Title: UNDOCUMENTED: The Architecture of Migrant Detention Creator: Tings Chak Published: Sections (The Architecture Observer), 2014 Dimensions: 23.4 x 17.3 x 1.5 cm Shipping weight: 340 g Pages: 120 1st Edition Print Run: 750 copies Buy a 1st Edition: In the Ad Astra Online Store
Unlike previous Ad Astra titles, ‘Undocumented’ is not only a comic. It features sketches, architectural drawings, and written commentary on jails and detention centres. This unusual format encourages the reader to visualize the spatial experience of detention, and evokes its own kind of empathy.
The thesis of ‘Undocumented’ is this: unlike standard architecture, which is designed to maximize comfort for its inhabitants, carceral spaces like jails and migrant detention facilities are designed based on a logic of the bare minimum.
‘Undocumented’ is written and illustrated by Tings Chak, a student of social justice and architecture. Based in Toronto, Tings has been actively involved in grassroots migrant justice and anti-detentions organizations such as No One is Illegal-Toronto and the End Immigration Detention Network, from which ‘Undocumented’ draws much of its inspiration.
As with previous Ad Astra projects, a pre-order campaign will be held to raise awareness and cover the costs of printing. Stay tuned for details!
Last January, we spent time in Atlanta Georgia with our friend. Specifically, we spent time in Dekalb County, Georgia, with Andrew, the co-founder of On Our Own Authority Books and his daughter, Olivia. This comic is about them.
The struggles we find ourselves in –for justice, equality, and a democracy worthy of the name– are not new. Yet we’re endlessly forming new groups, writing new charters, experimenting with new tactics as though we were the first people ever to struggle against injustice.
Driving across North America in the past year, we were struck by the profound lack of institutional memory in radical communities wherever we went. People doing work that was important, even essential, could often tell us nothing about what their organization had been like 10 years ago, if it had existed at all.
The left leaves few records and most of these are hagiographies–saintly accounts of the lives of larger-than-life heroic figures that read more like myths than histories. It is a rare book that transcends this shallow style and speaks frankly about the painful difficulties encountered by social movements. That kind of book is full of important lessons for us. ”War in the Neighborhood’ is that kind of book.
I wish I’d had a chance to read it before walking into that Occupy camp, 5 years ago. It would have saved me a lot of headache. Here’s why.
1: You aren’t the first people to take public space
‘War in the Neighborhood’ is partially about the struggle to protect the public’s right to use Tompkins Square Park. One of those uses, dating to before the struggle, is as the site of a tent city for the homeless. In the course of the struggle to preserve the park as a place to drink and hang out, conflicts with the cops made it an unsafe place to sleep.
Confrontations between cops and activists would raise the emotional temperature of the park, but while the activists could go home, many of the people living in the tent city were home – and had nowhere to go when the cops came to work out their frustrations.
“Reclaiming” urban space is always more complicated than it looks. In North America particularly, that space is always colonized land. In a more immediate sense, the space is often being used by people who don’t want to see it ‘reclaimed’. During the era of the Occupy camps, we dropped into that park without any notion of this. We were bringing media and police attention to a space that homeless people had been living in quietly for years.
I wish we’d all known a little bit more about past struggles like ours, and known ahead of time that we needed to be mindful of the needs of the folks already living in the park. They are capable of doing their own very powerful organizing if they choose, organizing we could have supported if we had treated them with respect.
2: The police are not your friends
Alright, there are plenty of people who know this, and I can hear them into the peanut gallery rolling their eyes at the obvious point and congratulating themselves on how on-point their politics are. Good for you.
The trouble is, not everyone knows this, and vague denunciations of authority from angry punks do not always persuade the larger group. The police are tricky, and they know how to present a friendly face as well as their real one. In ‘War in the Neighborhood’, we see the cops put pressure on squatters by offering them a deal. The squatters, divided by the proposal, eventually accept. Needless to say, they are betrayed by the police.
Some of the people at Occupy knew better than to waste time talking to the cops, but many did not. The police could make little demands about where we put our tents or how we hung our tarps, and sow division without working very hard– these petty demands caused us to turn against each other. They were going to evict us eventually either way but the conflict over whether or not to comply with these petty demands created real conflict between us.
The police are not all billy clubs and tear gas. They will make little helpful gestures to win your trust. At one Occupy march, I remember them sharing bottled water with us. But by then we were wise – “Ew, cop water,” was how one friend put it. Earlier we had not always been so savvy. The police’s polite request to ‘liaise’ (read: pump us for information) or offers to protect our marches (read: control and contain our protests) convinced some people that they were on our side. When they swept into the camp in the middle of the night, tore down our tents and brutalized one of our friends, they made it perfectly clear whose friends they were.
I wish we had all known well enough to be on the same page, and understood the role of the police in suppressing resistance.
3: Outside organizations will try to control your politics
The left is full of self-appointed leaders and self-anointed messiahs. Academics, vanguard parties, one-man black blocs and all kinds of people whose analysis is so pure that they get high on the fumes. These people will show up at your movement and tell you where it’s going, what path it’ll take to get there, and what kind of clothes you should wear for your media appearances. What they won’t do, generally, is the dishes – or anything else useful.
This isn’t so much a problem of ideology as of personality. Some people know how to be humble, pull together as a team and do their share of every kind of work. Some people are so convinced of their special genius that they think they are making the most important possible contributions by telling everyone else what to do and think.
‘War in the Neighborhood’ shows us both kinds of people. Luna, a member of the RCP, becomes one of the most persistent and dedicated squatters. An angry anarchist denounces her participation and the squat as a whole because they are, presumably, guilty by association. Eventually, Luna herself leaves the party over its homophobic views and controlling nature.
When Occupy enjoyed its brief historical moment, plenty of groups wanted to control it. They showed up with their critiques, their literature, sometimes even with printed t-shirts. They would try to change the way Occupy was governed, or how it framed its messaging. Some were a problem, but others weren’t. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter so much what group they were from. What mattered was how willing they were to set their personal politics aside and work for the collective good of the group, instead of trying to co-opt it to serve their own purposes.
It can be a lot to keep track of, especially for folks who are new to activism. But I wish I’d known then what I know now – people show you how much you can trust them based on how respectful and committed their participation is.
4: But you never know who your best comrades will turn out to be…
…but you can find out, easily enough! People vote with their time and energy. Look to see who’s putting in the work and who’s standing around talking shit. In ‘War in the Neighborhood’, we see a variety of people, including communists, ex-cons, teenage anarchists, people with active addictions and the homeless prove to be the best of comrades.
That is not always intuitive. It is easy to be drawn to the most articulate people, or the ones who seem to have the most support in the group. You can be taken in by people’s charms or by the appearance of experience. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter how articulate someone is, how experienced they are, or how great their analysis is, if they can’t put their own agenda aside and work as part of a team.
At Occupy I definitely had a preference for people who shared my politics and cultural values most closely. But I learned in time that I valued the friendships of all kinds of people – liberals, social democrats, other anarchists and even 9/11 truthers (thanfully, those guys came around).
Of course, we were working inside an anarchist framework, with a set of anarchist assumptions. Over time, I watched a lot of those folks evolve into the best anarchists I know. But I think this point holds true no matter what the ideology of your group. If people focus on the work, it doesn’t matter where they’re coming from. You’re headed the same way.
5: Holding space may be the only thing you agree on
This is a much less universal lesson than some of the others, but I think that you can apply it pretty broadly. Groups form around particular issues, and people may not agree on much else. Holding space was at the centre of the Occupy movement’s politics, and applies equally to the struggles for public space and homes depicted in ‘War in the Neighbourhood’.
Rules are a recurring theme for ‘War in the Neighborhood’. Should this squat be drug free? Should we negotiate with the cops? Are we prepared to tolerate sexism? In different ways these questions are all part of the bigger question: “How will we make this space our own?” and “What is this space for?” But while everyone agrees with ‘making this space our own’, they can’t even agree what that looks like.
At my Occupy camp, and I suspect at many others, the problem was worse, if anything. Should we march? Should we build the camp? Should we make signs? Should we make dinner? Again, holding the park was just about the one thing we all agreed was necessary.
This was a real shock to me. I arrived thinking that people would more or less be there for the same reason I was – tired of the growing power of the rich and ready to hold them to account. The reality was not so simple. I wish I had been able to better anticipate that.
6: People whose help you might hope for will sit on the sidelines and criticize
There were some people who were not so ready to accept the riot of ideas and ideology on display at Occupy. I couldn’t believe them. I was putting aside a lot of my own ideas about how the world should work out of some abstracted sense of the common good. Why couldn’t they do the same?
People have agendas. They look at social movements and they ask themselves if these social movements serve those agendas. Then they decide if they are going to participate, criticize, or both. If your revolution doesn’t look like it’s going to serve their purposes, don’t expect to see them frying tofu in the kitchen tent.
“War in the Neighborhood” shows us that people have different reasons for wanting you to fail. Maybe they don’t like some of your members. Perhaps they disagree with your group’s tactics. Maybe they didn’t get their way in your group and so they left.
Sometimes people who should be comrades simply aren’t. It’s easy to take that personally, but you shouldn’t. It happens every time. All you can do is to keep doing your best to be honest, persistent and fair.
7: There are no easy answers
Maybe I should have known this one before Occupy started. I thought I knew it, really. I thought I knew that things were so close to hopeless that it would take a change in world conditions to create an opportunity for change. But then in Occupy I saw that opportunity.
In a way, all social struggles have the potential to make us feel like everything has changed. ‘War in the Neighborhood’ shows impossible victories – people taking over abandoned buildings, neighborhood people fighting back against police violence, homeless people winning the right to maintain a tent city in Tompkins Square Park.
But even when all the rules of normal life seem to be inverted, there are no easy answers. You can fight like hell and do everything right only to watch it all fall apart because of some unhappy accident. We are still learning, all of us struggling to build a better world. I don’t think anyone has all the answers. But if we could get better at telling stories about what went right – and what went disastrously wrong – we might not be quite so completely doomed to repeat our history forever.
‘War in the Neighborhood’, first published in 1999, tells the story of New York City’s Lower East Side during the late 80s and early 90s, a period of rapid change.
Although gentrification is now unraveling communities from Atlanta to Seattle, what happened in the Lower East Side was one of the earliest modern examples. Artists, people of colour, migrants, radicals, squatters, the homeless and regular working class people all called this crowded area full of abandoned buildings home.
Though no one book could ever hope to tell the entire story, ‘War in the Neighborhood’ contains a full cast of artists, anarchists, dog-walkers and ex-prisoners as they fight to build a future for themselves before greedy developers literally burn it out from under them.
Modern readers familiar with the history of internet-age social movements like Occupy Wall Street will be surprised how much they recognize in these stories. Gendered violence, police brutality, factional fights and hostile news media all come together to paint a very familiar picture.
Instructive as it is for activists, ‘War in the Neighborhood’ is above all a feeling, human portrait of life in a troubled time. As neighborhood residents fight the police, the cold and each other to make space for themselves, our own hopes for affordable housing, community, and safe space are reflected on the page. In an era of market crashes and rigged elections, we recognize our own struggle to build something that lasts in a world intent on tearing us down.
As we’ve mentioned before, a number of the folks involved with ‘Extraction! Comix Reportage’ have gone on to do other important work. One of the most interesting and accomplished of the Extraction contributors (not that they aren’t all just fascinating) is journalist and activist Dawn Paley. We caught up with Dawn via phone call, since she’s currently living and working long term in Puebla, to find out what she’s been up to since the comic came out. Here’s how that went:
Ad Astra: Could you tell us a little bit about your history as an activist?
Dawn :I grew up in the lower mainland of British Columbia, on Coast Salish territory. I grew up in a pretty isolated area, this is pre-internet, so my first entry into activism was through environmentalism, eventually I started working as a journalist, doing media activism and grassroots journalism. Over the years, I’ve written about environmental and land issues ranging from the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement to the impacts of US foreign policy and the expansion of capitalism on communities in Mexico, Central and South America.
I’ve been working as a journalist now for a little over 12 years, largely focused on Mexico, Central and South America, but especially Mexico. The piece I did for ‘EXTRACTION!’ [Gold: Taking the Heart of the Land] was the result of one of my first trips to Central America, and over the last decades I’ve continued to cover the ongoing dispossession, violence and colonialism taking place in Mexico, Central and South America. In my work I strive to explore the nature of the violences of capital and states, part of the work is to expose the connections between the global north and the violence that so deeply impacts so many folks in the global south.
Ad Astra: How did you first get involved in ‘EXTRACTION!’? How did you settle on the Goldcorp mine in Guatemala as the subject of the comic?
Dawn: I became involved with Extraction! because I had previously collaborated with [editor] Frederic Dubois, and later became friends with [editor] David Widgington of Cumulus Press as well. They asked me to do a chapter. They initially asked me to write about Barrick’s Pascua Lama mine in the high Andes in Chile and Argentina. I countered with a proposal to write about Guatemala/Goldcorp, suggesting that it would be a stronger piece because I’d already done interviews and research in the area. Plus, comics being a more visual thing it made sense to be working on a project about a place I’d seen first hand.
I knew the comic was going to be good as soon as I found out Joe Ollmann was working on the project. I immediately liked Joe’s style and his approach. We didn’t get to see a whole lot with each other – it was a long distance working relationship, but it was a nice experience. Joe has a fabulous sense of humor, and the final experience of seeing my words through Joe’s illustrations was incredible. It’s just totally different than print reporting.
Ad Astra: What was your collaborative process with Joe Ollmann like?
Dawn: It might be a bit passé for someone my age, but I confess, I’m a dyed in the wool print journalist. Obviously all journalism is teamwork, and sometimes I’ll work with a collaborator, like a photographer. Sometimes with print, you’ll write the piece and the photographer will send a cutline or two to go with their images, or your editor will suggest some changes to a piece. But with comics, the artist does so much work. Drawing, inking, and lettering takes so much time and skill. I don’t want to diminish what editors or photographers do…there’s a lot to it. But with this comic, it felt really different. It was an even longer process. It was interesting to have the surprise of seeing how he drew the things I saw and talked about, how he represented them. Workflow wise, we went back and forth long-distance, I compiled a script that included all kinds of visual clues I would leave out of a regular, reported piece, and went from there.
Extraction!’ artist Joe Ollmann meeting with Dawn, along with publisher and co-editor David Widgington and co-editor Frédéric Dubois. Photo by co-editor Marc Tessier.”
Ad Astra: Have you stayed in touch with Héctor and other people you met on the trip? What’s going on around the mine more recently?
Hmm. They’re pseudonyms in the story, so I needed to think about which person “Héctor” was. Yes, I’m still in touch with him. We G-chat sometimes. I saw him a couple of years ago when a serious earthquake hit the department of San Marcos; he took me around and brought me up to speed about what was happening in the region at that time. Goldcorp’s Marlin mine is in the process of closing, and they are doing a lot of public relations to make it look like they did a great job. I was in Guatemala in April and I saw a full page ad in the national newspaper, showing employees planting a bunch of trees in the area, you know, showing us that everything’s hunky-dory! But there’s a lot of ongoing health and environmental issues with contamination from the mine, and people are still facing charges for their role in resistance from years ago. I remember maybe five years ago, folks who survived the internal conflict pointed out to me how there were no basically no political prisoners in Guatemala until after the peace accords were signed in 1996. That was because the state didn’t take prisoners, rather it killed dissidents, activists, organizers, and entire Indigenous communities.
But today in Guatemala there is a HUGE amount of criminalization of community organizers. This criminalization specifically targets Indigenous communities and land defenders. People are thrown in jail, accused of huge list of charges, serving months and sometimes years for resisting dams, mines, highways, cement plants, palm oil, and so on. There are a lot of incredibly brave lawyers and activists fighting against the criminalization of land defenders and political prisoners in Guatemala, fighting for their release. I think this is really crucial context today that we need to keep in mind in looking at this comic from almost 10 years ago.
Ad Astra: Would you work on another comics journalism project, given the appropriate resources and journalistic freedom?
Dawn: I’d love to do another comics journalism project, connected to the research I’m doing with families of people who have been disappeared in Mexico. I’m doing a multi-year investigation into this issue as part of a dissertation, and what I hope will be my next book. When I can, I have been walking with family members on weekends, when they convene to look for bodies. It is a very intense experience–people using little more than sticks and shovels to search for missing daughters, sons, brothers, sisters… This is an entrenched reality in Mexico today and yet I think for many it is something that is still difficult to imagine. I think comics could be an important avenue to communicate this experience.
Ad Astra: How have things changed for mining activists since ‘EXTRACTION!’ was first released?
Dawn: Well, Indigenous land defenders across so called Canada have come out strong using a whole range of strategies to fight against destructive extractive industry projects throughout the entire last century and into this one. I think it is important to start by acknowledging the importance and the continuity of those struggles.
Specifically, EXTRACTION! first came out almost 10 years ago, and I think it’s still really relevant. As for differences between 2006 and 2016? There’s a lot more solidarity and visibility for these struggles, actually, including some really amazing organizing in Toronto and Vancouver. And urban activists are not just connecting the actions of Canadian companies in Guatemala or elsewhere with their headquarters in Toronto or Vancouver, but also looking at the activities of mining companies, sometimes even the same mining companies, on stolen Indigenous land in Canada. In my opinion, activism against destructive mining has gotten smarter, more intersectional.
We’ve seen huge amounts of community organization against mining happening, from the community level to the international level. In 2006-2007, I was reporting on a fairly nascent struggle in Guatemala… Now Goldcorp and gold mining has become a landmark issue in Guatemala. Folks all over the country know about it, they are prepared to fight against it and are pre-emptively declaring their communities free of mining… In general more and more folks and communities in Mexico, Central and South America are weary of Canadian or other mega-mining projects. People are mobilized against the damage that these companies are doing/can do to their water supply, their communities, and increasingly that organization is taking the form of international coalitions, groups that can represent hundreds of struggles. Over the past 10 years, many people resisting mining have been threatened, murdered, and displaced, but there have been huge strides around these issues in terms of awareness and preventative action, and it’s important we take note of the gains.
Ad Astra: What have you been up to since ‘EXTRACTION!’? What are you working on now?
Dawn: Well, I’ve continued to work as a journalist, in 2009 I helped found the Vancouer Media Co-op and was involved in various media projects in Canada for a few years. 2010 was a big year, we helped cover resistance to the Olympics in Vancouver and later to the G8-G20 in Toronto. At the year’s end I left Vancouver and started researching for my first book, Drug War Capitalism, which came out with AK Press in late 2014. Since the book came out I’ve been doing lots of speaking events in the US mostly, and we’re working to try and get a Spanish version of the book out soon. I also started a doctorate at the Autonomous University of Puebla in Central Mexico, where I am based.
At this very moment, I’m working on an investigative piece about families of the disappeared in Mexico, about the folks I mentioned who have started searching every every weekend for clandestine graves that may contain their family members. I’m writing about what it is like to walk alongside them as they search for their loved ones. I think that the movement of searchers is one of the most significant social movements in Mexico today, and one that urgently merits our attention.
The events depicted in this comic are as recent as last Friday (January 15, 2016). We wrote, drew, inked, and did layout within 48 hours, in time for Savannah’s Martin Luther King parade, in which the Poor People’s Campaign participated.
This comic and others are viewable on our Patreon Page, where we are collecting pledges to continue doing this work.