The pain and struggle in those camps must be spun into a persuasive narrative; and the phrase "concentration camps" comes with a narrative, with implications, with images of something that we globally swore we would never let happen again.
In New York City there's an organization that sometimes operates out of empty college classrooms and sometimes out of church basements.
Every week, hundreds of undocumented people flow into the crowded rooms, working with translators to fit their stories into I-589 asylum application forms.
One week a woman came in with her eight-year-old son. Her court date was in days, but she had yet to begin filling out her official forms; just part of her story lay in disarray on an intake sheet. As she told her story—which involved rape and murder and decades of abuse—she began to sob. If she went back to Honduras, she said, she would die.
Her story, which would likely make worldwide headlines if any fraction of it was being told by a white woman in America, is not unique at all; abuse of the kind she experienced is one of the most common reasons why migrants come to the U.S.-Mexico border to seek refuge. If you present yourself at the border as seeking asylum, you are legally entitled to a hearing, under domestic and international law; and once she tells her story to the court she may well not receive asylum. Still, for now she is one of the lucky ones: she made it past the camps at the border.
The Semantics of a Human Rights Crisis
This week, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described the camps holding migrants at the U.S. border as "concentration camps." Immediately, she faced protests from politicians across the nation, most of whom have never been to the camps at the border and whose main point of contestation was the argument that the prisons at the U.S. border cannot be compared to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.
Criticism of Ocasio-Cortez's word choice is a convenient and fundamentally flawed distraction from the reality of what is happening. Firstly, both the Jewish people who experienced that genocide and the migrants who are attempting to cross the border are being caged, dehumanized, and denounced as vicious security and economic threats. Arguments that propose the suffering of the Jews is incomparable to the suffering of these migrants are a sort of Olympics of tyranny on the most depraved scale. How can the pain of one group delegitimize the suffering of another?
As a Jewish woman, I feel strongly that any trauma lingering in my bone marrow from the deaths of my family does more to link me to the migrants at the border than it does to separate me from them. We are not solitary in our persecution. Our struggle, as well as the lessons we have learned, means that we should feel a nauseating shock of recognition upon hearing that a group of people is being caged in brutal conditions on the basis of where they were born.
Though the meaning behind words is ultimately more important than the words themselves, semantics and word choice are undeniably powerful. As humans, we cling to symbols and patterns to make sense of our disorderly world. Words have sway over us, which is perhaps why calling the border camps concentration camps has sent such shockwaves across news outlets—more shockwaves than the reports of freezing cages, desert shootings, and persistent abuse in government facilities have created. In truth, words and our ability to freely speak them are often more incendiary than incidents of abuse and human suffering.
This is why calling the camps at the border concentration camps is a powerful act of political protest, one that merits repeating. In order to effectively protest these camps, merely telling stories of the human suffering that occur within them is not enough. The pain and struggle in those camps must be spun into a persuasive narrative; and the phrase "concentration camps" comes with a narrative, with implications, with images of something that we globally swore we would never let happen again.
Image via Esquire
The Holocaust, like most genocides, did not arise spontaneously. It began because of money—because of economic insecurity in Germany, a nation that had once been powerful but found itself suffering after wartime loss and a recession. It began with scattered proposals that Jewish people and other minority groups were to blame for these problems. It took off as a way of making Jews leave the country. The violence started with sporadic murders. The camps came later.
Even if the U.S.'s persecution of migrants at the border never reaches the level of the Final Solution, this does not legitimize the mistreatment and brutality that are occurring in those overcrowded, freezing prisons in the desert. Should the Holocaust be the standard that we expect human rights violations to live up to in order to merit serious criticism?
Andrea Pitzer, author of "One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps," writes that the border camps qualify as concentration camps because the prisoners there are detained "without regard to individual circumstances, treating people as one mass, one group," and that the U.S. government, like the German government, is "presenting them as a national security threat to the country and then using as punitive means as the system will allow to detain them."
Image via CNN
This is a key requirement for the success of concentration camps: prisoners must be turned into shadowy, menacing masses. Through a variety of rhetorical strategies, the U.S. government has implemented this technique. Many Americans are convinced that migrants are criminals who should keep out of this country. They argue that refugees are not deserving of our justice system or our charity, nevermind that the justice system systemically targets poor and non-white people and that we are the richest nation in the world.
Most of the detainees are not criminals. Conditions in these migrants' homes are unbearable; the fact that they are willing to risk death at the U.S. border to escape shows this clearly. Migrants are usually not asking for charity or trying to steal the salaries of U.S. workers. They are asking for asylum. For mercy. For America to be a fraction of what some people once dreamed it could've been.
Image via The New Yorker
Call Them By Their Real Names
Rebecca Solnit writes that once we call injustices by their names, "we can start having a real conversation about our priorities and values. Because the revolt against brutality begins with a revolt against the language that hides that brutality." Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has shown that she is unafraid to put this into practice, to look the murky viciousness of the U.S.'s treatment of migrants at the border straight in the eye. By calling the concentration camps what they are, she is replacing the language that legitimizes these injustices with language that condemns them. Unfortunately, she is largely alone in this.
Here is the name of our American S.S., the group that is fostering the concentration camps at the border: the ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Like the leaders of S.S., they also believe they're simply "doing their jobs").
Image via BuzzFeed News
Here is a number: the ICE held 42,000 migrants in its detention camps last year.
Here is a list of DHS reports about the conditions at the border, including titles like "Lack of Planning Hinders Effective Oversight and Management" and "Immigration and Customs Officials Do Not Follow Federal Procurement Guidelines When Contracting For Detention Services."
Here are just a few quotes from official statements about the camps: A 2017 inspection found "problems that undermine the protection of detainees' rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment." A Reuters report about the Paso Del Norte facility stated that "single adults were held in cells designed for one-fifth as many detainees as were housed there and were wearing soiled clothing for days or weeks with limited access to showers." It also stated that inspectors saw "detainees standing on toilets in the cells to make room and gain breathing space, limiting access to toilets." Additionally, there are reports of extreme temperatures, of physical and sexual abuse, of solitary confinement.
Right now, even the Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner John Sanders is demanding that the Senate pass a $4.6 billion dollar bill in emergency funding. If the bill is not passed, he testified, kids will keep dying.
Here are the names of some of the legally innocent people who have died at the border. Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7. Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, 8. Gurupreet Kaur, age 6, dead of dehydration in the Arizona desert. Roxana Hernandez, dead of untreated septic shock and HIV. Osmar Epifanio Gonzalez-Gadma, Jeancarlo Jiminez-Joseph, and Efrain Romero De La Rosa, all dead by suicide while in ICE facilities. Sergio Alonso Lopez, dead of internal bleeding after prison staff did not administer doses of methadone he needed to survive.
These names don't do justice to who they were and how they lived. No migrant story does, because migrants are whole people who want nothing but to live in America. They come for many reasons; they come knowing that they will be hated and discriminated against all their lives here—because, as poet Warsan Shire writes, "the insults are easier to swallow / than rubble / than bone / than your child body / in pieces."
Here are the names of some of the 200 ICE facilities:
The Adelanto Detention Center in California.
La Salle Processing Center in Louisiana.
The Aurora Detention Facility in Colorado.
Essex County Correctional Facility in New Jersey.
Fort Sill, an Oklahoma military base used to house Japanese immigrants during World War II.
The nameless makeshift camp underneath Paso Del Norte International Bridge, which connects Ciudad Juarez with El Paso, where hundreds of migrants were held outside behind a chain-link fence covered in razor wire.
The Tornillo Camp in Texas, meant to hold 400, now holding 2,400.
Here is the name of what these detention centers are: concentration camps. Remember these names. Imagine what you'll say when someone asks in the future: Did you know?
Image via The New York Times
On Valentine's Day, Amazon pulled out of its plan to build a second headquarters in Queens, citing the efforts of citizen protestors and politicians who opposed its imminent arrival.
The moment Amazon announced that it would be building its second headquarters in NYC's Long Island City, people took to the streets.
On November 26th, a coalition of immigrant advocates and anti-HQ2 groups gathered to protest Amazon's involvement with ICE, Paladir, and other organizations responsible for deportations. Citizens marched again on Cyber Monday, launching a " day of action" and flooding an Amazon Bookstore in Manhattan, holding signs aloft and chanting sing-song rhymes about Jeff Bezos. Together, over two dozen community groups organized these protests, including local unions and nonprofits. Following the protests in Manhattan, Amazon workers employed in warehouses in Staten Island made the decision to unionize, citing low pay and impossible performance quotas, and leveraging Amazon's impending move to Queens to draw attention to their case.
Image via The New York Times
Their protests attracted the attention of some of New York City's political officials, such as City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who initially supported Amazon's entry but denounced it after learning more about the circumstances surrounding the deal. He began to stand with the protestors, complaining that a general lack of transparency and the fact that Amazon bypassed NYC's standard review process mandated further investigation.
In December, a public hearing was held at City Hall, and protestors gathered outside while council members grilled economists and officials who had been instrumental in making the deal with the world's most profitable corporation. "We are not in the business of corporate welfare here at city council," said Johnson.
It was this so-called corporate welfare—the $3 billion in government and tax incentives that Amazon was promised, in exchange for the 25,000 jobs it promised to create—that became the foundations of the anger stewing around the sales conglomerate's impending arrival, anger which resulted in Amazon's decision to pull out of its promise to develop a huge corporate campus in Queens.
Image via Vox.com
The people's anger came from different places, and their protests were haphazard efforts, but their rage had been brewing for a long time, and Amazon's imminent arrival fed a variety of fears about corporate greed and pervasive gentrification, which opponents feared would tear apart places like Long Island City, sucking it clean of culture and community. Amazon's arrival was predicted to catalyze a wave of homelessness; the announcement that it was setting up shop in Long Island City was instantly followed by dizzying spikes in rent—chilling lower-income residents in a city already plagued by stretches of empty storefronts.
Long Island CityImage via AM NY
Protestors cited Amazon's effects on Seattle, Amazon's first home city, as reasons why the conglomerate shouldn't move on with its plan. Some people argue that Amazon made Seattle into a hull, a kind of paper city that existed only to facilitate its metallic corporate heart; and Seattle's homeless corporation did rise in tandem with rising housing prices, making it home to the
third-highest number of homeless people in the country, after New York and Los Angeles.
HQ2 opposition united a great deal of unlikely allies—including an unlikely ally in the Wall Street Journal's Editorial Board, who argued that the deal was "crony capitalism at its worst." Their article continued, "Amazon's case is aboveboard, but it still amounts to a company with a market capitalization of nearly $800 billion getting paid to create jobs it would have created somewhere anyway."
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was the most visible face of a group of politicians who protested Amazon's HQ2 establishment, and her resistance might have been one of the central reasons for its decision to abandon ship. "It was that the environment over the course of the past three months had not got any better," said Joni Seth, Amazon's head of policy communications. "There were some local and state elected officials who refused to meet with Amazon and criticized us day in and day out about the plan."
Ocasio-Cortez had long denounced Amazon's plans to move into Queens, and she celebrated Amazon's retraction on Twitter. So did other political figures, including Cynthia Nixon. Following the company's Valentine's Day breakup announcement, the actress-turned politician triumphantly tweeted, "The fight against Amazon laid bare their union-busting, corporate welfare, ICE-abetting practices and shows why we need to break up monopolies like Amazon."
In addition to its ties to law enforcement giants, Amazon had also been accused of developing facial recognition technologies to gain information about customers without them knowing; and many protests have cropped up among its warehouse workers, especially in Europe, where employees have staged walkouts against low wages and poor working conditions.
A protestor stops an Amazon truck in Spain.Image via apnews.com
Despite Amazon's shady ethics, many people were not as enthusiastic about the company's foiled New York City dreams, arguing that the demise of HQ2 will compromise what could've been an economic boom for the city, criticizing Ocasio-Cortez's decision to favor ideology over economics. Amazon may have hiked up rents, but rents are high anyway; and its arrival would have created thousands of jobs, including consistent positions for lower-level staff members and service workers.
Plus polls showed that 56% of New Yorkers approved Amazon's arrival, which was initially billed as a triumph by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo—both central players in the deal's initial success who believed that the arrival would help NYC solidify its position as a worldwide hub of tech and industry. Bill DeBlasio's tweets following Amazon's decision resembled those of a spurned ex. He also lashed out at Ocasio-Cortez, stating that "a small group of politicians put their own narrow political interests above their community—which poll after poll showed overwhelmingly supported bringing Amazon to Long Island City—the state's economic future and the best interests of the people of this state," the governor said in a statement.
But even so, a great deal of major political figures opposed the deal, including Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens, who initially supported Amazon's arrival but, like Johnson, changed his mind after learning about its policies. Still, Amazon in Long Island City's demise all started with those first street protests, which erupted directly after De Blasio's announcement as politicians remained silent. Ultimately, community members and citizen organizers catalyzed the start of the resistance that led to the downfall of Amazon's Queens campus.
Image via Marketwatch
There's something deeply satisfying about the image of the world's richest man and his behemothic corporation getting kicked out of New York by impassioned Queens residents, ready to unite and fight for the integrity of their home borough. Still, Amazon's departure won't stop gentrification, won't fill up empty stores, and won't bring back the days when young artists could gallivant around Greenwich Village with pennies in their pockets and working-class families could call Manhattan home.
In a way, Amazon's departure is a symbolic victory for its opposition, a tantalizing promise that the people can triumph over corporations. Of course, this move will not deter Amazon from building its global empire, and America's supermassive wealth gap will remain. It just won't be as tangibly visible in New York.
Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York. Follow her on Twitter at @edenarielmusic.