Meet a Progressive: Build Bridges, Not Walls with Todd Miller
"Since the oppression and violence of borders come so often in covert and not-obvious ways, it becomes even more important to understand and confront."
Todd Miller has researched and written about border issues for more than 15 years, the last eight as an independent journalist and writer. He resides in Tucson, Arizona, but also has spent many years living and working in Oaxaca, Mexico. His work has appeared in the New York Times, TomDispatch, The Nation, San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Guernica, and Al Jazeera English, among other places. Miller is the author of: Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders, Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World, Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security, and Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security. He's a contributing editor on border and immigration issues for NACLA Report on the Americas and its column "Border Wars."
What inspired you to start working for progressive social change?
It was 1999 and I was sitting at a bus stop on the corner of two major avenues in Tucson, Arizona (Grant and Alvernon). There was a ton of traffic and two cars almost had a head-on collision. Instead of moving along, both drivers hit their blaring horns. The intersection, let us say, was not one of the most picturesque in Tucson. Strip malls, fast food, and corporations dominated the landscape. I had just returned from Chiapas, Mexico where I was an international human rights observer in the Zapatista community of La Realidad. There I met Subcomandante Marcos and Comandante Tacho. There the morning routine was to get up and run out to the dirt road where a caravan of the Mexican military rumbled through every single day, twice. I made friends with a young man named Caralampio. We played chess every day. As I sat watching those cars with the blaring horns, I thought of Caralampio (who would die a couple years later of chronic malnutrition), I thought of Chiapas, I thought of the Zapatistas, I thought of the inspiration and determination it gave me. At that bus stop, I made a silent promise to myself and have never turned back.
What do you identify as the top issues progressives must confront nationally and globally?
I remember when I was following U.S. government money into border programs abroad for my book Empire of Borders, I ended up on the Kenya-Tanzania border (Customs and Border Protection has an attaché in Nairobi). I interviewed a Maasai leader and elder Meitamei Olol Dapash, whose mother was born in Tanzania, and who called the border a “tool of oppression.” I went to the border itself and there was no wall, no border guards, just tall grass obscuring a small, crumbling monument. And that was the thing, even without anything it was still disruptive and divisive and “disempowering” to the Maasai people, as Olol-Dapash put it. It was an artificial European-imposed boundary line (see the 1883 Berlin Conference), a living relic of colonialism that still divided the Maasai people who lived on both sides of the line. Yet, given these dubious origins, so often in the world people are conditioned to accept these sorts of political borders as if they were mandated by the Holy Bible.
From colonial undergirding to its more modern form, my main issue (or beat as a journalist) for a long time, has been the border and bordering. In contrast to the Kenya-Tanzania border, on the U.S. Mexico divide there are more than 700 miles of walls and barriers, billions of dollars of surveillance technology, thousands of armed Border Patrol, and a plethora of detention centers. This enforcement apparatus has been built up over decades and is a multi-faceted human rights violation—from the people it divides and separates, to the people it incarcerates, to the people it kills.
However, media coverage of the U.S. Mexico border often obscures that it is also a part of a global regime. That’s why I was in Kenya (for Empire of Borders I also travelled to Jordan, Israel-Palestine, Guatemala, Honduras, the Philippines): the United States, particularly in the post 9/11 era has been extending its border far and wide through the Western Hemisphere and the world via training programs and resource transfers. And it joins other bordering efforts from the European Union and Australia, creating an enforcement divide between the global north and the global south.
In this sense, I think it’s important to look at the border regime as something meant to keep “business as usual” in place. It is part of a bigger military project and, quite frankly from the U.S. perspective, part of the infrastructure of its empire. If U.S. or transnational companies are extracting wealth from countries and leaving places in turmoil—as they are in places like Central America—then bordering becomes a way to maintain this status quo, a way to “manage” displaced peoples. If the U.S. drops bombs on places, then borders become a part of the war efforts like on the Jordanian Iraqi or Syrian borders. If the climate crisis is causing havoc, as it is in more and more places, borders and their accompanying incarceration system can keep everything “stabilized,” a euphemism that really means that rich historically high-emitting countries and their business interests maintain power. Borders provoke a new type of warfare, a security or securocratic war that involves these very powerful countries wielding military power upon the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. The warfare happens out of sight, and the declaration of this war (on the fringes of nation-states) create permanent states of exception.
Around the globe there has been a huge rise in border wall construction, nearly 70 now from approximately six when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. In Kenya, this wall was being constructed along its Somali border. But Olol-Dapash’s point was that even where there is “nothing”, like on the Tanzanian border, just by its divisive imposition that separates an otherwise unified political force, it is a “tool of oppression.” Since the oppression and violence of borders come so often in covert and not-obvious ways (yet at the same time wield such power across the landscape of the world), it becomes even more important to understand and confront.
What types of organizing and projects are you working on right now?
The main project I’m working on right now—not an organizing but rather a journalistic project—is The Border Chronicle. I’m working alongside journalist Melissa del Bosque and we are covering the U.S. Mexico borderlands by publishing two pieces a week. Please check it out! Our pieces range from reporting and analysis to audio and written interviews of very interesting people, either from the borderlands or who write and think about it. We are also trying to strike up conversations with our readership about all the issues I’ve discussed here in this interview.
This year I also published my fourth book Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders. It’s essentially a meditation on two decades of border reporting and exploration of how abolitionist movements apply to the border.
How can folks get engaged and involved?
For border work, many ways! This could include humanitarian aid, advocacy, direct action, but also journalism and research.
Which journalists, writers, podcasts, and publications do you turn to for information and inspiration?
Honestly, there are too many to name! I like to read long-form written pieces, especially books that delve deeply into topics. My preference is reportage, or the type of story-telling journalism that makes issues come alive. I’m also a fan of novels, especially ones that unravel rich histories. I like pieces that inspire critical or creative thinking, not ones that tell you how to think, the same goes for podcasts. I also will purposely read and listen to people that challenge my thinking on things. Considering things from a number of different perspectives, helps me both broaden my outlook and sharpen my arguments. Lastly, If there’s one thing I think the world lacks right now it’s poetry, and I try to read it as much as I possibly can.
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Thanks for reading! I look forward to your feedback and suggestions. And most importantly, keep organizing!