Border Violence

Bob Dylan: A Drifter’s Escape

Bob Dylan’s song “The Drifter’s Escape” strikingly fits the course and content of Harshia Walia’s chapter “Fortress Europe” in her book Border and Rule. Of course, a refugee and a drifter are not the same thing. However, the physical and psychological warfare that the EU is waging against any person of colour that illegally tries to cross the Schengen borders from the global South can force many refugees to involuntarily take on some drifter’s characteristics, such as aimlessly moving around without a fixed home or job.  

The second verse of Dylan’s song goes as follows:

“My trip hasn’t been a pleasant one
And my time, it isn’t long
And I still do not know
What it was that I’ve done wrong”[1]

Many refugees probably know that crossing a border without valid papers is a crime, but the essence of their actions is a quest for a safe or a better life. From this perspective and in this context, we can assume most people would plead ignorance when they are asked what they have done wrong. This verse corresponds with Walia’s text because her text explains routes refugees take and violence they meet on the way.[2]

Especially black refugees travelling through the Sahara Desert deal with a lot of racism towards them on their way north, aside from physical violence. Political and public debates about their stories of survival and about deaths at the EU’s borders often generate victim-blaming responses of politicians and the public.[3] This resonates with the comments that the judge makes towards the drifter during the court session in the third verse of Dylan’s song:

“Well, the judge, he cast his robe aside
A tear came to his eye
“You’d fail to understand”, he said
“Why must you even try?””[4]

Especially the line “Why must you even try?” is striking here. The judge seems to say that if the drifter had not been a drifter or an outsider, he would not have had to sentence him. The song does not explain why the drifter is a drifter, or what the drifter may have done wrong. The drifter does not even know what he has done wrong. The judge seems to blame the drifter for what his way of life has become, even though his life may have become this way involuntarily.[5] This resonates with blaming a victim of violence for having undergone that violence against their will. Even though refugees know they may have to undergo violence, they still choose to leave their homes. This can be seen as an act of such desperation, that it indeed can become hard to recognise what one might have done ‘wrong’, something which also and again refers to the second verse of the song.  

The fourth and fifth verses of Dylan’s song mention that “the jury cried for more”, and about how their crying is “ten times worse” than the trial itself. This can be interpreted as Dylan referring to the Jury as ignorant, because the cheerful melody of the song combined with the loud but sad tone of Dylan’s voice produce a cynical sound.[6] This corresponds with Walia’s description of the EU’s ignorance and indifference in their condonation of Turkish President Erdoğan’s violent regime by making a deal on ‘regulating’ the number of refugees that come into the Schengen zone.[7]

The last verse of Dylan’s song, in which a bolt of lightning strikes the courthouse and the drifter escapes, resonates with the last pages of Walia’s article, where she describes how border policies divide the EU and Schengen’s politics.[8] Only, in Dylan’s song, the drifter escapes, whereas Walia’s article ends with the lack of freedom refugees suffer.[9]

When we use Dylan’s song to interpret the EU’s border regime, he does provide us with a small optimistic insight that Walia bypasses. Dylan sings about how “a tear came to” the judge’s “eye” when he is about to pass judgement. With this Dylan teaches us that even though the European border regime is racist and carries out violent practices, this does not mean that not necessarily every individual working for the regime has intrinsic motivations for carrying out the practical implications of the regime.  

Doortje Kok

[1] Bob Dylan, “Drifter’s Escape”, album: John Wesley Harding (Columbia Records, Nashville, 1967), second verse in the lyrics.  

[2] Harsha Walia, “Fortress Europe: Imperial Containment Routes of Securitization and Externalization Disrupting Liberal “Welcome” Black Mediterranean”, Border & Rule. Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism (Haymarket: Chicago, 2021), pp. 105-130; pp. 105-106, 109-116.

[3] Walia, “Fortress Europe: Imperial Containment Routes of Securitization and Externalization Disrupting Liberal “Welcome” Black Mediterranean”, pp. 107-108.

[4] Bob Dylan, “Drifter’s Escape”, third verse.

[5] Bob Dylan, “Drifter’s Escape”, third verse.

[6] Bob Dylan, “Drifter’s Escape”, fourth and fifth verse.

[7] Walia, “Fortress Europe”, pp. 122-123.

[8] Bob Dylan, “Drifter’s Escape”, last verse.

[9] Walia, “Fortress Europe”, 136-137.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *