Abstract: In this article, the authors examine the ways in which the state, broadly understood as a technique, practice, and effect of modern governance and its optimization, creates impossible conditions for radical political transformation in the U.S. To illustrate these conditions, the authors show how the state relies upon notions of decency or civility to enact and elide blatant colonialism. The authors draw from the following examples to advance this argument: the “EPA Spill” or the ongoing environmental genocide shaping life across occupied Indigenous lands in the U.S. Southwest; the surprising, yet all too ordinary, election of President Trump; and the racist detainment of children from Central America in the name of humanitarian “law and order.” The authors contend that because these acts illustrate how Euro-American colonial norms continue to shape everyday violence, abolition as a praxis and vision must contend with how to burn down all of the mechanics of contemporary governance, to cooperatively dismantle the state as such, before promoting alternative social systems and political worlds. One way that the authors propose to accomplish this is to incinerate decency as an organizing precept for democracy, civic comportment, and political participation.
[Featured image above: art by Amanda Priebe – “Spare the Rod,” Screenprint, 2016]
Keywords: decency, colonialism, environmental racism, necropolitics, migrant detention
“Let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better.”
-Claire Vaye Watkins
Introduction: The Contemporary State and the “Decent Fellow”
This journal calls for abolition, a call implicitly asserting that contemporary sociopolitical and economic institutions are inherently unfixable and beyond resuscitation, reform, or rescue. The fantasy of radically changing political structures from within is simply not a viable political option for those concerned with the ultimate destruction of the mechanisms of carnage that shape modern life and its attendant regimes of governance, such as: the global war machine, the prison industrial complex, transnational resource extraction, and the national sacrifice areas (Ortiz 1992) generated in the wake of these lethal socioeconomic configurations and expressions of empire.[i] Rather than drawing from these regimes of death for social and legal recognition, power, and welfare—what we broadly refer to as the “state”—consider what it would mean to the modern ordering of life to utterly destroy the state, to refuse its seductions and ruses of power, to incinerate it until nothing remains but ash?
Our imperative to “burn it down” draws from a rich tradition of scholarship that positions the state as a technique, practice, and effect of modern governance and its optimization, rationalization, and normalization. Following Timothy Mitchell, we define the state as a “network of institutional mechanisms through which a certain social and political order is maintained” (Mitchell 2006, 175). In the words of Michel Foucault, the state functions as “a schema of intelligibility for a whole set of already established institutions, a whole set of given realities” (Foucault 2004, 286). As a schematic and reality, we perceive the state as providing a legible matrix for the parameters of self-management and self-conduct: for social and political order. As Achille Mbembe insists, the adoption of state or sovereign power is “a twofold process of self-institution and self-limitation” (Mbembe 2003, 13). Attendant to the important critiques made by Fanon, we argue that this twofold process remains shaped by Euro-American colonial mores at the “objective as well as subjective level” of experience and perception (Fanon 2008, xv). That is to say, we understand state power as generative of inherently colonial relations of rule: relations that produce contemporary sociopolitical, juridical, and affective orientations, sensibilities, and subjectivities.[ii] As Glen Sean Coulthard argues, “colonial relations of power are no longer reproduced primarily through overtly coercive means, but rather through the asymmetrical exchange of mediated forms of state recognition and accommodation” (Coulthard 2014, 15). We add that the state accomplishes this mediation vis-à-vis the internalized politics of decency: an argument to which we shortly return.
The project of this piece is not to think about how to make life more livable under current regimes of power or to ponder building something new or altered in the state’s place. Rather, we imagine alternative worlds based in the total abolition of these regimes because of their astonishingly responsive capabilities, which render profound social transformation impossible. The state successfully incorporates its margins and continually extends its representation in order to further its grasp on the body politic (for instance, the inclusion of women in combat roles or the Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriage). Simultaneously, and without coincidence, the state manipulates its boundaries through violent forms of capital accumulation and proxy wars, marks borders with fences and deportations, and uses its streets as a costly theater for subjects that deviate from its aims. However, the fundamentally lethal interests of state power have not changed since the European invasion of the Americas. Instead, global technologies of communication and visibility have forced the state to pivot, creating the illusion of a more transparent, democratic, and equal society. Nonetheless, the state relies on fantasies of “individual” participation (civil rights, voting, recognition, and protest) as much as it relies on its authoritarian power to revoke those fantasies without notice or recourse.
As the violences executed by the state continue to shape everyday life in this country, we believe that it is by no means extreme to posit that one solution to these ills is to destroy—to burn down—contemporary institutions of governance, policing, and comfort, to cooperatively dismantle the workings of the state. For us, a radical project of abolition and insurgent political praxis refuses to negotiate with the state, or seek recognition from any of its bureaucratic apparatuses, in order to secure the small-scale concessions that only colonize and quell resistance. Political projects of compromise with the state have proven insufficient—especially in addressing everyday violence, such as police brutality, that continues to erupt unchecked in the face of mainstream “social justice” organizing. Ultimately, this organizing and activism treats the state as a central means of stopping the very political violence that insures its core function, operation, and maintenance.
State tactics shift, but are nonetheless continually productive of social protocols for acceptable, legible citizens and aberrant, disposable subjects: a division and “existential deviation” (Fanon 2008, xvii) that we argue is rooted in Euro-American colonial power, such as white supremacy and heteropatriarchy. This power, which continues to inform the tangible parameters of the modern state, must remain the strategic target of abolition as a practice and vision if new worlds or alternative spaces of sociopolitical organization are to exist and thrive. As we show, one of the central challenges that insurgents face is the fact that colonial state power remains occluded by the representational moorings of the Euro-American civilizing mission, such as the political conceptions of civility and decency that remain the ideological cornerstones of democratic participation.[iii] These notions legitimize certain forms of organizing and comportment over others, ensuring that state power is distributed, unchanged, into the hands of those that best serve its interests. We dedicate the remainder of this article to examining how these concepts further colonial state power in order to ground our call for the incineration of decency as a starting point for insurgent political praxis.
The terms “decency” and “civility” are used interchangeably in this article to describe a particular form of exclusionary, homicidal, and suicidal politics. This politics demands inclusion within the colonial state, as it currently exists—at the expense of dismantling white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, transphobia, and capitalism on a global level, in the name of respectability, conviviality, progress and democracy. Following Aimé Césaire, we argue that the politics of decency represents the true “barbarism” of the colonizer (Césaire 2000, 47). Césaire stated that:
I make no secret of my opinion that at the present time the barbarism of Western Europe has reached an incredibly high level, being surpassed—far surpassed, it is true—by the barbarism of the United States. And I am not talking about Hitler, or the prison guard, or the adventurer, but about the “decent fellow” across the way…the respectable bourgeois [emphasis added] (Césaire 2000, 47).
For Césaire, the problem of colonial domination did not lie solely within its more overt acts of death dealing, expressed “openly…in broad daylight” (Césaire 2000, 49). Rather, Césaire held that the problem of this domination also resided in its ideological shadows: its “decent” homes, families, schools and churches, its “respectable” citizen-subjects who turned a blind eye to the genocide shaping everyday life in colonized locations (e.g., the U.S.) and long before World War II.
In fact, Césaire insisted that the politics of decency was central to legitimizing the genocide of the original civilizing mission: the violent implementation of Euro-American systems of thought, embodied taxonomies, historicity, and political governance to consolidate socioeconomic and biological power. As Césaire poignantly argued: “I hear the storm. They talk to me about progress, about achievements, diseases cured, improved standards of living. I am talking about societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot…extraordinary possibilities wiped out” (Césaire 2000, 42). Thus, at the heart of the civilizing mission, the conceptual fuel that drove its murderous engine was the framing of its white supremacist, capitalist, and heteropatriarchal violences as the epitome of Euro-American decency and civility.
We argue that the continued advancement and adoption of decency as a cultural commandment of behavior for participation in the civic sphere enacts the civilizing mission in its recalibrated form and lethally fortifies colonial statecraft and power. For example, these politics legitimize (what appears to be) the passive participation of the “decent fellow” and the “respectable bourgeois” in this mission vis-à-vis so-called “peaceful” desires for inclusion within the state. The danger of this passivity and desire is that both are absolutely violent and perpetuate an outside, “indecent” constituency. This “indecent” constituency is figured as the biopolitical break in the population that threatens to overrun state interests; wherein Muslims are imagined as terrorist, blackness is always already criminal, and whiteness remains the standard by which diversity is measured and extracted.[iv] When everyday violence is deployed in the name of these ideologies, the state arbitrates between those who are innocent and guilty, offering a judgement that continues to be divided by race, class, gender, and sexuality. This violence is perceived as the “natural” expression of “civilization,” key to its maintenance and safety. When those who decry these judgements deploy violence, they do so outside of the Euro-American parameters of the “decent,” and are thus marked for rationalized, legitimized, “civilized” annihilation.
As the state is intent on maintaining interpretive and legal control over violence via decency, we see a counter politics of “indecency” as entirely necessary to dismantle its power. Our call to burn it down is thus a promotion of indecency as an acceptable practice in order to refuse colonial state structures at emotional, cultural, and psychic levels. We violently reject the politics of decency as an ideology, practice, and psychic orientation. The next section begins to advance the rationales of our position by outlining the role of decency in channeling political responses to environmental genocide in the U.S. Southwest. We draw from the “EPA Spill,” which occurred during the summer of 2015 and devastated occupied Indigenous lands in the Four Corners region, to center this discussion. In the following section, we outline the mechanisms of embodiment that fortify colonial state power vis-à-vis decency and as articulated by the 2016 presidential election. In the final section, we explore how “decent” state concessions and accommodations further all of these processes, by contextualizing the “Central American Immigration Crisis”: the U.S. detainment of children primarily from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, in the name of humanitarian “law and order.” To answer Abolition’s call “to make the impossible possible,” we conclude by addressing some of the challenges of our “indecent” politics and position.
Decency, Colonial Recognition, and Environmental Genocide in the U.S. Southwest
An important step towards formulating a viable politics of indecency is to rebuke what Frantz Fanon called “colonial recognition”: the desire to acquire, adopt, or wield colonial power in its currently known, felt, embodied, and codified registers (Fanon 2008, 192-193). Following Fanon’s call in The Wretched of the Earth, we contend that this desire must be violently negated in order to stop the dangerous reproduction of colonial power as a feature of life, statecraft, and capital accumulation.[v] We argue that the politics of decency is the ideological hinge upon which colonial recognition rests, in terms of speciously passive “desires” to be enfolded within the established legal, political, affective, and embodied boundaries of the state. To advance this argument, as well as a political praxis of indecency, we trace some of the lethal ramifications of colonial recognition and environmental genocide in the U.S. Southwest.
To understand the phenomenal staying power of colonial recognition, we turn to the work of self-identified “working-class peasant with Indigenous ancestry” and Guatemalan scholar, Egla Martínez Salazar, and what she calls “the global coloniality of power” (Martínez Salazar 2014, 9).[vi] Martínez Salazar insists that the replication of contemporary power depends upon the fleshed, symbolic, and cognitive categories of governance implemented by European settler-colonial regimes in the Americas. Despite the technical “independence” of the Americas from countries such as Britain, Spain, France, or Portugal, Martínez Salazar argues that the fundamental norms of colonial power, such as heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy, were never dismantled or destroyed. Instead, what Martínez Salazar calls the “colonizer’s heirs”— what Césaire termed the decent fellow and the respectable bourgeois—desired, sought, acquired, and consolidated this power in its Eurocentric form; in order to govern and control so-called “post-colonial” social fields, modes of capital accumulation, and political life (Martínez Salazar 2014, 47).[vii]
Martínez Salazar thus uses the term “coloniality” to highlight how colonialism is not a “post or past phenomenon” but functions as a “reworked power relation” that legitimizes “economic, racial, and gender gaps” between and within nations: nations that remain organized, in a hegemonic sense, around Euro-American geocultural norms, or what she terms “the global coloniality of power” (Martínez Salazar 2014, 7).[viii] We add that the global coloniality of power shapes the politics of decency as an insurgent political concern and priority. For example, contemporary “development” initiatives depend upon the racialized, gendered, and classed schemas undergirding historical forms of colonial classification, capital accumulation, and relations of rule. These schemas continue to demarcate “civilized” and “modern” lands and peoples from “backwards” and “savage” lands and peoples: a conceptual move that cloaks the destruction of Euro-American notions of progress and profit, the “storm” of colonial oppression, by rendering this destruction a benevolent act of grace, decency, civility. In fact, these schemas, generated by the global coloniality of power, give the politics of decency its interpretive resonance precisely because the organizing logics and justifications of the civilizing mission are ongoing problems.
The above argument can be illustrated by historically contextualizing what has been dubbed the “EPA Spill” and the forces of colonial recognition that impacted how some stakeholders responded to the environmental genocide left in its wake. The “EPA Spill” (re)polluted two of the major rivers sustaining the Four Corners region (Northwestern New Mexico, Northeastern Arizona, Southwestern Colorado, and Southeastern Utah), the Animas and San Juan. In August of 2015, government agents from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “accidentally released” three million gallons of toxic waste containing poisonous metals into the Animas and San Juan, while “cleaning up” the Gold King Mine in Silverton, Colorado. As a result, these rivers ran a sickly, neon yellow and orange (Thompson 2015).
The Four Corners is colloquially known around the world as “Indian Country” because this region is where many diverse and sovereign Indigenous nations live, such as various Diné/Navajo, Ndeh/Apache, Ute, Hopitu/Hopi, and Zuni groups and peoples. Despite its status as a global cultural heritage and tourism attraction, life in the Four Corners is shaped by staggering poverty and environmental devastation. For example, Gold King Mine had been “releasing” waste into the San Juan and Animas Rivers since the late 1800s. A coalition of residents in Silverton actually barred the EPA from previous clean-up efforts because “locals feared that the stigma would destroy tourism along with any possibility of mining’s return” (Thompson 2015). As tourism and resource extraction are two of the only viable capitalist sectors in the Four Corners, they are protected at mortal expense and in the name of economic development. Still, as resource extraction makes more money, it dominates the economy. For example, the land surrounding the Four Corners’ most profitable tourism jewel, the world-renowned archaeological site of Chaco Canyon, is currently being fracked. Indeed, “beneath a giant methane gas cloud recently identified by NASA” from space, the fracking industry continues to grow in this part of the Four Corners—to the horror of many of the Indigenous people, people of color, and working-class whites who live under this cloud (Dermansky 2015).
Thus, as most people from this area are painfully aware, it is only because the waters of the Animas and San Juan turned a visible and septic yellow/orange that this most recent act of environmental and cultural desecration in the Four Corners garnered widespread attention. As starkly noted by Simon Ortiz, the Four Corners bears the heavy burden of being a “national sacrifice area,” a zone of colonial impunity and violent capital accumulation, in both a contemporary and historical sense (Ortiz 1992, 361). Ortiz—a poet, former uranium miner, and member of the Aacqu/Acoma Pueblo in Northern New Mexico—insists that the systems of governance implemented by the Spanish Crown in the sixteenth century, and by what he calls the “American Occupation” of the Southwest in the late nineteenth century, share uncanny similarities that support his contention (Ortiz 1992, 31). For example, Ortiz points out that both regimes framed Indigenous lands and peoples of the Southwest as “savage” or in need of the “civilizing” touch of Euro-American ways of knowing, worshipping, and ordering the world. This juxtaposition ensured that there “was no need for conspiracy to steal and defraud; rather there was a national goal to fulfill and godly purpose to be done” (Ortiz 1992, 349). By drawing from these imperial logics to transmute the Southwest into a national sacrifice area, Euro-American power has long been consolidated in the Four Corners, in the “godly” name of decency or the civilizing mission. The Four Corners is thus one consequence and manifestation of the politics of decency: politics rendered intelligible due to what Martínez Salazar insists is the global coloniality of power.
Consequently, the populations hardest hit by the EPA Spill were already negotiating the daily crises of coloniality in the Four Corners, the fact that in national sacrifice areas, “it is survival that is at stake” (Ortiz 1992, 360). Poor and working-class Diné, Hopi, Latinx, Ute and Anglo peoples living alongside the San Juan and Animas—upon reservation lands and in reservation-border towns like Farmington, NM— fully rely on these rivers for livestock care, irrigation, agriculture, life. These peoples, already facing dire poverty, were made to exist without the water that sustained their bodies and put food on the table by the U.S. government (i.e., the colonial state). Hard on the heels of the EPA Spill, some Diné farmers committed suicide (Woodruff 2016). In addition, towns such as Waterflow, NM have long paid the price of the oil and coal extraction driving the production of national energy. The sky in Waterflow is always a toxic, yellow color and the smell of burning coal in the air chokes the eyes and throat. People from the Four Corners also suffer from various forms of cancer and other health problems because they live in a national sacrifice area (see Figure 1). This terrifying reality is the dynamic materiality of the global coloniality of power; the continued purchase of Euro-American notions of progress and profit over contemporary life; the “decency” of the reinvigorated civilizing mission, administered vis-à-vis national sacrifice areas such as the Four Corners.
Figure 1: Billboard advertising nursing services to former Diné miners in the Four Corners region: miners suffering the horrific consequences of uranium exposure. Yá’át’ééh is a greeting in Diné, roughly translating to “it is good” and/or “Hello” in English. Image courtesy of the authors.
The Diné Nation President, Russell Begaye, gestured towards this materiality and continuity when he stated that the EPA Spill compounded “his people’s already significant historical trauma” (Woodruff 2016). Despite President Begaye’s awareness of this trauma, his administration, as well as mainstream Anglo organizing in the area, focused upon utilizing the EPA, a bureaucratic arm of the colonial state, as a mechanism for redress. That is to say, in the face of the absolutely indecent and obscene track record of American Occupation in the Four Corners, many stakeholders relied upon the established legal and political parameters of colonial recognition for reparations. They wanted the EPA to publicly apologize; they wished to sue the EPA; they demanded public meetings with the EPA; they asked that the EPA provide the Four Corners with clean and treated water (Finley 2016). They sat in hard steel chairs in various community centers across the Southwest until their bodies ached. They listened to politico after politico, scientist after scientist, in a desperate and understandable quest to somehow make life more livable in the Four Corners: an area that NASA could already see from space because it continues to be surrounded by a cloud of poisonous methane gas.
The U.S. colonial state responded in its usual way, wearing its well-crafted and Janus-faced mask of decency. EPA spokesperson Nancy Grantham, in response to requests for assistance made by President Begaye and his administration, stated:
We [the EPA] have a long-term relationship with the Navajo Nation and the agency is committed to working collaboratively with the Tribe on response activities related to the Gold King Mine release. The EPA and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (with EPA funding) provided over 1 million gallons of livestock and agricultural water, and nearly 8,500 bales of hay, to Navajo communities along the San Juan River. (Woodruff 2016)
In what some Indigenous peoples noted was a horrifying parody of the small-pox ridden blankets once given to their ancestors by American colonial agents, in an early act of unacknowledged biological terrorism and warfare, the abovementioned water was delivered to Diné and Hopi peoples in contaminated tanks. Specifically, a trucking company currently involved in fracking throughout the Four Corners, delivered this water in the same tanks they used to transport natural gas (Richardson 2015). In a highly-publicized interview, President Begaye ran his finger alongside the inside of one of these water tanks, showed its blackened and oily surface to the press, and began to weep (Richardson 2015).
This story is not told to critique a given governmental official or to make it seem as if a “pure” political subject exists that allows for any easy moral distinctions between “perpetrator” and “victim” of colonial state power. Instead, we seek to illustrate the folly of relying upon or partnering with this homicidal state for sociolegal intelligibility, recourse, and comfort. We understand a politics of indecency as one solution to these troubling issues: as something that rebukes colonial recognition, by any means necessary, and with the long-term goal of dismantling the global coloniality of power and its attendant sacrifice areas. A politics of indecency understands that this power promises contaminated blankets, contaminated waters: sick and dying people, a sick and dying earth. A politics of indecency rejects the socially acceptable part of the colonizer’s heir to initiate or continue collective processes of reorienting to power, the earth, and all lifeforms, by forming strategic and global alliances with those who share this abolitionist vision and “impossible” political imagination.
One way to formulate these politics and vision is to unwaveringly position the earth and its peoples, lands, waters, and all creatures as vibrantly alive, dynamic, extant, animate and thus beyond containment, capture, or transformation into “dead” capital, Euro-American forms of biological and political power, and Euro-American notions of progress. This positioning overturns the hegemonic capacities of “decency” by rejecting colonial recognition at its economic, historical, and cultural cores. As Ortiz notes, by embracing this worldview:
Only then will we truly understand what it is to love the land and people and to have compassion. Only when we are not afraid to fight back against the destroyers, thieves, liars, exploiters who profit handsomely off the land and people, will we know what love and compassion are. Only then…will we know life and its continuance. (Ortiz 1992, 363)
Of course, for many Indigenous people in the Four Corners, this shift in consciousness, this abolitionary line of flight, remains an ongoing political, cultural, and historical process.
For example, following the EPA Spill, various Indigenous-led groups fostered community-wide conversations about colonial state power in the Southwest and as part of their continuing work. Some of these groups facilitated teach-ins across the Four Corners, which framed the EPA Spill as one of the many horrific ramifications of colonialism in the region. Others organized and participated in epic walks across the Four Corners to document the devastation of American Occupation, such as resource extraction (Johnston 2015). These groups bring attention to the inviolable vitality of the earth, by positioning themselves as land defenders, river defenders, water defenders. In so doing, they provide a rallying point for a diverse array of allies to stand in solidarity with this unfolding historical consciousness: a consciousness that continues to manifest upon other occupied Indigenous lands and nations, such as in North Dakota. As the wellbeing of the earth and its lifeforms are increasingly being placed above that of the murderous state, the global coloniality of power is currently facing some very important challenges.
Your Decency Will Not Protect You: Necropolitics and the Colonial State
Following our premise that the politics of decency is generated by and extends the global coloniality of power, we now explicate some of the embodied nuances of this power as it is consolidated, circulated, and executed by the state. We engage in this analysis to illustrate how the colonial state relies upon the politics of decency to fucking kill people. We argue that the colonial state utilizes decency as a technique of governance in order to create and manage populations, coding certain embodied subjects as especially threatening. These so-called “threats” become the central targets for state-sanctioned violence, subjugation, and imprisonment. Consequently, we argue that decency articulates what Achille Mbembe terms necropolitics: the use of power to determine what parts of the population must die in order for other forms of life to be cultivated (Mbembe 2003). Drawing from the 2016 U.S. presidential election, we illustrate the various techniques under which bodies are targeted, disarmed, mutilated, and destroyed vis-à-vis the deployment of decency as conceptual springboard and flashpoint for necropolitics. In doing so, we advance our argument to burn down decency as a starting point for insurgent political praxis, as under both a fascist and so-called “decent” political leader, the operations of the state remain intimately and lethally tied to brutality.[ix] As the election and change of power suggests, resistance must center upon the colonial state itself, and not upon the particularities of any one regime.
To understand how decency reflects necropolitics in action, we turn to a brief discussion of the theoretical moorings and concepts shaping our understanding of Mbembe’s work. Necropolitics emerges from Foucault’s concept of biopolitics, rooted in the maximization and cultivation of particular forms of life in the service of state, capital, and power (Foucault 1978). Foucault describes the ways in which practices, techniques, and technologies of the state manipulate flows of power to account for the operations of human discipline and state sovereignty simultaneously, to create a population that is at once knowable and a target for manipulation. In a slight dissension, Giorgio Agamben places biopolitics in relation to what he calls the state of exception, in which solely the state exists in the domain of sovereignty and bodies are under constant threat of extraordinary violence (Agamben 1998; See also Pugliese 2013; Stryker 2013). Sovereignty is exerted precisely at the moment in which the state can kill with impunity on behalf of the population: the sovereign wields violence with the right to kill. Agamben suggests that the collision of the sovereign state and biopolitics continuously inform each other, in terms of just “who” the state can kill with impunity (and thus how the state of exception is articulated). We add that much of the latter process emerges via the politics of decency; how one conducts themselves as measured against the virulent standards of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism. Agamben suggests it is unhelpful, even dangerous, to create a politics regarding those who can be saved and those who can be left-behind. To do so facilitates a false notion of inclusion, in which “decent” subjectivities are incorporated into the body politic, while others are made to exist in a state of exception (i.e., incapable of decency).
Mbembe shows that necropolitics always informs what appears to be state acquiescence via the state of exception (Mbembe 2003). By asking under which conditions necropolitical practices (specifically, the uniquely formed processes that maintain control over certain subjects in service to powers that likewise maintain self-understanding and personhood) come to be exercised, Mbembe highlights the centrality of the work of death (necropolitics) to the organization of modern power. We take Mbembe’s concerns very seriously in terms of thinking about abolition as a political project precisely because we see decency as the fertile ideological ground for the exercise of necropolitical conditions, the work of death. It is not only the state that must be incinerated (in its nefarious presence everywhere and nowhere), but also its juridical, political, and embodied schemas of representation that effectively determine which populations will be the beneficiaries of state power (i.e., the “decent fellow”), and those who will be killed by its policing, security, and military apparatuses. In sum, we understand these determinations as hinging upon civility (its preservation and enactment) for juridical legitimization.
As Mbembe argues, race and/or racism play a central role in this legitimization. He says: “After all, more so than class-thinking (the ideology that defines history as an economic struggle of classes), race has been the ever present shadow in Western political thought and practice, especially when it comes to imagining the inhumanity of, or rule over, foreign peoples” (Mbembe 2003, 17). Of course, we also understand gender identity and sexuality as intertwined representational forces that determine the limits of political vitality and likewise organize decency as necropolitics. Crucially, Mbembe’s argument highlights that proximity to decency, such as via whiteness, has limits. As long as the state controls the means of representation, decency will always be coded as white masculinity, and all else considered disposable aberrations. To be rid of the white, masculine standard by which all else is measured, the regime of representation that we outline here must be burned.
A historical exploration of state-sanctioned terror, genocide, and violence is central to this argument. Mbembe points to slavery as a clear instance of “biopolitical experimentation,” describing enslaved subjects as experiencing a triple loss that creates a shadow subject: “loss of a ‘home,’ loss of rights over his or her body, and loss of political status” (Mbembe 2003, 19), resulting in inevitable social death. Paradoxically, the slave was needed for labor, thus placing them within a liminal and animal-like category: alive, but not so in a “human” sense. By relegating slaves to this subhuman, animal, or savage state, some of the enduring techniques of modern biological and political management were established and created.
Despite the supposedly colorblind U.S. criminal justice system, dedicated to supposedly ensuring civility or decency on the national front, formulations of “criminality” and “terrorism” continue to be decided along fault lines of race, one’s proximity to blackness and animality. Entire categories of people must continually prove their innocence, allegiances, and humanity, their “desire” to be saved by the good graces of whiteness, so that they will not be made to die. Particularly in the instance of terrorism, entire nations are called into question for their “savagery,” existing always as a threat originating outside the United States. Thus, “the sovereign right to kill is not subject to any rule in the colonies. In the colonies, the sovereign might kill at any time or in any manner. Colonial warfare is not subject to legal and institutional rules” (Mbembe 2003, 25). Locations of apartheid, occupations, war, and the logics of martyrdom and survival, all demonstrate acute examples of sovereignty, terror, and necropower insofar as they make salient processes of control and disposability: processes rooted, within the context of the U.S., in the very acts of genocide and slavery which make the politics of decency intelligible and possible.
The 2016 U.S. presidential election only further evinces these processes and legacies of colonial state power. On the surface, it might seem like decency, as a hegemonic construct, has reached its limit. President Trump and his white supremacist followers openly and loudly embrace various means of violent and horrific disposal for those marked as “terrorists” within and outside of U.S. borders. Calls to build a wall, alongside “lock her up” and Muslim registries (all of which continue to be echoed at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference conference, held February 21-24), remind us of the dire consequences of indecent, non-consensual relationships to U.S. nationalisms. Global economic structures have given way from neoliberal pseudotolerance to extreme and blatant fascism, presented as the iron fist needed to correct “security” issues such as “illegal” migration, terrorism, drug cartel violence, and economic recessions.[x] Even though these violences generally target the same populations (women, people of color, Indigenous peoples, poor people, and migrants), we do not overlook the mainstreaming of hate speech, hate crime, and open discrimination that Trump embodies and circulates. In the face of these trends, which increase the established mores (i.e., racism and misogyny) undergirding state-sanctioned violence on an exponential level, many moderates and liberals are still calling for the population to “respect the office” as we sit by and wait to vote again. “Progressive” politicians and stakeholders continue to vilify those who violently oppose Trump (such as “anarchist” inauguration day protests in contrast to the Women’s March), coding this dissent as a threat to democracy and the “peaceful transition of power”—more so than Trump and his incoming cabinet’s deadly policy goals. Cue the politics of decency.
Calls for civility, to “respect the President,” work to silence political protest and normalize hateful rhetoric within mainstream discourse, all the while shoring-up the representational parameters of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy. These calls reflect the unseen necropolitical negotiations shaping the recuperation, resuscitation, and rescuing of decency as a technique of governance, the state of exception legitimizing the brand of fascism promised by Trump. While neoliberalism offered pseudotolerance, “multiculturalism,” and rights-based structures to marginalized populations (at the same time, killing these populations via the prison industrial complex or war or poverty), the populist fascism offered by Trump marks a resurgence of visible, tangible, undeniably-rabid white nationalism. While attempts have been made to distance himself publicly from the support of groups like the Ku Klux Klan, his candidacy and presidency nonetheless shored up a return to blatant racial exclusion and segregation.
This nationalism also signals the structural excesses and dependencies of decency, in terms of highlighting the dynamic and emanating necropolitical conditions of contemporary state-sanctioned violence. From the beginning of his campaign to ongoing cabinet picks, Trump focused on removing “official” protections and direly increasing the odds of death that poor people, women, migrants, Indigenous people, and people of color face in the U.S. This reversal centered upon and recycled a troubling nostalgia for a white America that never was and never could be. Still, this nostalgia ultimately expresses the politics of decency, as it romanticizes the restoration of white masculine empire in the name of “making America great again.” That is to say, decency and the recalibrated civilizing mission very much shaped Trump’s campaign approach and eventual win, albeit through the deployment of reconfigured rhetorical and juridical vehicles. “Make America great again” is a call to arms for white nationalists, a swift rewriting and recasting of the genocidal foundations of America, in order to shore up continued vitriol and hate. MAGA operates and resonates so strongly because it is based upon historical fiction, and therefore continually must be reiterated, legislated, and re-presented.
As increasing segments of the population are marked for death under a Trump regime, we must question the infrastructure that made a Trump presidency possible and that will allow his agenda to be successful. This infrastructure, as we argued in the previous section, is grounded within and shaped by the global coloniality of power, and thus will always secure the necropolitical interests of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism—no matter “who” is at the helm. Taking a quick look at President Obama’s policies and practices will help to illustrate this argument. During his campaign, Trump actually praised Obama for the deportations accomplished during his time in office: a number that sharply increased in respect to Obama’s Republican predecessor and under the guise of deporting “criminals” and drug cartel members (Horsely 2016). The budget for immigration enforcement grew by 300% under Obama, and Operation Streamline, a border-court system originating under President George W. Bush, doubled in prosecutions (Franko 2016). These efforts have been enough to name Obama “deporter in chief” by many, and leave Trump with the largest border enforcement force and militarized structure in the history of the US.
In another reversal from campaign rhetoric, Obama expanded the use of drones for directed attacks against so-called military targets, often referred to as “high-ranking terrorists,” outside the scope of a traditional battlefield. This use of force has been justified by the non-conventional nature of the War on Terror and the dispersed, secret locations of leaders. These drone strikes have often had innocent casualties including women and children, while failing to hit their intended target. According to reports, Obama authorized 506 drone strikes that killed 3,040 combatants and 391 civilians, as compared to President Bush’s 50 authorized strikes (Zenko 2016). The use of these technologies leaves in place an ever expanding military and security apparatus that blurs the line between the battlefield and private space, both of which exist in the domain of sovereign power. For example, military technologies filtered to civilian police by virtue of the 1033 Program, which transfers excess military equipment to police forces, and gained attention during the Ferguson protests with the use of tanks in the streets (Zenko 2016).
These examples highlight the necessity of resisting both Obama’s pseudotolerance and Trump’s white nationalism, as the two politicians directly yoke together racialized figures of the criminal, the terrorist, and the savage to expand and fortify the colonial state. In so doing, they invoke and reconfigure some of the embodied legacies once used to legitimize slavery, colonialism, genocide: legacies that continue to shape contemporary terrains of struggle in the U.S. These examples also illustrate that necropolitics takes many forms, but ultimately finds its interpretive weight in the representational apparatuses of the colonial state—specifically, decency as a way to demarcate the biological and political parameters through which death and life are determined. Yet, these parameters remain beyond any one subject’s negotiation. No matter how “decent” one acts, no matter how well one tries to meet the norms and expectations of the colonial state, certain raced, classed, and gendered bodies are always-already marked for state-sanctioned death. Thus, the colonial state must remain the target of abolition, as it is from this location that the distribution and management of life originates, where the unseen necropolitical negotiations that make decency legible as a relation of rule are revitalized, reconfigured, and rearticulated.
Decency as a Blockade to Freedom and Abolitionist Liberation
We now turn to a discussion of freedom, in terms of its function as both an ideology and an abolitionist goal. Our entry point for this examination is how the concept of “freedom” has been rendered a weapon, through which the global coloniality of power circulates, by ever privatizing care through the logics of personal responsibility, accountability, and decency. We draw from the so-called “Central American Immigration Crisis” to illustrate this perversion of freedom and its reconfiguration as a necropolitical instrument of coloniality. We outline how colonial state accommodations further the necropolitical deployment and utility of “freedom”: in the case that we examine here, to elide the horrific treatment and jailing of children primarily from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. We end by calling for a return to “freedom” that can dismantle the colonial state and enact a profound abolitionist liberation from the regimes of death shaping life in the U.S. (and, arguably, around the world).[xi]
Under current regimes of power, the possibility and potential for freedom, especially as understood and theorized by “progressive” stakeholders, is a foreclosed promise. Freedom, in its current political formulation, is entirely monopolized and overcoded, ensuring only the power of the colonial state. Freedom is synonymous with a “decent life,” in which one is only “free” to act if they choose among a list of state-sanctioned ways of being. If one chooses otherwise, freedom is altogether revoked through incarceration, loss of rights, and loss of privacy. In particular, identity as the foundation for rights-based claims furthers the state’s capacity to negotiate the terms of justice and silence the more radical calls against its power. In granting small-scale “victories,” especially to those specific groups that adopt the norms of coloniality, the state only perpetuates larger institutional violences. Successful access to decency vis-à-vis identity is only possible when treading on the backs of “indecent” subjects. In effect, these subjects make the politics of decency legible because they remain the conceptual targets of the recalibrated civilizing mission. When considering calls for police reform, prison reform, or body cameras, we must be cautious of the ways in which contemporary political projects and discourses of freedom accomplish non-emancipatory ends, and the limits of redressing injuries through the institutions that produce these ends.
In fact, these limits signal why abolition is a necessary and crucial tactic for achieving meaningful and lasting liberation, “freedom” from contemporary necropolitical practices and regimes of colonial governance. Jacques Rancière articulates this through the concept of “wrong,” which he says is the foundation of both politics and processes of subjectificaiton, as all subjects are formed through their relation to the state and its unequal distribution of equality (Rancière 2004, 22). Politics emerges through moments of dissatisfaction and class fractures that the state can never possibly contain, and rests on an equality that can never be truly enacted (Rancière 2004, 16). Rancière defines political activity as “whatever shifts a body from the place assigned to it or changes a place’s destination. It makes visible what had no business being seen, and makes heard a discourse where once there was only a place for noise” (Rancière 2004, 30). Thus, while the wrong is the product of politics, it is also critical to the enactment of liberation.
At the heart of any assertion of equality is the wrong that preceded it: the wrong that is the foundation for the unequal distribution of power throughout society. Under the current regime, freedom is an empty signifier, “the empty property of any political subject” (Rancière 2004, 77). It is only under new terms, and specifically, terms of abolition that freedom can come to fruition. Democracy, often argued as the political form that offers the most equal of terms, fails to offer anything but a “theatrics of dispute” for justice (Rancière 2004, 62). Only a total and full break with the colonial state offers any hope for the now hollow concepts of equality and justice. In other words, the wrong must be expressed via a radical politics of indecency, and entirely bypass the “decent” notions of equality or justice espoused by the colonial state. These concepts are foils for the recalibrated civilizing mission, and thus continue a long and horrifying legacy of genocide and state-sanctioned terror: a legacy that made the U.S. the “bastion” of democracy that it is today.
This cycle of death deeply troubles us and is one of the central reasons why we see abolition as the only possible response to the continuous bloodshed shaping U.S. history. Gilles Deleuze argues that we do not repeat because we repress, but rather that we repress because we repeat (Deleuze 1995). The amnesia that results from this cycle is in part because some things are more bearable than others, allowing us to mediate our embodied experiences within material worlds that are otherwise intolerable. In other words, we may deceive ourselves to make embodied experiences more livable, but these repetitions are doomed for capture. If we are to consider abolition, not as a last resort, but rather the only viable option, we must be willing to reject this repetition and the fantasy of livability. Livability is that which denies and prolongs true freedom and quells the desire for abolition.
A horrifying example of the fantasy of livability, as well as the devastating consequences of its repetition, is the ongoing migration of hundreds and thousands of children from Central America to the U.S. This so-called “immigration crisis” hit its media-frenzied peak during the summer of 2014. Over 162,700 children from Central America fled ongoing oligarchic corruption and impunity, drug cartel violence, transnational economic imperialism, and crushing poverty (New York Times Editorial Board 2015). Some of these children died due to the extreme dangers of the migrant trail: starvation, dehydration, exhaustion, exploitation, and military/paramilitary violence executed at the hands of Central American, Mexican and American “security” agents (i.e., border patrol entities). Those who survived the migrant trail and made it to the U.S.—against all odds— were captured and jailed in detention centers across Arizona, California, and Texas.
Newspaper headlines from Guatemala and Honduras highlight one of the poignant motivations causing children from Central America to take flight on the migrant trail in the face of these horrific circumstances and social realties: “Tragedies cut short the American Dream for migrants” (Grave 2015) or “The American Dream is a nightmare for migrants” (Staff 2016). Children forced to flee Central America, primarily because the fantasy of livability proved painfully and mortally false in their homelands, found only the same within the U.S. That is to say, the repetition of the phantasmagorical American Dream led children to their deaths or imprisonment. The ideological weapons upon which this dream hinged: justice, liberty, prosperity for all—”freedoms” absolutely foreclosed in the case of these migrants, refugees of contemporary necropolitics.
In the U.S., many media outlets, politicians, and officials framed this imprisonment as an act of mercy, charity, and humanitarian aid. In other words, the jailing of children was pitched as the decent thing to do. An example of this is the following quote from a newspaper covering these detainment practices: “They are fed and clothed, kept clean and cool, far better off than if they were walking through the desert in June temperatures. They are undocumented. They entered the country illegally” (Keifer 2014). In effect, the imprisonment of children was considered “humane” because, even though they were “illegally” crossing borders, they were kept “alive” upon reaching the U.S.—but only, we stress, in terms of the bare minimum of care required to sustain biological life.[xii] As further noted by the same reporter, quoted above: “But they are still children in cages […].”
Once again, the specter of decency legitimized the work of death and occluded the absolutely obscene and indecent treatment of migrant children. The politics of decency was used to elide the contemporary violences of embodiment from public view. For example, these violences authorized the mass incarceration of children, because these children were poor, from Central America, and considered racialized threats to the booming future of white supremacy in the U.S. Indeed, these violences legitimized the imprisonment of children as just, proper, and humane conduct. Thus, the horrible treatment that migrant children received while detained in the U.S. was considered by many to be sufficient—if not lenient. That is to say, as these children were perceived to be “criminals,” the fact that they were “fed and clothed, kept cool and clean” in fenced cages, was considered a benevolent state concession: a gesture of decency, on the part of the U.S. Consequently, we maintain that political abolition must confront the question of subjectivity (a question that is heavily debated in revolutionary politics) somewhat critically. As certain bodies are regularly consigned to the realm of bare life or the already-dead, it is indeed impossible to discuss the politics of the embodied self without examining the impacts of race, gender, class, sexuality, and so forth. As we illustrate here, contemporary ideologies of “freedom” are likewise embodied, deployed to assist in these lethal processes of consignment, which occur in the name of decency.
The political fallout of recent events in the global arena has stressed the ways in which everyday existence is made always already susceptible to exceptional violence and environmental disaster, and has continually strained the limits of social theory and activism, alike. The expression of indecency and indecent politics will necessarily cut transversally through, across, and around previously authorized boundaries of embodiment and desire. However, it might also burn it all down. To burn down the systems and representations that seek to learn the language of liberation could, and should, mean a societal transformation capable of destroying the ills and wills of the state. Guattari says: “We should permit nothing to distract us from discovering the ways and means for irreversible social transformation, without which we will enter into an escalation of fear and despair on a whole new scale” (Guattari 2009, 93). We cannot emphasize the importance of this intervention enough, in terms of thinking about insurgent political praxis: The irreversibility of abolition must be the goal.
Conclusion: Burn it Down
In this article, we examined the modern state from three very different points of entry: the global coloniality of power, necropolitics, and freedom. However, decency—as a vehicle for the distribution of death—was the thread we used to weave together these seemingly disparate concepts. Using decency as our theoretical springboard, we blended what might appear to be irreconcilable approaches to understanding the U.S. colonial state. We did so in order to review the rich body of work attacking decency as a colonial, white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, and capitalist concept; to unpack our particular vision of abolition; to promote a viable counter politics of indecency; and to call for an irrevocable burning down of the state.
In fashioning this piece, our desire was to grapple with the pressing necessity of abolition, as well as some of the tangible barriers to insurgent political praxis, in a gesture toward “making the impossible possible.” In thinking through the “impossible,” we argued that it is not solely the police, the military, or other violent defenders of the state and capital that are problematic for abolitionist liberation. Following Césaire, we asserted that the “decent fellow” is also a serious blockade to this liberation: the “decent fellow” is an unequivocal emissary of colonial state power and the regimes of representation that make this power legible. In other words, we argued that the internalized politics of decency, the comforts of acquiescing to state rule, are as toxic to abolition as the instruments of death that the contemporary state relies upon for dominion.
Abolition entails a much broader project than merely the end of the state. Abolition also requires a dismantling of all of the ideological moorings of colonial power, a burning down of the spheres of representation that privilege docile decency as the ideal form of comportment and civic participation. State rule has its own seductive ruses of power and recognition including the very tangible benefits of protection, access to some of the necessities of life, as well as providing an affective sense of belonging or the desire for the same through the adoption and internalization of its codes for decency and/or proper citizen-subject behavior. While the state makes particular ways of living and comforts possible, it does so always at the expense of others. As we stressed throughout this article, to acquiesce to the state is not, in any way, passive. The price paid for the maintenance of decency is exacted in blood. In the short term, we understand that life is made livable by embracing the representational, juridical, and economic mores of the colonial state; by carving out small spaces of refuge or alternative ways of being within the shadows of empire. Still, we find this approach ultimately untenable, in terms of fostering the continuance of all life on this planet.
We have discussed some initial roadblocks for abolition—decency, complacency, power—but there is a glaring challenge that up to this point has been ignored. We mention it now to highlight our openness to the line of inquiry that follows and to guide future work and collaborations. Political life is always already in symbiosis with the non-human. To attend to the cacophony of vegetal, animal or other actants would be an entire project in itself; the human is not the penultimate political being and actants are more-than-human (Haraway 1985). A key component of our argument is that abolition, as a project and vision, must take up and address these unfixable relations in their entirety and on the horizon of a new order.
Molecular possibilities for the complete abolition of the colonial state are all around us: possibilities evidenced by the fact that Abolition is a project and meeting ground for insurgents and scholars seriously engaged in the work of developing an entirely new way to go about the business of life and living. The necessity of such a project and meeting ground is made even more urgent by contemporary academic and political domains; their attendant and lethal seductions of power, where the reliance on the colonial state has become so enmeshed that it is embodied. Normative protocols leveraged by institutions work as corrosive agents targeting the Other (the object) and teaching it how to sweetly suffer with whispers and promises of upward mobility, legal protections, and freedom: the politics of decency. We can approach these concerns in a number of different ways, but if we ignore them, push them out of our way, they become hollow political alternatives. Perhaps, one day, these lines of flight will exceed the band-aids of legal protections and fantasies of livability. They may offer, with further examination, a route to disrupt our very notions of society, which have throughout time, privileged the techniques of power that we analyze in this article. However, none of these potentialities can come to fruition if we do not seriously grapple with the immaterial and material moorings of modern oppression, such as the global coloniality of power, necropolitics, and ideologies of freedom, executed vis-à-vis decency as a weapon of contemporary empire building.
About the authors:
This article is part of Abolition’s second issue. It can be cited as:
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[i] As we further elaborate in the next section, we use the term “national sacrifice area,” coined by Simon Ortiz (Ortiz 1992, 337), to describe the intentional delineation of specific geopolitical areas that can be destroyed, with impunity, in order to consolidate Euro-American power—via resource extraction, for example.
[ii] When we use the term “colonial state,” it is to reference these troubling interconnections, and within the geopolitical context of the Americas, as we elaborate in the next section.
[iii] We loosely define “insurgents” as those political subjects who adamantly and violently refuse the seductions of the state, including its comforts and promises of safety. Consequently, these subjects are rendered disposable by the state, or are the focus of violent forms of state control, such as imprisonment, torture, and/or execution. Thus, we are not making an understatement to say that insurgents put their lives on the line for their politics. However, we do not make distinctions in this article between “good” insurgents vs. “bad” insurgents precisely because of the way Euro-American conceptual power is recuperated vis-à-vis these categorizations. Of course, we wrestle with the ethics of our position and consider this struggle to be the necessary and ongoing work of insurgent political organizing and strategizing.
[iv] Foucault elaborates the term “biopolitics” to describe the contemporary techniques and technologies of governance that seek to maximize the productive and classificatory ordering of known political and biologic “life” and as an expression of sovereign or state power. Rather than the state wielding power through its ability to end life (through the “sword”), power expresses itself through the right to know, maximize, and shape the conditions of life. Examples of this include public health, institutions such as prisons or schools, conditions of labor, the bureaucracy of state management expressed in statistics, etc.
[v] As outlined in the introduction, when we use the term “colonial power” in relation to contemporary statecraft, we are also talking about the structural violences that make the execution of this power legible, such as white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, transphobia, and capitalism.
[vi] In general, Martínez Salazar writes within the coloniality of power school of thought, primarily based in Latin America (See Lugones 2007; Mignolo 2012; Quijano 2007).
[vii] As Martínez Salazar illustrates in the case of Guatemala, some of the colonizer’s heirs are descended from the first European families that invaded Central America. Drawing from Marta Elena Casaús Arzú (Casaús Arzú 1992), Martínez Salazar notes that these heirs in Guatemala are comprised of landed and corporate elite from Germany, Canada, and the U.S. Following historical shifts in capital accumulation, production and geopolitical power, Martínez Salazar argues that the Guatemalan oligarchy has always been transnational in nature and thus directly reflective of global power blocs: blocs that shape socioeconomic life throughout the Americas.
[viii] Martínez Salazar maintains that the colonizer’s heirs enact a rule that replicates coloniality at a global level, such as the contemporary, socioeconomic and geopolitical divisions separating the “First World” from the “Third World” (or, “developed” from “developing” nations): geocultural divisions that eerily echo those once separating European metropoles from colonies.
[ix] In post-Trump America, two kinds of distinct rhetoric about contemporary politics have emerged. The first is that Trump’s regime represents a wholly new kind of leadership, the likes of which have never been seen. The second is that his regime is a continuation and logical outcome of increased militarization, migration, and economic destitution, trends that arguably started in the wake of World War II. Both explanations seem insufficient to explain the current political landscape, a landscape that has willingly given a voice to the most vile of opinions. Neoliberalism operates by way of consent, albeit a manufactured consent based in economic privatization, unfettered wage gaps, and the collusion of state and capital. Fascism, by contrast, is meant to signify a nationalist, violent, concentrated form of authoritarian governance with a strong leader. The American check on these forms of power has consistently been articulated as representative democracy through voting, term limits, and Constitutional authority vested in the courts. As has always been clear, these checks are insufficient for marginalized populations, and do little to ward off either fascism or neoliberalism.
[x] Neoliberalism and fascism are not as distinct as their common definitions may suggest and both are possible under US democracy. Since the rise of neoliberalism, the transition from “difference” to “diversity” has resulted in the normalization of difference based on its proximity to whiteness, heterosexuality, and upward mobility. Difference is evaluated based on its offerings to the generalization of the US as a benevolent nation.
[xi] We use the term “abolitionist liberation” to distinguish said liberation from freedom, as an ideology of the powerful and the complacent.
[xii] To see pictures documenting this “humanitarian” assistance and project, please visit: https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/immigration/2014/06/18/arizona-immigrant-children-holding-area-tour/10780449.