On this May Day, I think about the barbed wires that coil around us all
By Katrina Jorene Maliamauv
May 1st 2020
This week, on a call with colleagues about the tinderbox that is detention and boats of people pushed into endless seas, I looked out the window and noticed something I hadn’t before. Barbed wires. Thin and threatening, a steady line across the wall my neighbour had built.
No, it is more likely that I had noticed it, but in the kind of way where we look past the inconvenient and uncomfortable, turning instead to blue skies and cottons of clouds, and coconut palms in the distance.
On the 9th of April, I wrote this in response to a story of an 18-year old jailed for going out to buy a packet of instant noodles, seemingly another crime in the ever expansive imagination of violations against Malaysia’s Movement Control Order:
“The pandemic reveals. It reveals things about the way we’ve structured our world—the layers of injustice and violence embedded in, hidden away, surfacing now. But it reveals truths about so many of us too—how we thirst for sacrifice; illusions of action. How quickly and eagerly we call for humans to be caged. How deeply violence has been normalised within us”.
On this May Day, I think about the barbed wire of hard laws and the deceptively ‘soft’ beliefs and cultures that coil around peoples and communities, protecting ‘property’ and ‘capital’ and ‘our way of life’ (whose way?).
I think about labour extracted as bodies are kept in place, the sharp edges breaking skin, cutting into, leaving to bleed as we profit off and survive through (but refuse to call ‘essential’) these bodies of workers that disinfect floors and seats, cut fruit and stitch masks, tend to children and stock the shelves, cook meals and discard our waste.
I think about the perceived and enforced-disposability of these bodies; dark bodies, queer bodies, migrant bodies, disabled bodies, trans and nameless and stateless and poor and indigenous and refugee and female and elderly and and and—
the millions who move among us, pushed to the margins, into shadows and behind walls, in grocery stores and plantations, fishing boats and middle class homes, hospital floors and hanging off garbage trucks.
I wonder if it is in this moment, when the world falls away from us, we start to see what was hidden before; we can notice the coils of violence and injustice that have been laid along our homes, in our streets, through the layers of our lives; if we can pay attention to the imprints of people, workers, in the every day engines of our world.
When we speak about ‘saving the economy’, I wonder what that means when the workers who ‘make the economy’ are left to starve, kicked out of kongsis by employers, evicted from rooms with rent they cannot meet; trapped in ill-named ‘mansions’ as plans to ship them off to detention centres are mapped.
We wait for mid-afternoon briefings of tests and deaths and recoveries; how many dead, but what are we measuring? Do we just look for the virus that lodges in our lungs?
What about bodies that wither from starvation; enslaved in houses that can never be homes; persons pushed off on rickety boats into an ocean without welcoming shores; families boiling broken rice and kangkung from drains; fishing for food and being punished for it; hoping for biscuits and bread pushed through coils of razor wire—how do they count in our trackers and data sets?
How do you access ‘aid’ and ‘relief’ and ‘stimulus packages’ from a system that refuses to count you? What are we looking at, without seeing?
“When patriarchy dismisses us, it encourages our murderers.”
—Audre Lorde (1979)
On this May Day mayday, I think about the people we dismiss; workers, labourers, those deemed ‘low skilled’ yet somehow invaluable. I think about the erasure of their worth, their needs, their joy, their security, their comfort, their safety, their health; their dismissal, and for too many, their demise that we let happen.
As we are moved by the banging of pots and evening roars of claps and candles lit for frontline workers, I wonder if we pause too to think about the workers we’ve long sacrificed for booming profits and ‘meeting of our needs’, those enslaved in the “life-saving” glove factories, cleaning hospitals without protection, denied the necessity of physical distancing in manufacturing lines and slaughterhouses.
Maybe if we let our perspectives shift, we can see past the comfortable and feel-good, and notice the barbed wires of illegality and invisibility, and the loud complicit silences we offer.
“I stay at work for you, you stay at home for us”
A plea that resonates. We’ve built a world of divisions and borders, of individualism and isolation and disconnection. Yet this plea stirs us. For in our cells, in our blood lines, in how we’ve survived over and over again, we understand connection, to each other, to the plants and animals and oceans and skies.
We may have numbed that understanding through the arbitrary lines of class and race and gender and sexuality and immigration status, through fear and greed and selfish systems of power that tell us lies about whose lives matters, but in the quiet within us, there is an understanding that our lives, our survival are intertwined with one another.
Our challenge is to make it visible, to name, to speak into the world. To feel beyond the numbness of capitalism and hateful ideologies. To look and connect with those we’ve been taught to take from but never truly see.
Our humanity tangled
“The world is what it is because of a million decisions we chose to make… for every decision made, there could have been another… we have to undo it like we undo stitching”
—Arundhati Roy (2020)
The barbed wires of our world will not disappear on their own, not through lockdowns and silences. We have to do the painstaking, painful work of un-twisting and snipping and detangling and uncoiling.
There will be cuts and scars, and we will flinch, and we will tire. But that is what we’ve long struggled, survived and lost through, the painful fight through which May Day was born, through which the rights that protect us in workplaces and define our sense of time through 8-hour days and the countless other protections we enjoy were won.
Arundhati reminds us too that the world we want will not be ‘handed to us like cut fruit” and “we have to feel each other’s feelings, fight each other’s battles”.
Before we struggle alongside and fight for and feel with, we have to see, notice the bodies, the sensations and points of connection and conflict in and between us; listen for the thrum beneath our skin, the knowledge in our cells of who we are, our histories, our humanity tangled with one another.
We have to look for and break the barriers that push us apart. As we remain physically distant may we find new ways to stand in solidarity, to refocus our lenses, to let ourselves see what we often don’t want to. And may we sit in that knowledge, in that discomfort, in the unease and rubble and ashes, and dream newer, better, more just and beautiful worlds and ways of being. If not now, during this collective crisis of our existence/our existential crisis, when?
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Katrina Jorene Maliamauv is a human rights activist, an educator, a feminist, and a believer in the unwavering pursuit of justice, hope, radical love, and collective action to reimagine and create a more inclusive, just and equal world for all.