This was posted just before the UK referendum on leaving the European Union.
Jonathan Neale: Please vote against borders on Thursday.
I was born in New York just after the Second World War, and now I live in Britain. I was six years old when my family first went to India. We lived in Ludhiana, a small industrial city in Punjab. Six years before India and Pakistan had been partitioned. Hindus and Sikhs had killed Muslims, and Muslims had killed Hindus and Sikhs, until three quarters of a million were dead. One evening my father’s best friend, Mister Dillon, played caroms with me and told me that his family had sheltered a Muslim under their house to save his life. I understood he was telling me that there were good people in the world.
When I grew up, I understood that no one else in Punjab had ever told me a story like that, and that was part of what Mister Dillon was telling me too. But so many of our older neighbours told me that I must see Lahore, in Pakistan, once before I died. They could never go back.
Forty-six years later I was on a train from Delhi to Gorakhpur, a poor city in the north of UP. Several people in second class told me there was a man on the train from Pakistan. He had got a visa, and he was travelling to a village near the end of the line, where he had lived as a child. He was first man any of us had met who could return. Someone took me to see him. I looked at him, and I began to cry, and he cried, and the whole train carriage cried. We all thought maybe the border was opening. We were wrong.
Vote Thursday. Vote against borders.
Each time I go through Gatwick or Heathrow, in the line for not Europeans, there is a little pen where they make people wait who will be grilled at length. That makes the lines move faster. Everyone in that pen is always black or brown or yellow, never white. They are frightened, and anxious, and their shoulders are bowed, and they sit quite still. I never say anything to comfort them as a I pass. I have never seen anyone say anything to them. We are all afraid the immigration officers will see.
When I take the bus from Montreal to Vermont, it is worse, because there are so few people, and everyone is poor, and it’s dark, and it’s cold.
Once, in Heathrow, years ago, back when we stood in many separate lines, there was a man ahead of me who was big, broad shouldered, the planes of his black face extraordinarily beautiful. His tailored suit fit perfectly. All the immigration man did was ask a question. The black man shouted at him, ‘You didn’t ask the man in front of me a question. He’s come here to work for the Royal Shakespeare Company, just like me, with me. Why didn’t you ask him a question?’
His voice was American. The immigration man said something quietly.
‘It’s because he’s white, isn’t it?’ the actor said. He did not shout, but he could project to a whole auditorium. A thousand people heard him, and we all stood still.
‘Can you keep your voice down please, sir,’ an immigration official said four lines over, in that tense English voice of offended authority.
‘I will not keep my voice down.’ The man’s deep voice rang through the hall. ‘And I will not suffer racism.’
None of us moved. We all kept our faces straight. We did not let our joy show, because we knew we did not work for the RSC, and some people in these lines would be punished this morning for what he was doing. But our hearts sang.
They had to stamp his passport and wave him through. Please vote against Borders.
My brother, my sister, her husband, my partner, her brother, my son-in-law, my three daughter-in-laws, my ex-lover, my former flatmate for many years, his husband, me, my niece’s husband, my former partner, my uncle’s wife, my cousin’s wife, my other cousin’s wife, my cousin’s husband. All immigrants somewhere now. Most of us – but not all – are white. And it is difficult enough for us.
My friend R was in the underground in South Africa in the 1960s. He said when anybody was arrested, no one expected them not to talk. The interrogators could break almost anyone. But you were asked to hold out for 48 hours. That gave enough time to warn everyone in your cell. Someone with a car would put them in the boot and drive through the night to the border.
R made it to Britain.
In the 1970s the South African exiles drank in the Marlborough Arms off the Tottenham Court Road in London. They were sad, defeated men. Now they run that country, and working class South Africans riot against immigrants from other African countries.
My friend Y was a Maoist in Iran. He did time in the Shah’s prisons before the Revolution, and in the Ayatollah’s prisons after the Revolution. He crossed the border into Pakistan, got false papers, flew to Sweden, and got asylum. Years later, in his council flat in London, he told me he was having trouble sleeping. His neighbours came home late, and the noise of the creaky old lift reminded him of the noise of the prison lift when they men came to take someone down for torture.
I drank with my friend A some nights in another bar in London. He came from Afghanistan, from the valley just over the mountain from where I did my fieldwork when I was an anthropologist. One night in 2002 I asked A if he had a job yet.
He said he had a lot of work now teaching Pushtu.
I said, ‘That’s good,’ happy for him.
‘No, it’s not, Jonathan,’ he said, looking at me, meaning I was stupid not to know who was learning Pushtu in London in 2002, and why.
We drank, and were sad, as all Afghan exiles were and are. I asked if he knew Tahir Alemi, from the university in Kabul, my best friend in Afghanistan. Tahir was kind, gentle, brave, a committed Communist. I thought probably Tahir was dead.
A said yes, he had been in prison with Tahir in 1979 in Jalalabad. (Tahir was a Parchami, the wrong kind of communist that year in Afghanistan.)
‘Is he alive?’ I said.
‘I don’t know,’ A said. ‘But I never heard of him again, and they killed most of the people in that prison.’
A lived because someone managed to get him out of the prison and into Britain. So vote on Thursday.
I worked in an abortion clinic in London in the 1980s. Many women came to us from Ireland, where abortion was illegal. My job was to listen to their feelings, but most of the Irish women had faces of stone. Except one girl, seventeen, and eighteen weeks pregnant, who told me she came down to the port in her home town to take the ferry when she was ten weeks pregnant. Then she glimpsed her aunt, and hid behind some cargo, and did not dare walk to the gangway for fear someone would see her. That’s why she was eighteen weeks pregnant now.
We did the abortion. She did not have to have a visa. Someone I loved once went from America to Mexico for an abortion when it was illegal in the US. She was ashamed, and afraid, but she did not need a visa.
I listened to a woman taking on NPR radio in America. She worked for a small project in the southwestern US that went out into the desert and found the old bodies of thousands who have died trying to cross from Mexico. This was before DNA. Her project looked for anything, a necklace, a letter, a special pair of jeans, a tattoo, an old burn, that might identify the body for the family back home in Mexico. The woman on the radio said every time she tells a family, they say thank you. So vote against borders.
When they tore down the Berlin Wall, I watched on television. I worked construction for a while when I was young. I could see that the men standing on the wall, wielding sledge hammers and chisels, were men who had used the tools for a living.
My mother was teaching English in Thailand in the 1980s when the Vietnamese boat people came into the port of Songkhla. She went out on a small boat, round the back of the crowded vessel, so the police could not see her, and talked up the people on the deck. Some of them could speak English, because of the war. Two days later the army pushed them out to sea.
My mother went back to America and taught English to Cambodian refugees in Providence, Rhode Island. Many of them worked third shift in the jewellery factories. My mother had to rewrite parts of the standard textbook. There was the drill where she would ask ‘Do you have a daughter?’ and then ‘What is her name?’ and so on.
When she asked a Cambodian woman ‘How many children do you have?’ the women would try to answer, and couldn’t, and then began to cry, and the whole room would cry, because so many of them had dead children too.
Another strange thing about those classes, my mother said, was that some of the men had been King Sihanouk’s men in the long civil war, and some had been General Lon Nol’s men, and some had been communists with Pol Pot in the Khmer Rouge. Everyone knew who was who. There was a silent agreement. No one ever talked about other people’s past in class, or in front of any Americans, except my mother. If the Americans found out, they would deport Pol Pot’s men. After the torture camps and the famine and the killing fields, they did not forget, and they did not forgive. But no one ever turned Pol Pot’s men in to immigration.
I’m just telling stories here, like a man in a bar. I like telling stories. Maybe a billion living people could tell you a story like this. Maybe two billion. Every Palestinian on the planet can tell you one of these stories. And every Jew.
On a lighter note, remember the end of the Sound of Music, where the whole family climbs into the mountains and over the border into Switzerland? Or the end of Casablanca, and the start of a beautiful friendship? Or the pictures of what happened to all the Jews who did not get visas?
Fifteen years after the end of World War Two, my father told me he thought that every Jew in the world knew exactly where their passport was, all the time.
Vote against borders.
Maybe you are on the far left, like me, and you plan to vote leave, because the European Union is utterly neoliberal. You’ve got that right. I know the EU well, from union work across Europe, from anti-capitalist work in the European Social Forum, from climate campaigning. Everything the EU does relentlessly pushes inequality, and their money corrupts the social movements.
Everything about the EU is bad, except for one thing. Free movement of citizens across borders in the EU. Not free movement for non-European residents. And not free movement into the EU. The outer borders of the EU are a fortress against the poor, the coloured, the Muslim and the desperate.
But that one thing, the free movement of EU citizens across borders, just that one little thing, is now the only thing this vote is about.
We’re voting because the EU admitted some countries in Eastern Europe, who are a little poorer than us, and a little less white, and some of them came to live here. Almost everyone who is voting to leave says that the country is full now. If the leave vote wins, immigrants from all over the world will be stopped at our borders, detained, deported. The racist, far right, anti-immigrant parties are growing across Europe, circling power, and the other parties are bending to them. If we leave, all those racist parties will take heart.
Israel is building a wall through Palestine. Trump is promising to build a wall the length of the Mexican border. He is promising not to let any Muslims in. India is planning to build a wall around Bangladesh, because of climate change.
I have stood outside the walls of my local immigrant detention centre and shouted back and forth with the men inside. I could not see them through the corrugated tin fence, but they could hear me, and they always said thank you, just for that.
I don’t care if your left party told you to vote leave. When you walk into that polling booth you are alone. Stop, and breathe, and vote for what hold most dear.
Nigel Farage, who led the fight to have a referendum, posed for a poster in front of a photo of a long line of hundreds of refugees trudging down a road. Syrian refugees. The poster said Breaking Point.
A fascist shot Jo Cox dead this week, shouting ‘Britain First’. She was a campaigner for Syrian refugees, and an MP. Her life matters a great deal, but no more and no less than the lives of each of the thousand who drowned in the Med two weeks ago.
But her death matters in another way, because it grows from the festival of racism in Britain the last few weeks, when powerful men and women have said the things that were too shameful to say until yesterday. That festival of racism gave a committed, organised fascist the confidence to kill a member of parliament.
She will not be the last to die. And she was not the first. But her death marks a turning point in this country, and we all know it. I am afraid of the future. And not just in Britain.
Thirty seven years ago I went to the funeral march for Blair Peach in London. He was an immigrant, a New Zealander, a Maori, a teacher, a socialist, my comrade, and the riot police had killed him on an anti-fascist demonstration. Clubbed him to death with a police radio. I marched in line, up to the spot on the road where he died, and around the men who stood there. Some were young Sikh men, the sons of immigrants, mostly clean shaven, and some were older men, mostly bearded, the immigrants themselves, and I looked in their eyes, and they looked in mine, and in all of our eyes. We were all silent. I saw sadness in their eyes, but also thank you. We were Asian, white and black, standing together for one of our dead.
It matters to Britain now that we stood together in those years. I grew up in Texas in the Jim Crow years, when we had apartheid, and I remember going into the wrong toilet as a kid at a minor league baseball game, the Austin Senators. I looked around, and all the men in the toilet were black, and they tried not to laugh while I tried to work out where I was.
And now, when I see a few teenage boys hanging around on a street corner near my London home, and some are white and some are black, I cry, because I do not see that in America, and because Blair Peach and all of us did that.
On Thursday, stand together. The vote will be close.
The Syrian refugees have done something new. For decades I have watched people cower silent in immigration lines, holding their forms, heads down, alone. People have crossed at night, across the desert, in shipping boxes, in the backs of lorries.
The Syrians marched across Europe. They had risen against Assad, knowing his regime, knowing the fight would be long and terrible, which is why they are still fighting four years later. And that is why they have marched up to the borders, in their hundreds and their thousands, and demanded let us in, and dared the soldiers to shoot them.
I have spent the last twelve years of my life campaigning against climate change. Some of the Syrians are climate refugees, and all of them are refugees from the long international Oil War. That war is organised by the fossil fuel corporations. The same oil companies who have organised the endless war have organised for decades to stop action on climate change.
The time is coming when there will be hundreds of millions of climate refugees, and they will come up against men and women with machine guns guarding the borders. And there will such an increase in racism on the other side of the border, to keep them out.
I hope when those times come they will be like the Syrians, and rush those borders in their hundreds of millions.
Maybe. Maybe not.
As the fascist shot Jo Cox, he shouted ‘Britain First’.
No. No one first.
All for one and one for all.
2 thoughts on “Vote Thursday”
Its unusual to see such emotive and political writing weaved together. Thanks for what you wrote, my mind was already made up to vote to remain, and unlikely to change. But a post like yours is one I will share, and whatever else happens we know the struggle continues.
(This is the corrected version to post)
Thanks for this Jonathan. Your stories humanise the issues that get bandied about.
For the left and progressive sections of our society, the only strategic and politically appropriate response to this referendum is to vote Remain.
This referendum has always been the stalking horse of the far right seeking to gain political advantage and power to an extent that has always eluded them in Britain. Until now.
Because they have set the agenda, determined the parameters of the debate. The mainstream parties have pandered and traded with them and the racist corporate media have goaded and manipulated a naive public towards normalising hatred and cruelty as a legitimate response to the current situation.
I too was active in anti racist campaigns during the 70’s when confronting fascists meant pitched battles with them and the police on the streets. Blair and Celia lived in my neighbourhood. I was at the demo in Southall and attended his memorial.
Those were frightening and dangerous times. But with a strong Thatcherite Tory party peddling a racist populism the fascist element were never likely to gain much political power then.
I’m more frightened now as I think they have gained political ground and influence and have the best chance yet, to gain even more political power through this vote if they get a Leave win..
I don’t see an articulate, organised challenge to them that existed in the 70’s.
Racism and the threat from the far right seems to be a lower priority for the left than is addressing the economic or environment issues we face.
I voted not to join for all the lefty reasons that I am still critical of the EU. I have identical criticism of our own government. But to me right now I see the only strategic and pertinent response to the referendum is to vote Remain and work for a remain win to starve the racists and fascists of fuel for their hatred and desire for political power.