I Need Freedom from the Public
When analyzing movement, one must draw attention to the individual, the group, and the overall society. This paper is an evaluation into the power and limitations that come with opting into or out of a group. The power of the group places particular constraints on individual movement both historically and contemporarily. The group phenomenon is also not limited to one geographical area or nationality. There are similar limitations and constraints placed on groups globally. Throughout the essay I address the numerous benefits that come as being a part of a group or public, and the restraints that are placed on groups by looking at the work of Elizabeth Dillon. I use literature from Ramon Rivera-Servera to discuss the need for counter publics. I look specifically at the public’s use of race and unclear legality to create constraint constraints by analyzing the work of Elene Lam, Danielle Goldman, Inga Schwartz, Hagar Kotef and Merav Amir. Freedom is discussed as an action opposed to a destination in response to the unjust constraints assigned by the public. Dance is evaluated as an embodiment of freedom and a possible way to create safe spaces for communities of marginalized people. Overall, the power of the group to impose restriction that force decisions on individuals inside and outside of the group is an evident global phenomenon. Consequently, the need for practices of freedom are also necessary for the survival of the oppressed.
There are numerous benefits when one chooses to be a part of a group. A group can provide safety and reassurance. Groups can be physical and/or figurative. A geographical proximity, such as a neighborhood, can be a specific type of group that provides a certain sense of community. Distant people who prescribe to a specific ideology and connect in a virtual environment, such as a Facebook group, can also be seen as a group. Having a group membership can provide access to numerous resources, security, and a social network. For example, having a membership to Sam’s Club provides access to bulk items at a low cost. Having a group membership to an academic organization may provide discounts on new scholarship or conferences. In New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World, 1649-1849 Elizabeth Dillon discusses drama and the Atlantic world in conversation to what she titles the performative commons (2014). Dillion discusses the benefits of the commons and the communal access to land and other resources. However, the commons she examines are heavily regulated and are not as egalitarian as one may think. The commons is referred to as the power of the people and it takes on the role of political ability (2014). The commons is a powerful force but is heavily rooted in abstraction. The commons is powerful but is not always a literal body that gathers regularly to make decisions. The commons is a virtual version of the systems in power, the governing public. Being a member of the commons or public gives one the power to contribute to the decisions that govern the group (Dillon 2014). For example, in the United States having the right to vote is one way to participate in the commons. However, the creation of a commons or public is not an equitable. This is apparent when thinking about voting in US history because many people marched, fought and died to receive that right. However, the complexity of our government systems creates a system where some people’s votes count for less. Therefore, while power may appear evenly distributed, it is not. People without power are then governed by those with money, connections, and land. Therefore, if a person does not have the resources to reside comfortably within the commons or public, they may need to form a counter-public.
Counter-publics are created by and for those who don’t fit into the public. Opting into the public comes with certain restraints. These restraints can be both physical or ideological. When people act or exist outside of those parameters they are treated poorly both systemically and interpersonally. Individuals who don’t fit inside of the restraints created by the public become a marginalized group. This marginalized group forms a community creates an alternative public with its own rules of engagement. In Performing Queer Latinidad, Ramon Rivera-Servera discusses how those who are a part of the counter-public exist and engage daily within the public (2012). Rivera-Servera discusses queer Latinidad as a separate counter-public. The counter-publics work to create or find areas of safety that are not granted within the original public. In these areas they create community where they can be their authentic selves. This is what Michael Warner, a queer theorist, considers “stranger relationality” (Rivera-Servera 2012, 68). The people who would otherwise be strangers are now tied together through social engagements that create supportive bonds. Metaphorically, two or more ugly ducklings find each other and make a new space where being an ugly duckling is celebrated. Rivera-Servera discusses how Arthur Aviles creates community through the process of counter-publicity (2012). Aviles works in the community and creates homes for those who have intersecting marginalized identities. Aviles works creates room for those who identify as both a part of the queer community and the Latinx community (Rivera-Servera 2012). Existing within this intersection of communities creates social and physical constraints. Therefore, the need for safe spaces, such as dance clubs become an essential part of the community.
Race is one example of how physical characteristics place people into subgroups. While race is a social construct separate from biology, it is tied to a dark history. This history travels with us and informs the way people see themselves and others in the world. Race is also largely tied to culture. People of a certain group with shared ways of life may experience the same culture. The people who are then born into that culture may have similar physical characteristics, such as skin color, nose shape, mouth shape, hair texture…etc. However, existing inside of a culture does not equate to being a part of that race. For example, if a person has white skin, white lineage, and benefits from white privilege, they cannot be a black person. They can enjoy and experience black culture, with a respect to the history, but they will never fully understand life as a black person. Race cannot be selected based on convenience. While it would be more advantageous for many black people to choose to be white to avoid racism, it is rarely if ever an option. The racism that exists and has existed within the United States is both on a systemic and interpersonal level. In Danielle Goldman’s book I Want to be Ready, the dance club the Palladium is discussed (2010). Many people think that because the Palladium was a safe space was a safe space because it was integrated. However, Goldman shows that race was actually an important element that limited the space. “On Wednesday nights when ‘Killer Joe’ Piro gave dance lessons, the crowd was Jewish and Italian. Friday was for Puerto Ricans, Saturday for Hispanics of all origins . . . and Sunday . . . was for American blacks” (Goldman 2010, 45). Although Latin music was used every night of the week, there was not much mixing between races. In this particular division both race and ethnicity are used as dividing elements. Therefore, a black woman just would not be able to attend the dance hall on Friday to practice moves for Sunday. Even if the songs were the same, the space would not be a safe one. The constraints about what, where, and how different races move shift. The lines of who falls under what race are arbitrary and adjust based on the social circumstances. For example, when someone is of mixed decent, both white and black, their racial ambiguity may cause discontinuity when moving between communities. When they are inside of a white community, they may be seen and treated as a black person. When they are inside of a black community, they may be seen and treated as a white person. When they are inside of a community outside of the United States, the narrative could change again. The lines that divide races are imaginary but prevalent.
Race is often used as an excuse for physical constraints that can be placed on an individual. The physical constraints that are placed on these individuals shifts based on the culture and community. The movements of certain races are policed, constrained, and forced. The dominant or most powerful individuals together form a public which creates implicit and explicit rules governing those that reside within it. Dillion also discusses race and its invention by stating “this racialization emerges in relation to the development of an Atlantic world economy shaped by European colonial appropriation of lands, peoples, and resources in Africa and the Americas” (Dillon 2014, 1). Historically, the division of races was instituted as a justification for colonialism. The racism was a way to reduce the humanness in others who poses differences. In the era that Dillon discusses the racism was used to force mass migration of a race and enslave them (Dillon 2014). However, as time progresses, racism has shifted and taken other forms; yet, its presence is still here. The governing publics utilize various methods to ensure that their ideals are maintained, and this often includes removing individuals who are seen as undesirable based on their race. One way that governments have removed unwanted individuals is by creating oppressive legislature that uses coded language to harm specific groups. One example of this phenomenon can be seen when looking into Butterfly, an organization independent from government that works to protect migrant sex workers. In the article, “Behind the Rescue: How Anti-Trafficking Investigations and Policies Harm Migrant Sex Workers,” Elene Lam discusses how migrant sex workers from Asia are oppressed by Canadian law enforcement (2018). Lam brings forward the stories of 18 individual women who had physical constraints placed on them by the government based on their race. Canadian law enforcement originally treated the women as “trafficked victims” who had no agency over themselves. The narrative was then switched by the law enforcement officers and the women were then seen as sex workers performing illegal acts (Lam 2018). The switching of the narrative and the implicit racism that exists against Asian women in Canada resulted in their detainment and/or deportation. The anti-trafficking laws in Canada lead to unfair policing of these migrant women and limited their possibilities of physical movement (Lam 2018). Their race and immigrant status were in this case used to impede their current movement of living daily in Canada and force them to migrate.
The use of unclear legality to obstruct or force movement happens consistently around the world. This legality is then spoken of as a formal protection for what is morally just; although, that is rarely the case. As in the cases of the migrant sex workers, the governing forces are rarely transparent about an individual should effectively navigate the system. Hagar Kotef and Merav Amir, in their book chapter “Between Imaginary Lines,” discuss how this lack of clarity at military checkpoints between Israel and Palestine results in a large amount of state violence (2015). When citizens of Palestine interact with Israeli soldiers at these checkpoints, Palestinians are required to meet certain expectations that are unreasonable by the Israeli government and its soldiers. Kotef and Merav use the metaphor of the imaginary line to illuminate how impossible it is to comply to the rules of the state (2015). How does one know not to cross a line physical or metaphorical if they cannot see it? It then becomes clear that the ambiguity of the requirements is intentional, and the point is for Palestinians to fail. This failure provides a legal means to incriminate these individuals and place constraints on their movement. Since private vehicles from Palestine are rarely permitted the vehicles in which one can used to move are often constrained (2015). Many travel on foot in an attempt to move correctly within the constraints (Kotef and Amir 2015). However, this is not enough. Just as the migrant women were detained in Canada, the innocent citizens of Palestine are also detained. Yet, where the women who are detained in Canadian are taken for a façade of safety, the Palestinians are detained as a form of discipline. The Palestinians are treated as children and lectured about their behavior. Therefore, Kotef and Merav argue, the violence that then is enacted by the Israeli soldiers is a just and necessary action used to reestablish the order (2015). In both of the contemporary cases of Palestinians and Asian migrant sex workers, the public in power created legal policies to support the oppression of a particular group.
Racial profiling may seem like a passed moment in history; yet, it continues to create barriers that restrain movement. Similarly, to the Kotef and Merav chapter, Inga Schwartz’s article “Racializing Freedom of Movement in Europe,” addresses the injustice that happens at checkpoints (2016). Schwartz brings focus to the racist intra-European boarders and how they obstruct movement. People of color are asked to provide documentation regardless of their nationality when traveling within Europe. Although, constant movement is necessary for the Central European states to survive. The various countries rely heavily on young workers from other countries to support their economy (Schwartz 2016). It becomes clear that the injustice is not driven by the financial status of the state or the safety of its citizens, but by the physical appearance of the individuals. Therefore, this racism is not tied to the border. Schwartz states, “Racialized border practices reach into various institutional, social, and personal strata, since they take place at national border sites, in transit situations, and in everyday life” (2016, 262). This proves that there is nothing that people of this particular group can do to not have constraints placed on them. The public’s need to place constrains on racial groups is a global phenomenon. Currently the United States is participating in similar activities at its southern border. People who the public sees as less than are being rejected and treated inhumanely because of how they look. The migrant caravan that reached the southern United States border, between Tijuana and San Diego, was met with teargas (The Guardian 2018). The United States teargassed men, women, and children who were a part of the Hispanic racial group. Similar to the people mentioned in the Schwartz article, people of a specific race are being permitted from entering the country. In addition, Mexico is also planning to impose migration on these individuals and deport 500 migrants (The Guardian. 2018).
Extreme inequitable constraints result in marginalized groups taking tremendous actions to gain freedom. Today the United States is known as a pillar of freedom. The United States positions itself as a champion of freedom and consistently uses this as justification for inserting itself into global altercations. I am not claiming that this fight for freedom is always right or wrong. However, I am arguing that the United States preaches freedom when it is convenient. In Dillion’s book she discusses the constant contradictions that arose in the early United States (2014). The “founding fathers” fought for their own freedom while continuing to enslave an entire race. Freedom for slaves was frequently debated, however the economic advantages that free labor produced where too large to dismiss. Dillion refers to this phenomenon as racial distance since the free and the enslaved were occupying the same physical space (2014). Therefore, freedom for an entire race was only granted as a last resort to win a war. Freedom is not a reality in the United States for those who are not valued by the public. Most often people of color and/ or low economic status are the first to experience this lapse of freedom. In I Want to be Ready, Goldman discusses why freedom cannot be a final destination (2010). Looking to the United States as a final destination will result in constant disappointment. However, the need for liberation from certain circumstances is evident. Revisiting the previous caravan example, the migrants at the United States border are not risking their lives for no reason. Contrariwise, they are risking everything to escape to what they believe will be a safer, more prosperous space. This act of escapism is one example of what Goldman would define an act of freedom (2010). The practices of freedom are embodied differently by different individuals, groups, and cultures. A practice of freedom could be running, jumping, writing, screaming or just being still. I think practice of freedom comes from agency. Freedom comes not from mobility or immobility, but the ability to choose. However, every choice comes with consequences or constraints. Revisiting the caravan example, those people are enacting freedom at all costs (The Guardian 2018). They walked for days and sacrificed everything for a chance at freedom. Although, the United States is not all sunshine and rich people as people in other cultures are taught to believe, it does have more opportunities than some people have in their home countries. The people on the caravan made a choice to do what they thought was best for themselves and their families, and they should not be tortured for attempting liberation. Yet, they are. The American public is also conditioned to support these abusive actions by naming them illegal. As previously discussed this legality is not always tied to morality.
Dance is one method people use to embody freedom. In the United States, most dance forms begin as some break away or search for freedom. Modernism began to break away from ballet. Postmodernism began as a break away from modernism, and so the trend continues. Goldman discusses how dance improvisation is a practice of freedom. Dancers process events of the world through improvisation (Goldman 2010). “In particular, their improvisations challenged the ways in which formalism in dance historically has effaced struggle (by privileging grace and verticality and by excluding the outside world)” (Goldman 2010, 21). These dancers changed the narrative of dance by intentionally including events that happened in the world inside the studio instead of insisting that the dance had no connection with current events. Dancers began to question why certain dance forms were supported and held in high regard while others were written off. Those who study dance have begun and still are challenging notions of how and why certain techniques are valued. There is an effort to decolonialize the dance field itself and address conservative ideologies that exclude people just as the larger public does. Goldman invites readers to see dance as a technology of the self (Goldman 2010, 22). Thus, viewing each person as an individual and as a part of a larger social context. Examining the way different bodies occupy space and movement can provide information about what freedom is or is not in their bodies. As discussed freedom is not synonymous with mobility. Therefore, unpacking the psychological constraints people have when moving may lead to new discoveries. Understanding how and why freedoms show up or don’t in different groups of bodies may help us as a culture uncover implicit realities that are rarely overtly discussed.
The community that dance creates may be one safe space for people to find freedom. Various groups have different ways of moving. Whether those be cultural dances tied to a specific group of people, or social dances from a specific geographic region, dance brings people together. Dance is one way groups take up space both physically and figuratively. The sharing of embodied knowledge extends past one performance and informs the community. The work of Aviles in his New York community is an example of how dance can create a safe space for those who are marginalized (Rivera-Servera 2012). His use of community in the Hunts Point neighbor, queer identity, and Latinidad identity creates safe spaces that served multiple populations. Aviles uses dance in his community to provide representation, hope, acceptance, and love (Rivera-Servera 2012, 92). Pouring into his community through dance allowed Aviles to change the narrative that was given to Hunts Point by outsiders and give a sense of freedom back to those residing inside of the community.
In conclusion, the information gained from analyzing the way groups allow or restrict movement is vital. The acceptance or rejection from a group can determine the constraints placed on individuals or subgroups. These constraints then determine the decisions that are made and thus the responses that the public responds with. This oppressive cycle that is created by the publics relationship to the unwanted creates the need for freedom. These acts of freedom through dance and improvisation are not necessarily a solution but create groundwork for solutions to be found.
Dillon, Elizabeth Maddock. 2014. New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World, 1649-1849. Durham: Duke University Press.
Goldman, Danielle. 2010. I Want to be Ready. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Kotef, Hagar and Merav Amir. 2015. “Between Imaginary Lines: Violence and Its Justification at the Military Checkpoints in Occupied Palestine.” In Movement and the Ordering of Freedom. Durham: Duke University Press.
Lam, Elene. 2018. “Behind The Rescue: How Anti-Trafficking Investigations and Policies Harm Migrant Sex Workers.” Butterfly Print. 1-35.
Rivera-Servera, Ramon. 2012. Performing Queer Latinidad. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Schwartz, Inga. 2016. “Racializing Freedom of Movement in Europe: Experiences of Racial Profiling at European Borders and Beyond.” Movements Journal For Critical Migration and Border Regime Studies. 253-265.
The Guardian. 2018. US officers fire teargas at migrant caravan – video. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/nov/25/us-mexico-border-crossing-closes-migrants