrical show that qualitatively transform people’s relocation. As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman explains, migrants are categorized as ‘suspected of criminal acts’ far from where they broke the law and are then relabeled as ‘criminals.’

The migration/crime link seals the illegal character of unauthorized migration and feeds into the fears already well cultivated by a religious literary industry announcing the imminent coming of the anti-Christ and the end of days. The “others”—be they common criminals, members of other religions, citizens of other countries or a combination of these and other traits—are the anti-Christ.

Unfortunately for migrants, they may combine several of these “others”: other country, other religion, other customs… The police theater paints them as doubly dangerous: criminals and foreigners. According to the analysis by University of North Carolina Professor Torin Monahan, a surveillance technologies researcher, they are presented as transgressors of social norms and spatial boundaries, seeking short-term economic benefits at the expense of law-abiding US citizens.

Statements such as Saldaña’s help form crime, migration and national security as an increasingly inseparable trio. The theater’s success in achieving this goal has to be measured. If its efforts are rewarded, militarization will be here for a good while.

All that matters is the media hype

The inevitable question is why ICE only devotes 5 days a year to public safety it it’s so highly regarded. With its vast resources, why has it implemented just over one raid a year? Perhaps the answer is that here—as in other areas of public policies—the aim isn’t effectiveness, but theatricality.

Theatricality is symptomatic of the fact that state violence isn’t directly related to numbers. There’s a disproportion here between the size of the operation and its numerical achievements: ICE deported 198,394 foreigners with criminal records in 2013. The 2,059 resulting from its one national roundup, announced with so much fanfare, barely accounts for 1% of that total.

What’s the sense in mobilizing hundreds of agents throughout the country for five days to capture fewer foreign “criminals” than on ordinary days? In 2013, ICE deported an average of 2,718 migrants with alleged crimes every five days. In 1950 a dozen Border Patrol agents directed by Albert Quillin set up a border micro-station in Río Hondo, Texas, and with just a few typewriters, two buses, a small plane, a truck and nine cars managed to apprehend more than 1,000 undocumented migrants in four days.

Once again we see that theater has no relation to the pursuit of greater immediate, quantitative impact or to cost-benefit calculations. Its efficacy depends on its media visibility. And in this, even we who oppose militarizing migration policies have, by necessity, created collaborating publicity for the theater through our indispensable denouncements.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s dramatic success

An example of how the theater of terror needs even bad press visibility as long as it’s showy is that of Joe Arpaio, self-proclaimed as “America’s toughest sheriff.” He has become a kind of celebrity who can compete for the cameras with the most renowned film stars.

Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, since 1992, he isn’t daunted by and doesn’t even lose votes because of the many lawsuits for trampling on human rights accumulated in his long career. With his John Wayne swagger, his rumbustious raids in Latino neighborhoods, his huge Tent City Jail where he houses the undocumented in Korean War surplus Army tents, his reinstitution of chain-ganging prisoners—a practice abolished since 1954—and parading them through the streets of Phoenix dressed only in pink underwear, Arpaio has shown that he could teach Stanislavski a trick or two.

In the chapter titled “Media Matters” of his 2008 book Joe’s law, Arpaio writes that his exploits are followed by more than 2,000 media of all imaginable formats from England to Korea, from Germany to Japan. They are a key tool to his many achievements: “Actually, if you think about it, the media are so consequential to my success that you could consider the entire industry one of my most valuable partners in pursuing my goals and thriving in my post.”

It doesn’t matter if a federal judge prohibits him from raiding workplaces. The theater goes on, thanks to both the good press and the bad. Arpaio isn’t actually effective: migrants pass fleetingly through his cells and his raids don’t produce large captures. But to repeat, it isn’t about numbers. Media impact is the shiniest new credential, a key element in the theater of vigilance and terror.

Arpaio has a copycat who highlights the theatricality of these antics even more: in 2011, actor Steven Seagal, famous for extremely violent films that showcase his martial arts skills, offered his services to Hudspeth County, Texas, as an anti-migrant patrol agent. After resounding success in a reality show as a Louisiana police officer, brought to a standstill through a lawsuit for sexual abuse, Seagal moved his defender of law and order show to the border. For love of his homeland, the millionaire actor will devote himself full time to capturing migrants at a salary of $15 an hour. A year earlier he joined the army of 3,000 volunteers who support Arpaio’s raids, a posse that also includes Lou Ferrigno, the Incredible Hulk. Seagal’s enrollment in it is a calculatedly firm step toward his candidacy as governor of Arizona. It’s assumed that the spectators must be convinced the border is a safer place because Seagal is using Aikido dislocations on Mexican and Central American migrants. The show would be more complete if Rocky, Batman and the Fantastic Four signed on as well. But the message was already sent: expect drama even if not lots of captures.

The border is a lethal
region for migrants

Let’s not fool ourselves: the show is real. Theater isn’t harmless. It does real harm to those it’s applied to and deposits cold hard cash into the vigilance industry. Hundreds die on the border and are missing in Central America.

But even the damage can be exhibited in a way that adds elements to the theatricality. This is what happens with the deaths in the desert. Between 1998 and 2014, 6,336 migrants died on the southwest border, an average of 373 a year, climbing from 263 in 1998 to 307 in 2014, with a high of 492 in 2005. In 2014, 37% of those deaths occurred in the Río Grande Valley area around McAllen, the region most crossed by Central Americans. They died from hyperthermia while searching for cracks in border surveillance.

Deaths on the southwest border aren’t new, however. There were many in the 1980s. Official records from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) show 300 deaths in 1985 and a high of 344 in 1988. What’s new is that all this extensive vigilance hasn’t substantially reduced the deaths, even with the declining apprehensions. In fact, the opposite has been true. In 1985 there were 2.5 migrant deaths in the border region for every 10,000 apprehensions, in 1994 this rate had declined to 1.75 and remained roughly the same through 1988, when they gradually but steadily rose to 3.4 in 2002, 4 in 2006 and 8 in 2010, reaching a high of 13 in 2012. In 2014, it inexplicably fell to 6.4.

Border Patrol has two divergent and perverse results with its greater number of agents and more funding: fewer apprehensions and more lives endangered. This inverse proportion has made the border merely a more lethal region for migrants. Border security is paid for in lives by the migrants and in dollars to the vigilance companies.

The 18th-century gallows and
21st-century media are the same show

The theatrical effect doesn’t come from the deaths on the border, but from the journalistic coverage of them. The media are the public’s shop window, just as the gallows were in 18th-century executions in England. They’re the window to the street and public exhibition of the hidden deaths taking place in the desert. Many of their headlines and reports remind us of the struggle against Nature: “Deadly chase: Arizona desert becomes immigrant deathtrap” (RT News) … “4 bodies found in Arizona desert: Authorities found four human bodies abandoned in the Arizona desert on Thursday” (CNN) … “living, breathing archaeology” in the Arizona desert (NPR)... Mainstream journalistic coverage forcefully carries an old idea: migrants are found in a state of nature. From there it’s but a step to the negligent bureaucratic treatment and the misunderstanding of those managing migration policies.

You need only dip into Kant’s old theories about infanticide committed by parents with bastard children: it can’t be called murder and, although punishable, it can’t be punished by the death penalty because “a child that came into the world apart from marriage is born outside the law (for the law is marriage), therefore outside the protection of the law. It has, as it were, stolen into the commonwealth (like contraband merchandise), so that the Commonwealth can ignore its existence (since it rightly should not have come to exist in this way), and can therefore also ignore its annihilation.”

It’s also true of migrants: introduced furtively like contraband merchandise, they have no legal existence within the US and their deaths, even their murders, cannot receive the treatment reserved for members of a legal community. Their natural state deprives them of rights because the state of nature “lacks all outward righteousness.”

Theatricality reduces them
to the status of animals

Based on that idea, which has traversed the intricacies of law throughout history, the theater is a media staging of a return to the state of nature, which migrants are guilty of through their illegal passage.

A border line has the magical effect of reducing the status of one nation-State’s citizens to mere biological entities in another nation-State. The traditional defect of the formal legal rationale—considering legal actors as disconnected from the world—is inverted to present actors driven by far-removed motives disconnected from legality.

Theatricality consists of reducing to the status of animals those who say they came (forced, compelled) for reasons as basic (biological) as the need to procure their daily bread. Those who cross the border without respecting the law leave their protective sphere, confront nature and die like animals.

When to contempt is added the deprivation of their right to political action, it becomes an act that drives them to a terrain—the desert, reality dichotomized in its own metaphor—where human rights don’t exist. Even more than Arpaio’s reality show, with his raids and parades of prisoners in pink underwear, the media’s depoliticized treatment of deaths in the desert is the consummation of the most excluding social verdict: relegating migrants to a state of nature.

Arpaio’s punishment implies tacit admission that the undocumented, punished by law, are political subjects. The force of the debate that could be applied to them is in the 10th article of the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen by the French activist and playwright Olympe de Gouges in 1791: “Women have the right to mount the scaffold; they must also have the right to mount the speaker’s rostrum.”

If the undocumented can be the object of police and legal attention, they have entered the legal-political field. But presenting them as compelled by needs that perish before the forces of nature places their death struggle in a political limbo.

“Shooting an elephant”:
The effectiveness of theater

Of course other considerations fit here, as political theatricality is a polysemous bombardment. The desert isn’t presented just as reducing things to a state of nature, but also as Border Patrol’s weapon, its ally, and conveniently one that can’t have moral responsibility, because that has become diluted on the journey from the offices of Congress people and policymakers.

In the case of Arpaio and the roundups well inside the country, an interpretation not at odds with the above, is one that understands this extreme deployment of vigilance, this displacement of agents from the dangerous border into the idyllic hinterland and this excessive toughness, as theatrical attempts to recuperate authority’s good name.

James C. Scott, a political scientist and anthropologist whose work focuses on how subaltern people resist dominance, reminds us of George Orwell’s famous essay “Shooting an elephant,” in which he reminisces on his days in Burma as a sub-divisional police officer in the 1920s: the eyes of the natives riveted on him, pressuring him to act with the authority invested in him. Scott uses the essay to exemplify that if the dominated put on a mask and recite a script to simulate submission, the powerful also have a mask and script to represent authority.

Cracking the whip and lashing with the riding crop are part of the show and aren’t directly related to the effectiveness of domination, but rather to the effectiveness of theater. This explains why citizens near the border suffer treatment supposedly reserved for the undocumented and vigilance is deployed beyond what has been become the official battlefront.

Solid and liquid vigilance
offset with theater

The obvious disproportion between border militarization and Border Patrol’s achievements is disconcerting. The theater hypothesis explains why if the undocumented are controlled with such a lack of effectiveness and efficiency, citizens harass and persecute them with such suspicion.

They’re two sides of the same coin. Harassment is the reaction of an impotent authority that wants to avoid ridicule at all cost. ICE is expected to expel: if anyone doubts its commitment to do so, there’s an outpouring of zeal that carries its willingness well inside the country and even to citizens near the border. Authority may err on the side of excess but not by default. And if it does err by default, it must redouble its excesses.

The fallibilities of solid border vigilance (walls and patrols) are offset by a theater that gives an active part to elements of liquid vigilance: biometric controls, computerized records to direct the raids and media coverage that hypes the national threat when reporting on and—by repeating the self-aggrandizing official DHS statements—inflating the operations that comb the country but only make it tremble with media help.

But this vigilance, whether solid or liquid, isn’t giving the results the policies proclaim. The paradigm of control and security has already been shown to be deeply counterproductive in mitigating terrorism. And now we’re seeing that it has no better results in border control. What it does do quite successfully is provide profits for military contractors at the expense of a radical shift: the traditional separation between civil and military spheres of influence is being blurred both on the borders and in the neighborhoods.

Citizens and non-citizens alike are treated as threats, eliminating the legal obstacles opposing militarization. As Stephen Graham noted in his 2011 book Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, eliminating that separation “means that the militarization and walling of national borders, such as that between the US and Mexico, not only involve the same techniques and technologies as the walling-off of neighborhoods in Bagdad or Gaza, but sometimes actually involve lucrative contracts being awarded to the same military and technology corporations.”

A drama that militarizes and depoliticizes

Dramaturgy’s resources, added to solid and liquid vigilance, help consummate the militarization of civilian areas and convert the border, factories, packing companies, strawberry fields and neighborhoods of Manassas, Virginia, into war settings, a transformation that eliminates politics. Where force comes in, politics goes out. As Hannah Arendt observed, “Power and violence are opposites; where one rules absolutely, the other is absent.” Although depoliticizing militarization is largely “show,” it doesn’t mean the drama diminishes the lethal; it instead helps divest it of its political character.

Without the effectiveness of the theatrical, de-politicization isn’t consummated. That’s why it’s urgent to redefine the acts of dissent by migrants that set up tensions in US society, so as to recover the political nature of the debate about crossing the border without authorization from the State.

José Luis Rocha is a member of the envío editorial council and of the Institute of Sociology at Philipps-University Marburg.

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The power of theater on the Mexican-US border: Solid and liquid border vigilance (Part 4)

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