On the morning of 17 January 2018 a humanitarian group, No More Deaths, released a report showing how, over four years, US border patrol agents had destroyed 3,856 gallons of water that had been left for migrants in the desert.
That afternoon, Scott Warren, a No More Deaths volunteer, was arrested for bringing food, water, bedding and clean clothes to two men who had entered the country illegally. He found them in an area where 32 bodies had been recovered in the previous year alone.
Charged with conspiracy to transport and harbour migrants, he faced up to 20 years in prison. Earlier this month his trial ended in a hung jury.
Put differently, an American jury was asked whether, in effect, it should be illegal for one human being to provide basic sustenance to preserve the lives of other human beings in desperate need – and it could not quite make up its mind. (The jury was deadlocked, having split 8-4 in Warren’s favour. The state will decide whether to try him again next week.)
So when we see a photograph of the lifeless body of 26-year-old Salvadorean Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, clutching his dead 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria, face down in the Rio Grande, it is important to decipher exactly what the source of the shock might be.
As Warren’s case illustrates, such deaths are not news in the conventional sense, any more than the police shooting black men in the street in the US is “news”. In the absence of mass protest there is a level of racialised suffering that rarely exceeds the status of white noise in the west. Not only do we know these things happen and have been happening for a long time; we know they don’t happen by accident, and could be prevented if we, as a society, had the will to do so. There is pathos in the suffering, but there is policy behind it too.
The tragic image is news because the basic humanity of those who perish has been so routinely denied that the evidence that they are not “cockroaches”, “animals”, “aliens”, “illegals”, rats or vermin but actual people feels genuinely novel – it provides an empathic injection into the morally sclerotic vein of a dehumanised political culture.
This was a father and daughter, holding on to each other until the very end: tender, vulnerable, heartbreaking. In a sense this is the problem. If for the stories of their lives to break through in the mainstream they must first be dead, what use is it to them? The fact that they are objects of pity, shame or even anger does not make them any less objects ripe for our projection.
Empathy could be the first step to solidarity – click, share, engage. Warren must have been conscientised and radicalised somehow. In 2006 I drove all the way up the US-Mexican border from Brownsville, Texas, where Angie Valeria and Óscar were found, to San Diego. On the way I spoke to Armando Alarcón, who was carried over the Rio Grande by his father when he was Angie Valeria’s age. When Alarcón saw a news story about the body of an eight-year-old girl found by a border patrol after she had been abandoned by her smuggler, he bought a Cessna 172 plane and founded a group called Paisanos al Rescate – Fellow Countrymen to the Rescue.