The Removal Men: Immigration Detention, Activism and Art

CN: sexual violence, Immigration detention.
I have just seen a play called the Removal Men written by M. J. Harding and directed by Jay Miller. The play is centred on the lives of immigration detention guards and their feelings about their work and the people they detain. I arrived at the play sceptical: I was interested in it as a way of bringing the detention to the consideration of new audiences but I felt uncomfortable about how it was marketed as a ‘love story’ between a guard and a woman in detention. I had the following questions circling in my mind:
  • What is the range of acceptable, interesting or politically useful artistic responses to the violence of Yarl’s Wood?
  • What is the difference between participating in and normalising the racism and sexism of immigration control and helpfully re-presenting the racism and sexism of detention for the examination of new audiences?
For anti-detention activists, the importance of unambiguous condemnation of detention and deportation, of sexual conduct between border guards and people held in detention is important. Because of the political and social exclusion faced by those in detention, it is important that detainee voices and experience are represented and shared as much as possible. And plays that obfuscate, confuse and revel in the controversy of detention serve to normalise detention and extract financial and social capital for the artists without challenging audiences into political action against their existence.
For the artist, developing a play that embodies what is repulsive and oppressive about detention could be a laudable aim. The play reflects back at the audience a vision of detention and of themselves as caught up in logics that enable oppressive violence of detention to occur. Because guards are racist, sexist and homophobic, the characters can say racist and homophobic jokes. Because detention excludes people, is racist and violent, it is legitimate and perhaps politically useful to embody these by for example, failing to depict the detained woman who is in the relationship with the main character.
It is interesting that the artists, I think rightly, decide not to justify the play on the basis of liberal free expression to explore any such story about detention. Instead, their argument justifies the ambivalent depiction of detention on the basis of its instrumental effect that to prompt questioning and further inquiry for the audience about detention. Yet for this to be successful it must be the case that the elements that make the play repulsive and offensive are those things that make detention repulsive and offensive. It would be a failure if the play was repulsive and offensive in ways that obscure the ways that detention is. If this were the case, one couldn’t argue that the audience was being asked to interrogate their relationship to the oppressive institution reflected back at them.
The play explicitly interrogates a number of themes. Through the play’s central characters, Mo and George, the play explores white masculinity that the detention centres themselves embody: insecure in their identity and place in the world, fragile and prone to lashing violently out, and yet placed in positions of power over others. By channelling ‘The Office’ style humour and repeated references to ’empathy workshops’ for the guards, the play explores the ways care, love and empathy are mobilised to facilitate the operation of imprisonment and deportation in ways that empty these words of meaning. The soporific music and dream-like sequences instil a sense that the people working in detention have to remove themselves emotionally from their jobs and, perhaps, leaves the audience examining their own detachment from, and therefore complicity in, detention.
The plot is driven Mo’s ‘relationship’ with a character named Didi who is never present on stage. When Mo is tasked with letting Didi know she is about to be removed, he tries to prevent her removal by cutting her with a broken mug and raping her resulting in Didi becoming pregnant. These are the clearest words to describe what happened, but the play is less than clear about what actually happens. How Didi responded to Mo’s apparent wish to disrupt her removal is unclear because it happens just off stage. Mo thinks she actively consented, the detention centre manager is disgusted at what Mo has done and there is a dreamy music sequence in which the actor playing the detention centre manager seems to take on the voice of Didi persuading him not to try to ‘help her’. It is left ambiguous about what actually happened.
The play was uncomfortable and intentionally so. The line between indulging in the white fetishisation and sexualisation of the absent black women in custody and representing it to a new audience to critique is difficult to discern. And without a way for audiences to digest and get direction, the play seemed to revel in this indistinction and nihilism. While I had attended an aftershow discussion that helped the audience digest the political content of the play – this discussion was an exception and was only put on in response to the open letter by activists.
Art does not need to be didactic and it can usefully explore any of the stories that intersect with detention. I found much of the play’s use of ambiguity quite effective. It was necessary to attempt to think about the social conditions that enable people to work in places of detention. And it is necessary to explore what I took to be the play’s key thesis: that one of the reasons why detention is so concerning is the destruction it does to fundamental human emotions and instincts.
Yet, on the subject of sexual assault of women in immigration detention, I would question whether the same argument can be made. Here, the fact that there is sexual assault in detention is clear – one only has to listen to the people in detention, former detainees and activists that have worked hard to gain recognition of abuse. The ambiguity only results from the exclusion from political participation of people in detention and the culture of disbelief that surrounds both sexual assault and people who make immigration claims. The play, therefore, fails to achieve what the artist wants: represent detention for the inspection of new audiences. Instead, the play’s inability to clearly re-present these stories participates in the damaging cultural trope that maintains ambiguity around sexual assault. On this subject, the maintenance of ambiguity and the mirroring of exclusion of voice fails to support the people who have suffered in Yarl’s Wood and who have provided the subject matter for the play.
It is also unclear that the inclusion/exclusion of Didi a character who was so central to the plot but never represented as a character in the play by an actor aids in re-presenting to the audience problems of detention. I was quite sympathetic to the artists’ argument that by representing people in detention through one person in detention and by refusing to add to the depictions of suffering black bodies was a way to a avoid problematic politics of different kinds. However, I was less sympathetic toward arguments that the play was again mirroring the realities of detention since the absence of voice is difficult to feel without it being confronted directly.
The absence of Didi’s character was made more problematic by the ambiguous presentation of sexual assault, discussed above, and the way the marketing revolved around the question of whether a ‘love story’ could exist in detention. In the pos- show discussion, no responsibility was taken by the writer or director for the marketing of the play. But the framing of the play is an important resource through which an audience will approach the play and it is indicative of how the play understands itself. The fact is we cannot ask whether ‘love’ can exist in detention without a depiction of the agency of the woman in detention because a love story is not an emotion felt by a white man but suggests the collaboration and consent of others. This focus on the emotions of Mo his ‘love’, the indulgence of his white guilt in the last half an hour of the play, I feel took us further and further away from a confrontation with detention and its problems.
In all, reproducing the repulsive reality of detention is a useful pursuit. However, it is important to recognise the fine but definite lines between re-presenting the violence of detention and reproducing the social conditions which enable the violence of detention to exist.

2017: How to build on the growing Shut Down Yarl’s Wood demonstrations?

The Yarl’s Wood Demonstrations have been massive for the anti-detention movement. Indeed, the tireless work of Movement for Justice and others has created the movement. The demonstrations are not just shows of solidarity with women detained in the centre, but a reminder that the day to day of anti-detention work is not carried out in isolation and a sign of the growing strength of anti-detention sentiment.Two things struck me about December’s Yarl’s Wood Demo. Firstly, as I entered the demonstration and walked to the far end of the field, there were so many pockets of song and organisation, each expressing their outrage and love in overlapping yet distinctive ways. A coalition of groups representing

Two things struck me about December’s Yarl’s Wood Demo. Firstly, as I entered the demonstration and walked to the far end of the field, there were so many pockets of song and organisation, each expressing their outrage and love in overlapping yet distinctive ways. A coalition of groups representing organisational capacity to do more and more to resist detention.

Secondly, that when MFJ enabled women in detention to take to the microphone – there was a unifying respect and discipline: everyone was there to listen, to respond and to work alongside the women in Yarl’s Wood to shut it down. This unified display of political intention, to me, shows a movement learning a common way of doing politics together.

The question for 2017 is how can this movement expand and escalate from Yarl’s Wood demonstrations?

An answer, for me, must include growing a base of support against the men’s detention estate.

This is important because we know the dangers of movements that select groups of people subject to oppression as deserving of support. While policy changes may be made, the effect is to solidify the appearance of the fairness of detention without diminishing the numbers of people incarcerated and deported.

We urgently need to recognise the intersecting racist and sexist violence that occurs in Yarl’s Wood that manifests many ways, not least the numerous allegations of sexual assault committed by guards and the large numbers of survivors of rape that are held there. At the same time, it is important to resist becoming a campaign that falls into the trap of pitting good categories migrants against bad migrants. This is important especially in the context of widespread gendered and racist representations about black, male adults as threatening and expendable. Black men are both vulnerable to the violence detention and deportation and worthy of mass mobilisation against their incarceration.


I hope the Yarl’s Wood demonstrations continue and expand. But my hope for the movement is that it can draw strength from them and expand resistance across the detention estate.

Best tracks of 2016

This year, fearful that I was succumbing to a lazy unwillingness to listen to new music masked by an unjustified belief in the superiority of my teenage idols, I forced myself to listen to habitually explore this year’s new releases with more interest than usual. I made this list of my 10 top ten tracks of 2016, with a mind to give recognition to the bands I discovered this year.

Honourable mention: 

Kurt Vile: Pretty Pimpin, b’lieve I’m going down – for his drooly laid back riff based guitar music.

She Drew the Gun: If you could see – a melodic indie-rock band with sci-fi songs on time travel and lefty politics.

10) Michael Kiwanuka: Cold little Heart, Love and Hate
I was a real fan of Kiwanuka’s first album. This second album has yet to grow on me as a whole but I really love the opening track’s slow ascendency.

9) Leonard Cohen: You want it Darker, You want it Darker
Lost in the tumultuous week of the US election, Leonard Cohen died. And so, as with Bowie’s record, I cannot listen to it without being drawn back, even though the record came out some weeks earlier. I like this record for its dark religiosity and cutting bass line. Cohen has been saying goodbye in his songs for a number of years now, but in the context of Trump’s election, Cohen’s prophetic voice gauding ‘you want it darker’ took on some extra significance.

8) Angel Olsen: Shut up and Kiss me
I just really like this album. It asks old questions (what is this messed up love thing?) and echoes traditional folk and rock-n-roll styles but feels fresh.

7) M83: Do it, Try it, Junk
I’m new to M83 tooSometimes I’m appalled that I enjoy listening to it but at others, I just love the commitment to 80s weirdness which makes running a whole lot more fun.

6) Junius Meyvant: Beat Silent Need, Floating Harmonies
I don’t know how I came across Junius Meyvant – he combines melodic folk with uplifting brass lines and danceable bass. We saw him play at a strange little theatre in Hammersmith this year and the brass was played on a keyboard which was a little underwhelming but his off-beat humour made up for it.

5) Radiohead: Daydreaming, A moon Shaped Pool
While I really like the energy of the dystopic opening track ‘Burn the Witch’, I went with Daydream for its silky soundscape textures and gently soporific mood. It’s a track that works calms and focuses rather than overwhelms. It’s much more representative of the album which at first listen might pass you by but it’s depth and subtlety has much to offer.

4) Kate Tempest: Europe is Lost
I’ve been reading the anti-fascist Auden poem September 1, 1939 a lot recently. It feels relevant to the times we’re living in. It’s about ordinary life in the context impending rise of fascism – the temptation to block it out, to continue as if everything’s ordinary and to shut it out when this only lets it in. The nihilism of contemporary fascism and its cause/effect in ordinary life is explored in this Kate Tempest song.

3) Ezra Furman: Teddy I’m Ready, Big Fugitive Life
This song represents more than the EP that it sits on but also the discovery of Ezra Furman’s back catalogue as a whole that has been possibly the best part of this project. Basically, he’s really good at incorporating opposing forces within songs to create emotive, interest and fun. Combining lazy, laid-back guitars of his shambolic doo-wop punk with dark, lonely lyrics that have unexpected integrity and sharpness that explore dealing with depression and politics in refreshing, caring ways.

2) Kamasi Washington: Change of the Guards, The Epic
I don’t listen to much jazz but this is a jazz record like I’ve never listened to. It blew me away. It’s such a rush as it rises and rises, pushing you to ever more dissonant places and then releasing you back to the familiarity of its chorus that in itself is already driving you somewhere else.

1) David Bowie: Blackstar, Blackstar
It’s impossible for me to listen to this without confronting again Bowie’s passing – which changes fundamentally the album’s meaning. The whole album is astonishing with excellent frenetic drums, elements of jazz and a darkness that one doesn’t usually associate with Bowie’s work. The whole album directly confronts death but the lengthy opener through its different sections engage with death’s religious power over us, Bowie’s worries about legacy, death as blissful release and the jerky impulsive movements that i associate with the track because of the video reminds me of how we are subject to bodily limits and control.

Here’s this list in a Spotify playlist