What is the work that walls do in a world of staggering inequality?
It was a Sunday afternoon sometime around 1998 when I found myself in Jacumba, California, a small town on the U.S. southern boundary, just across from its neighbor in Mexico, Jacume. I was at the point where a 10-foot-high wall and a low-steel vehicle barrier connected along the international divide. A U.S. Border Patrol car was parked nearby.
Two or three yards away on the southern side of the borderline lingered a small group of Mexican men enjoying a cookout and throwing down some beers. One of them, visibly drunk, began insulting the Border Patrol agent sitting in the vehicle. Likely emboldened by his inebriated state, the man stepped over the vehicle barrier to hurl more insults. When the agent told him to return to Mexico, the man refused, acquiescing only when the agent began to get out of his SUV. As soon as the agent retreated, the unwelcome border crosser popped back over to the U.S. side. He then proceeded to straddle the barricade, shifting his weight from Jacume to Jacumba as he alternated touching his feet on either side of the international line, his friends laughing on one side while the Border Patrol agent stood bewildered on the other.
Such creative subversion, travel writer Marcello Di Cintio suggests in his book Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, speaks to a “human instinct” to resist barriers, even as “walls are our compulsion.” Such rebellion also illustrates one of the many ways by which walls are “co-opted and hijacked by those who oppose” them.
In taking the reader on what is in many ways an illuminating expedition of the world’s most controversial barriers, Di Cintio shows much of the work that walls do—from enhancing the control of territory claimed by a state to stymieing the mobility of unwanted entrants. Most important, walls enable the tragic division of “us” and “them,” obscuring and undermining connections and commonalities between the spaces they delimit in the process. As he asserts, “the whole point of the barriers, of walls everywhere, is to erase all ambiguity.”
Beyond producing rigid binaries that deny the messiness of life, however, walls stand atop the gross inequities and various forms of violence associated with them, phenomena produced by and productive of various harm-inducing (and, conversely, benefit endowing) “isms,” such as those associated with class, empire, nation, and race. In seeking to elucidate the political-geographical project of wall making and the corrosive effects it has on individual and collective ways of being, Di Cintio at times exhibits awareness of such structural forms of violence, but not in a consistent and sufficiently deep manner.
He points to the Western Sahara, home to what is purportedly the world’s longest wall—built of sand and stone, topped with land mines, and policed by Moroccan troops—as an illustration of walls as tools of dispossession. (Here one wishes for some maps, which the book sadly lacks.) In the territory illegally occupied by Morocco, Di Cintio is clear about the effect of the militarized divide on tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees stuck in camps in neighboring Algeria: “exclusion, the theft of their land, and the separation of families.”
Elsewhere, he acknowledges his sense of guilt for being able to easily enter barricaded Melilla, one of two Spanish exclaves in northern Morocco and a territorial legacy of European empire building on the African continent. He recognizes the freedom of movement facilitated by his Canadian passport as a manifestation of his “white man’s privilege.” Yet he also says that “no place claims I am not wanted or not worthy,” and again, “No one has ever built a wall for me.” In other words, the walls he negotiates apparently have little to do with his privilege, as manifested by his hypermobility.
As geographer David Delaney has argued, territory—bounded space tied to relations of power—both reflects and constitutes the social orders of which it is part. At the same time, Tim Cresswell, another geographer, has asserted that movements of people are always “products and producers of power (and thus their attendant inequities).” Putting together these observations, it follows that Di Cintio’s white and national privilege does not exist in a vacuum but rather flows from and gives rise to particular geographies and their related social formations. They are ones that afford the globe-trotting of some and the immobility of others. In this regard, there are walls built for him, and walls that he unwittingly legitimates and reproduces. Tax-paying Canadian citizens like Di Cintio contribute to the policing infrastructure in the Canada-U.S. border and indirectly in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Further, Canadian diplomacy—very pro-Israel under Harper—provides valuable political space for Israeli actions vis-à-vis Palestinian land, including its expropriation via walls. In other words, barricades are not merely physical obstacles but facilitators of movement by and for particular classes of people. Walls serve as human filters.
This trait helps demonstrate why walls persist and proliferate across the world in a globalized era that some predicted would make such barriers redundant. For Di Cintio, however, what explains this seeming paradox is globalization’s homogenizing effects, which undermine sovereignty: “We are uncomfortable being so undefined. We need to put something, anything, under our control. So we counter economic and electronic entropy with simple geometries of bricks, barbed wire, and steel.” Di Cintio never explains who exactly this undifferentiated “we” is that the text occasionally invokes. As he shows in many case studies—and this is hardly surprising—it is usually the population on one side of a wall, or typically a state acting in the population’s name, which is responsible for a barrier’s construction and maintenance. Admittedly, in places like Northern Ireland, the process sometimes reveals itself as two-sided. But even there, given how British colonialism sowed the seeds of inter-communal conflict—a matter Di Cintio does not explore—one cannot fully grasp what underlies wall-building without an appreciation for underlying historical-geographical injustices.
The associated socio-geographic distinctions are ones that often literally have deadly implications, as in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands where thousands of unauthorized migrants have perished since the mid-1990s, and elsewhere. He recounts one particularly horrific case, that of 15-year-old Felani Khatun, who in January 2011 tried to surreptitiously cross India’s boundary fence into Bangladesh to join her husband-to-be on her wedding day. The barbed wire caught her skirt as she was climbing over the barrier, which led her to panic and scream. Hearing the noise, Indian border police fired their weapons, and a bullet hit Felani in the chest. For half an hour, she hung off the wire upside down and bled to death. This case notwithstanding, it is typically migrants from Bangladesh who are on the receiving end of such lethal force: Di Cinto informs that India’s Border Security Forces shot dead more than three hundred Bangladeshi nationals from 2007 to 2010.
As illustrated by the thick sea border between Europe and Africa in the Mediterranean—perhaps the most lethal area of the world for unauthorized migrants—barriers need not be walls (at least of the conventional sort) to be deadly. The International Organization of Migration reported this past October that about 25,000 migrants have lost their lives in that sea over the past 20 years.
This speaks to a concern raised by Basel, a Palestinian artist living in the shadow of the wall in the occupied West Bank. He tells Di Cintio that he perceives an inordinate focus on the Israeli barrier given what he understands it to represent—apartheid, injustice, racism—structural oppression that long preceded its construction. “I’ve never been allowed to cross the Green Line into Jerusalem,” he says. “Not before the Wall and not now. The Wall is not the point.”
Considering such matters globally, a central principle of walls is what the great human and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois once called “the problem of the color line”—the global racial divide that he powerfully decried in his epic 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk as “the problem of the 20th century.” Du Bois was writing at a time when most of the modern techniques used to classify peoples and regulate territorial boundaries were born—the 1880s to 1910s, according to historian Adam McKeown—as part of an effort to exclude those hailing from Asia from migrating to white-settler nations (e.g. Australia, Canada, South Africa, and the United States).
It is a line that divides those who have the benefit of Di Cintio’s (and I add, my) white national privilege from those who possess the obverse to which that privilege is inextricably tied: the disadvantage of the global majority. That disadvantage translates into less access and control over the planet’s resources, less political power on the world stage, and restricted mobility between countries. This helps explain why, almost two decades after writing of the color line, Du Bois characterized whiteness as first and foremost about power, not mere phenotype, or “the ownership of the earth forever and ever. Amen.”
Those who travel precariously in a world of profound inequality, who are compelled to risk their lives in order to reach spaces of relative social and biophysical security, are the “owned”: unlike members of the global minority who can generally traverse the world’s space without serious obstacle or threat, and at the moment of their choosing their mobility across territorially boundaries—especially those dividing the rich and poor, the white and nonwhite, “owners” and the dispossessed—is highly limited. Indeed, it is often violently repulsed.
The barriers along and within the occupied Palestinian Territories, the border between North Africa and the European Union, and the divide between Jacumba and Jacume (a boundary wall far longer and more formidable than it was in the late 1990s), produce and maintain privilege and disadvantage, the chosen and dispossessed, and the licit and illicit. The walls embody the connections between those granted access and life and those assigned the threat of erasure and death—and all the stations in between the extremes of injustice.
Bringing down actual and figurative walls requires actively challenging the unjust socio-geographic formations associated with them. This requires that we do not consider walls, as Di Cintio declares perfunctorily, as “our compulsion” (suggesting a degree of inevitability). Instead those among us who desire a more just and harmonious world should position barricades in the contemporary age as a key focus of our resistance and confrontation.