Celebrating 50 years of publishing a Radical Journal of Geography, 1969-2019
Removing the Monument to Overcoming Walls: Reflections on Contemporary Border Walls and the Politics of De-bordering
by Olivia Mena, London School of Economics and Political Science
On a snowy morning in early March 2013, under the cover of darkness and protection of 250 police officers, construction workers began to take down several segments of the last standing, 1.3-km stretch of the Berlin Wall to make way for luxury high-rise apartments (Birnbaum 2013; The Guardian 2013). Just a week before I had made my first pilgrimage to the remains of the Wall, walking with other tourists along the East Side Gallery, as it’s known, photographing the murals by artists from all over the world that capture the significance, history, and meaning of the Berlin Wall and project alternative visions of a more convivial world without walls. The stretch of cinderblock and the preserved empty dead-zone behind it became the most famous instance of de-bordering in the postmodern world, an antipode for future walling and divisions. Despite protests and conflict over the residential plan, a moneyed developer with police protection was able to remove parts of this globally-recognized memorial—which signifies the freedom of movement—in an era when the politics of mobility are increasingly policed and national borders are being sealed.
The annual commemoration of the fall of the wall in November 1989 is an interesting moment to reflect, not only on the recent and intensive global proliferation of fortress border architecture, but also on the ecologies of de-bordering efforts at a time when the very tribute to overcoming walls has been partially removed in the interests of neoliberal capital.
Only a few years ago, when global leaders celebrated the twentieth anniversary of this iconic wall’s destruction, several countries were continuing to build walls in sites like the U.S.-Mexico border, Egypt’s border with Gaza, and all along Saudi Arabia’s borders. Since 2001 there have been more than 30 new national border barriers—proposed, under construction, or finished—around the globe. These new fences and walls are touted as necessary measures for the securitization of national borders in the face of economic migration and global terrorism. The closure and controls in the borderlands, the traditional laboratories for new forms of policing and surveillance, are a particularly important place to think about our bounded present—a contemporary reality where we experience the growing ontologies of walling that range from gated residential communities (Blakely and Snyder 1999; Low 2003) to portable protest walls deployed in metropolitan squares (Hancox 2011) to national border fences.
Some early inter-disciplinary discussions have started to identify contemporary national border walls and fences as part of a coherent global phenomenon, opening up questions about the spatialities of nation-state sovereignty in relationship to unbounded global capital, walls’ powerful symbolism, and the structures’ enduring consequences (Andreas and Synder 2000; Davis 2005; Brown 2010; Jeffrey et al. 2011; Jones 2012; Journal of Borderland Studies 2012). However, there is a need to revisit some of these recent assessments of the phenomenon of border walling with ‘border thinking’, an epistemological position that was born in the borderlands, most notably in the work of Chicana theorist Gloria Anzaldúa (1987), that opens up different kinds of resources and ways thinking that challenge and de-authorize systems of closure and enclosure. Chicano/a theorizing, more than any other discipline, began to elaborate the border as a central place to theorize the complex geo-political and post-colonial relationship between the United States and Mexico, emphasizing the ways in which the borderland serves as a ‘heartland’ for new political horizons of hybridity, creativity, and moral possibilities (Michaelsen and Johnson 1997: 3, 22). Border theory (Anzaldúa 1987; Hicks 1991; Rosaldo 1993; Saldívar 1997) offers a unique framework premised in resistance that privileges the border as a site of “creative cultural production” which calls out the “mixed” border inhabitant’s (fronterizo and mestiza) birth right and expert knowledge in crossing physical, intellectual, linguistic, and cultural barriers (Rosaldo, quoted in Michaelsen and Johnson 1997).
Historically, border walls have been a key marker of spatio-political reconfigurations of extractive global economies that set territorial limits for human participation and labor. In the colonial context in particular, these spatial divisions were constitutive of racialized lines of participation and segregation. These spatial divides serve as the foundations for new juridical frameworks of exploitation and exclusion. Working on the margins and thresholds is a strategic way of expanding borders juridically and politically (Weizman 2012: 94). In the contemporary context of different borderlands communities, where the terrestrial movement of capital and humans converge, this often takes shape in vertical arrangements that include not only walls and fences, but also bridges, drones, blimps, helicopters, and other tools of war and surveillance. These infrastructural changes are constitutive of legal changes, which increasingly criminalize and monetize the act of being un- or under-documented and foster a wider cultural climate of xenophobia and racism.
The new ‘legibility of statecraft’ that these walls offer recasts the terms of belonging and exclusion inside the heterogeneous realities of the borderlands (Scott 1998). Because a rhetoric of ‘national security’ or a ‘state of emergency’ is often used to justify the securitization of national borders, the legal avenues for people challenging these structures, and the polices and practices they symbolize and engender, are limited.
At a time when there are more memorable instances of contemporary wall building than the tearing down of walls, I want to recall two important recent instances of de-bordering from different communities challenging the legitimacy of the border walls that cross them, and conclude by situating the politics of de-bordering as a crucial component in the imaginative and political work of envisaging convivial counter-geographies of hospitality.
Ayşe Gökkan – the female mayor of Nusaybin, Turkey – has been protesting and conducting a nine-day hunger strike in an effort to halt the Turkish government’s construction of a new barrier along the national border between Nusaybin and Qamishli, its sister city in Syria (Bianet 2013). The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) member physically sat in the minefield next to the construction as protestors gathered on both sides of the border to challenge the construction of the barrier that would divide the local Kurdish community spanning both sides of the border. Officially, the fence has been billed by the Turkish government as a temporary and necessary security measure to stop terrorists and smugglers. Gökkan was quoted in the media as saying that it was “unacceptable to build a wall of shame between the Kurdish people” and that, “[l]ike the Berlin Wall, this wall will remain a black stain on the history of mankind” (quoted in Ozerkan 2013). Police used water cannons and smoke grenades to disperse people protesting the construction of the barrier; however, in November 2013, authorities agreed to halt construction and Gökkan was taken to the hospital to receive treatment after her hunger strike successfully ended (Bianet 2013). What will happen on this border in the future is still very much at stake at this particular moment. The political act of situating Kurdish struggle in relation to the Berlin Wall is a framing which legitimates the community efforts to de-border; the reference to the fall of the Berlin Wall serves as a critical link to global struggles against the divisions that separate and divide certain groups of people.
Granjeno, Texas, USA
In 2007 another community was able to move a border wall. The small town of Granjeno in the Río Grande Valley of Texas organized and mobilized against U.S. government plans to build a portion of the national border barrier with Mexico through their properties and homes. The families—many of whom are relatives and can trace their land-holdings back to Spanish land grants—rallied together. Although they were unable to entirely prevent the construction of the U.S. border fence in their town, they were able to get the federal government to move the barrier back far enough to save their homes, and have the barrier take the form of a concrete levy instead of a steel fence (NBC News 2009).
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Both of these examples demonstrate how communities of conscience find creative ways of ‘de-bordering’, instances not only of radical community preservation, but also processes generative of convivial “counter-geographies which transcend legal and moral categories of illegality” that are formalized and symbolized by a border wall (Walsh 2010: 118). De-bordering is a political and ethical framework that requires action, which specifically takes the form in the “ethical and practical activities that assist migrants, recast the terms of official discourse, and challenge existing institutional arrangements” (Walsh 2010:114). Derrida (2000; 2001) has talked about this in the context of “absolute hospitality”—a yet to be invented set of ethical practices that generates new ways of offering solidarity that exist outside the purview of the sovereignty of the nation. Human actions of de-bordering can directly challenge the encroaching territorial limits constitutive and productive of segmented forms of citizenship and participation.
Borderlands are often referred to as a periphery, a place that is historically ungovernable and largely neglected by capitols and centers of national power. However, borderlands communities have a larger set of historical resources that straddle different legal systems, economies, currencies and nationalities which is part of a larger set of cultural, psychic, emotional, physical, and intellectual resources that these communities have used to deal creatively with the disciplinary and securocratic governance of state borders. This intervention asks for us to mobilize the politics and practices of resistance from the borderlands and to use them in other contemporary spaces of closure and enclosure—the proliferating borderscapes that exist everywhere that borders are enforced. This is a project that will require new vocabularies and perhaps new metaphors that trouble the traditional registers that we use to disarticulate power formations.
Often bridges are held up as the symbolic and metaphorical architectural counterpoint to walls. However, now more than ever, bridges are built in tandem with border walls as an operative infrastructure of the privileged movement of commerce and capital. Tearing down walls and dissolving borders are not actions exclusive to realms of activism, human community building, and the No Borders Movement. Global capital is also powerful enough to tear down walls too.
Olivia Mena is a doctoral student at the London School of Economics researching the contemporary proliferation of border walls and fences around the world. You can follow her on Twitter @borderwalls
 This list builds on and adds to one I first saw presented in 2009 by Jason Wittenberg at the ‘Fences and Walls in International. Relations’ conference, University of Quebec at Montreal.
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Bianet (2013) Mayor stops hunger strike as construction halts. 7 November http://www.bianet.org/english/minorities/151139-mayor-stops-hunger-strike-as-construction-halts (last accessed 12 November 2013)
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