Border Violence

Radiohead: Burn the Witch

In Resident Foreigners: A Philosophy of Migration, Donatella Di Cesare (2020) offers an insightful exploration on the history of, and the gaps within political philosophy on the matter of migration. Crucially, she poses that migration elucidates the inherent irreconcilability that exists between human rights and state sovereignty (Di Cesare 2020, 10). In particular, she argues that Western countries – i.e., liberal democracies – see immigration as a threat to the stability of the (welfare) state. As such, the immigrant becomes a scapegoat, a criminal, a danger to be cautious of (Ibid., 61-63, 69). Similarly, Harsha Wallia argues that “familiar narratives of danger and disaster” stigmatise immigrants, thereby justifying the use of excessive violence to keep them from entering the confines of the state (2021, 137). Elsewhere, I have argued this scapegoating to be part of a biopolitical governmentality, employed by the state to safeguard its own homogeneity and cohesion (Prins 2022, 21-22). It is precisely this governmentality that is the target of Radiohead’s Burn the Witch (2016).

Burn the Witch (Radiohead, 2016) tells the story of what can be presumed to be a political leader instilling a climate of fear, thereby prompting its people to rally and punish the dissident who, supposedly, is the cause of the induced moral panic. The speaker urges its people to stay ignorant and “abandon all reason” (Ibid.). Instead, people must “stay in the shadows” – a clear nod to Plato’s allegorical cave – and “sing the song on the jukebox that goes: Burn the witch” (Ibid.). The witch in the song refers to the figure of the immigrant, who becomes the victim of omnipresent stigmatisation, racism, and islamophobia. The point made by the band is similar to that of Di Cesare and Wallia: the criminalisation of immigrants – either officially or by constructnig a climate of fear – justifies the use of excessive violence against asylum seekers beyond the confines of the borders. It allows us to subject the immigrant to inhumane living conditions – as exemplified by Wallia’s (2021, 144-145) inquiry into the Moria refugee camp. More importantly, however, it allows us to reinforce the idea that the immigrant is at fault for its own suffering.

It is important to note here that the construction of the ‘criminal-immigrant’ and the consequent witch hunt is a purposefully orchestrated strategy. Indeed, as Luca Mavelli and myself have argued, it must be seen as biopolitical governmentality that aims to signal supposed threats to the cohesion of the state in order to eliminate them (Mavelli 2017, 818-819; Prins 2022, 21-22). For instance, the UK – which is Radiohead’s target as well – distinguishes between ‘good’ and ‘worthy’ immigrants that can be beneficial for the British population on the one hand, and ‘unworthy’ or ‘valueless’ immigrants on the other. Thus, the UK seeks to construct an image of the immigrant as an outlaw, a dissident, and, most importantly, an inferior that is dangerous to the population in order to justify certain migration policies deemed beneficial (Prins, 2022, 21-22).

A similar notion can be found in both Di Cesare’s and Wallia’s works, as well as in Radiohead’s Burn the Witch. All three showcase the intentionality of Europe to create an all-encompassing paranoia in order to justify the violent punishment of the criminal-immigrant – a point forcefully brought home in Burn the Witch when Thom Yorke proclaims ‘this is a round-up, this is a low-flying panic attack’ (Radiohead 2016). However, even more so than the literary works mentioned here, Burn the Witch accentuates the reality of this moral panic by affectively recreating a sense of mass hysteria. Throughout the song, Yorke’s vocals heighten considerably in both pitch and volume, the strings grow progressively distorted and off-key, and the bass tones become increasingly impressive, instilling a feeling of discomfort and unrest (Ibid.). Additionally, Burn the Witch is dominated by horror imagery – perfectly illustrated by the videoclip that accompanies the song: a stop-motion parody of the 70’s horror film The Wicker Man. Through this imagery, Radiohead seeks to liken the reality of the criminal-immigrant to that of a horror scenario. The band wants us not only to know about, but to feel both the ubiquitous hysteria of an indoctrinated population, as well as the fear of the immigrant who is under its yoke.

As becomes clear through a closer exploration of the works by Di Cesare, Wallia, and Radiohead, we must move away from narratives that criminalise immigrants. While a lot of work remains to be done in order to resolve the contradiction that Di Cesare points out between human rights and state sovereignty, any attempt at this must begin with putting an end to the portrayal and treatment of immigrants as outcasts, as outlaws, as witches to be burned at the stake.

Giovanni Prins


Di Cesare, Donatella. 2020. “Migrants and the State.” In Resident Foreigners: A Philosophy of Migration, translated by David Broder, 5-77. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Mavelli, Luca. 2017. “Governing Populations through the Humanitarian Government of Refugees: Biopolitical Care and Racism in the European Refugee Crisis.” Review of International Studies, 43, no. 5: 809-832.

Prins, Giovanni. 2022. “Generating Two Modes of Life: a Biopolitical Reading of Asylum Seekers and Refugees.” Erasmus Student Journal of Philosophy 2, no. 1: 17-27.

Walia, Harsha. 2021. “Fortress Europe.” In Border & Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism and the Rise of Racist Nationalism, 135-160. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Violence and Nonviolence

Meechy Darko: Kill Us All

This dark track from the newly released album Gothic Luxury, asks questions about state violence, biopower and the portraying of black liberation movements. These themes will be reviewed in relation to Judith Butler’s text on non-violence.

The song opens with a dark atmosphere, minor scales accompanied by what sounds like a modulated voice singing an eerie melody. The beat drops into a classic hip-hop instrumental and Meechy Darko starts rapping the hook: “They can’t kill us all”, the backing voice affirms that negation “Nah, nah, nah”. This statement is a praise of life but also a promise of death.  One could therefore ask who are “they” and “us” respectively in that context.

“They” points at the US system, not only the government and its various entities but also doctors, the media, and really “America” understood as: the USA as a whole. “Us” refers to black Americans, Meechy Darko being himself Afro-american.

The bridge follows: “it’s either kill or be killed, I ain’t gon die tonight”. The message seems clear, if the choice is between killing or being killed and he is not going to die it means he will kill. This however should be understood beyond the scope of direct violence: What is at stake here is really the liberation of black Americans from a system that tries to kill them. Let us then take a look at the criticism of the system and the solutions raised by the artist.

The firstly mentioned and most evident form of violence is direct state killing. Meechy poetically frames it with a powerful antithesis: “Black kid get shot, white man get tazed” this stylistic device highlights the contrast in grievability (Butler, 2020) between black and white people in the United States. It also encompases both forms of Butler’s debate on non-violence firstly “not killing and destroying another or others” and secondly “to preserve the life of the other or others”(Butler 2020).

Meechy also raises the question of biopower, an idea brought forth by Foucault that is developed further by Butler. The idea of the biopolitical is the state conceiving of its subjects as biological, living beings. (Butler, 2020) Violence in the context of biopower is explored by Meechy Darko when he accuses doctors of drugging “us up so we can reach an early grave”. This is a reference to the poor health care provided to Afro-Americans in general, resulting in lower life expectancy as well as to the opioid epidemic ravaging the US for which pharma groups and doctors in part are to blame. Johnson & Johnson was held accountable for fuelling the opioid crisis in Oklahoma for example. (Attorney General of Oklahoma, 2019) Even if the ruling was then overturned by the Supreme Court two years later.

Bringing about the end of the state violence, both direct and indirect, requires for Walter Benjamin some kind of divine violence which is understood as being non-violent but framed as violent because of its destructive nature. (Butler, 2020) Meechy Darko however questions this appeal towards non-violence, especially through a criticism of the portrayal of black liberation movements in the US.  He points out the negative press that armed groups receive while the softer black representations are praised. This is especially evident in the phrase: “America loved the Black Panther Movie but in ‘66 they hated the Black Panther Movement”. Also the classic opposition of the good liberation protester, incarnated by Martin Luther King and the violent Black nationalist, represented by Malcom X is criticised by the artist: “I turn on CNN they tell me be MLK instead of Malcom X but they both died the same way”. He points out indeed that both the peaceful and the armed group leaders were gunned down. The culprit for him is named a couple of sentences later: “Operation Black Messiah is the FBI paid”. This is a reference to the FBI’s objective to “prevent the rise of a black messiah who could unify and electrify militant black nationalist movements” (FBI, p69, 1966). The FBI’s memo continues to state that “Dr. King could be a very real contender for this position should he abandon his supposed ‘obedience’ to ‘white, liberal doctrines’ (nonviolence)”. The vocabulary used here is particularly striking as the term Messiah can directly be associated with Benjamin’s concept of Divine violence. The idea then was that he could turn messiah by rejecting non-violence which seems to contradict Butler’s view.

A final appeal to theological terms is used by Meech in his last verse: “We head to Armageddon, this is Revolutionary”. His raspy and deep voice seems to call us towards the end of time, towards a revolution. Whether this is the literal end of time and a violent revolution or the end of oppression to a revolution of the mind, is up for interpretation.

Finally the chorus comes again hammering the deathly affirmation of life: “They can’t kill us all”.

 Julien Djenidi


Federal Bureau of Investigation. 1967. COINTELPRO Black Extremist Part 01 of 23, p.69, Accessible on:

Attorney General of Oklahoma. 2019. Attorney General Hunter Celebrates Major Victory for the State after Judge Balkman Issues $572 Million Judgement in Opioid Trial, Accessible on:

J. Butler, 2020. The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind, Chap.3, London: Verso.

Border Violence

Rise Against: Prayer of the Refugee

For the first song in our mixtape, I present to you Prayer of the Refugee by Rise Against. I chose this song as I believe it has interesting messaging about the interaction of refugees with the population of their destination country. I will primarily be utilizing Di Cesare’s section 21 “Migrants against the poor? Welfare chauvinism and global justice”.[1]

The chorus seems to have a double meaning that outlines the conflict between native citizens of the destination country and migrants:

Don’t hold me up now
I can stand my own ground
I don’t need your help now
You will let me down, down, down

Don’t hold me up now (Oh, oh, oh, oh)
I can stand my own ground
I don’t need your help now
You will let me down, down, down, down

I believe that the chorus can be read as being both from the perspective of the migrant and the native citizen.

From the perspective of the refugee the chorus can be interpreted as an assertion of one’s own autonomy over a system that barely acknowledges their humanity. It implies a degree of expectation of systemic discrimination and rejection by the refugee, requiring an assertion of autonomy from the refugee. I imagine it as a backlash to the welfare chauvinism as outlined by Di Cesare in section 21.[2] Anecdotally speaking, being the child of two Cuban refugees who migrated to the United States, amongst Cuban exiles self-reliance and autonomy are seen as virtuous and necessary attributes one requires to survive. Whether it be because of the predominantly wealthy and white makeup of early Cuban refugees or be it a sort of survivorship bias, self-reliance manifests as a core political value that informs many Cuban-American’s deeply economically austere politics. Again, this remains an anecdotal example, but I believe it may help illustrate a potentially interesting read on the dialogue between a state operating within the mindset of welfare chauvinism and the refugee forced to act autonomously.

Inversely, interpreted from the perspective of the native citizen the chorus acts as a rejection of the refugee, acting as the embodiment of welfare chauvinism.[3] To them the migrant poses an imminent threat to the social and economic fabric of society, undercutting native labor, and benefiting from unearned welfare. The chorus embodies the citizen declaring that they “don’t need their help” and ultimately that the migrant will “let them down”. The music video alludes to the economic significance of the migrant, showing all the products in the store being made by the cheap labor of the migrant as a massive American flag hangs inside. The message is a clear statement about how much American life is dependent on this cheap foreign labor. The line “don’t hold me up” can be read as the citizen shouting at the refugee, embodying the protectionism that seeks to minimize the reliance on cheap foreign labor that is often contextualized through the lens of “sovereigntism underpinned by racism”.[4]

I would also like to draw your attention to this verse in particular:
We are the angry and the desperate
The hungry and the cold
We are the ones who kept quiet
And always did what we were told (Oh, oh, oh)
But we’ve been sweating while you slept so calm in the safety of your home
We’ve been pulling out the nails that hold up everything you’ve known

To compare it to Di Cesare:

“The migrant, however, unmasks the state. From its external edge, she interrogates its very foundations, pointing an accusing finger against discrimination. She ties the state back to its historical emergence and discredits the myth of its purity. And she thus insists that the state itself be reconsidered. In this sense, migration bears as subversive charge.”[5]

The migrant acts as an ideological undermining force of the liberal nation state. The violence necessary to maintain the border regime of the liberal nation state acts to undermine its ideological underpinnings, and the refugee is the lens by which it is exposed. Rise Against expounds this with their combination imagery that shows migrants engaging in productive work while singing the quoted verse about how they are subverting the essence of the liberal nation state implying the mechanism to do so is their very existence, mirroring Di Cesare.

Daniel Lazcano


[1] Di Cesare, Migrants and the State p.61-68
[2] Ibid, p.62
[3] Ibid, p.62
[4] Ibid, p. 62
[5] Ibid, p. 11

Border Violence

Obongjayar: Message in a Hammer

‘Message in a Hammer’ by Obongjayar starts off with a beat that drives the listener forward, with a kick to it that gives the composition an insisting ‘HEAR ME NOW’. The pace of the beat persists through most of the song. It embodies the title. The beat strikes constantly, hammering a message through. I interpret the sender of this message as the migrant trying to get to Europe. From this starting point, I sketch out two aspects of the migrant’s lived experience that are part of ‘the message’ in a hammer.

After the beat gets going, synths kick in and Obongjayar starts singing with a deep, growling, and torn voice: “Born in troubled water, every stroke is war, they drowned the ones before us, but we’ll make it to the shore” (Obongjayar 2021). These initial words set the stage for the song. At stake is the severity of the violence that is being wrought upon migrants traversing the Mediterranean Sea. The migrants are being drowned. And in the song, this drowning does not happen passively. It is done by ‘them’. Who are ‘they’? In this song, they are the figures of authority, as is repeatedly shouted in the middle section of the song: “President (THIEF), governor (THIEF), senator (THIEF), commissioner (THIEF), ambassador (THIEF), minister (THIEF) (…) All of dem murderers” (Obongjayar 2021). This active perpetration of violence is also attested to by Harsha Walia in ‘Fortress Europe’ (2021). Here, Walia writes about how Fortress Europe’s “doctrine of deterrence requires mass border deaths”, in contrast to the passive, statistical way ‘border deaths’ is usually used (Walia 2021).

The beginning sentence of the song is also about a drive ‘to get there’, about making it to the shore. However, this drive is not one that consists of dreams or hopes, at least not of the naïve kind. It is a drive to get out of the conditions that the authorities have placed the migrant in. The migrant is from the onset ‘born in troubled waters’, thus defining the existential conditions of the migrant. The drive ‘to get there’ is about keeping your head above water while pushing towards the shore – not being born on one shore, feet on the ground, and then from the safety of this, choosing to embark across the sea. The existence of the migrant is not merely circumscribed by a general Heideggerian sense of ‘thrownness’, but more specifically by being thrown into the sea, often with lethal consequences. As SA Smythe points out, this Black Mediterranean is not limited by land (Smythe 2018, 7). Consequently, the lethality of the Sea does not stop there either.  Donatella Di Cesare writes that the “migrant is atopos – without a place, out-of place” (Di Cesare 2020, 16). In this context, atopos means that the migrant is always already ‘born in troubled waters’ and the lack of place is a lack of ground, caused by Fortress Europe.

To me, the song embodies a sense of fury that is instigated through border violence. While the cause of this fury is horrible, the way the song embodies it can also be seen as a move towards a solution. The fury is not only reactive. It is also a song, full of power to change the listener’s perspective and move them along to its rhythm. Since it takes the shape of a song, one might speculate that the song’s ‘hammering of a message’ is a form of violence without any lethality. While it is directed at authoritarian violence, it does not point to any new beginning, any new set of laws or authorities. It points to “a new day, new dawn” (Obongjayar 2021). Thereby, this could provide a sketch for a form of divine violence, a violence that “is law-annihilating” and non-lethal (Benjamin 2021, 57). The space left open by this annihilation might then provide a new beginning for defining where the Sea stops and land starts; for unsettling the space in which ‘they’ are migrants and in which ‘we’ take it for granted to hold the power to define ‘them’ as such.

Lukas Hjulmann Seidler

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.