Immigration Enforcement and the Afterlife of the Slave Ship
Coast Guard techniques for blocking Haitian asylum seekers have their roots in the slave trade. Understanding these connections can help us disentangle immigration policy from white nationalism.
February 11, 2021
Feb 11, 2021
28 Min read time
Coast Guard techniques for blocking Haitian asylum seekers have their roots in the slave trade. Understanding these connections can help us disentangle immigration policy from white nationalism.
Around midnight in May 2004, somewhere in the Windward Passage, one of the Haitian asylum seekers trapped on the flight deck of the U.S. Coast Guard’s USCGC Gallatin had had enough.
He arose and pointed to the moon, whispering in hushed tones. The rest of the Haitians, asleep or pretending to be asleep, initially took little notice. That changed when he began to scream. The cadence of his words became erratic, furious—insurgent. After ripping his shirt into tatters, he gestured wildly at the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) watchstanders on duty.
Coast Guard cutters, Haitian sailing vessels, and European slave ships represent a triad of instances in which people of African descent have suffered involuntary concentration in small spaces upon the Atlantic.
I was one of them.
His eyes fixed upon mine. And he slowly advanced toward my position.
I stood fast, enraptured by his lone defiance, his desperate rage. Who could blame him? Confinement on this sunbaked, congested, malodorous flight deck would drive anyone crazy—there were nearly 300 people packed together in a living space approximately 65 feet long and 35 feet wide. We had snatched him and his compatriots from their overloaded sailing vessel back in April. They had endured week after week without news about the status of their asylum claims, about what lay in store for them.
Then I got scared. I considered the distinct possibility that, to this guy, I was no longer me, but a nameless uniform, an avatar of U.S. sovereignty: a body to annihilate, a barrier to freedom. I had rehearsed in my mind how such a contingency might play out. We were armed only with nonlethal weapons—batons and pepper spray. The Haitians outnumbered us 40 to 1. Was I ready? I had never been in a real fight before. Now a few of the Haitian men were standing alert. Were they simply curious? Was this their plan all along? What if the women and children joined them?
Lucky for me, one of the meanest devils on the watch intervened on my behalf. He charged toward us, stepping upon any Haitians who failed to clear a path. After a brief hand-to-hand struggle, he subdued the would-be rebel, hauled him down to the fantail, and slammed his head against the deck. Blood ran from his face. Some of the Haitians congregated on the edge of the flight deck to spectate. We fastened the guy’s wrists with zip ties and ordered the witnesses to disperse. The tension in his body gradually dissipated.
After fifteen minutes, the devil leaned down to him. “Are you done? Done making trouble?” His silence signified compliance.
Soon after, the Haitians were transferred to the custody of the Haitian Coast Guard. When we arrived in the harbor of Port-au-Prince, thick plumes of black smoke rose from the landscape. We were witnessing the aftermath of the CIA-orchestrated February coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the subsequent invasion of the country by U.S. Marines under the auspices of international “peacekeeping.” Haiti was at war.
None of that mattered. Every request for asylum lodged from our boat had been rejected. Every person returned to Haiti. No exceptions.
The Gallatin left the harbor. I said goodbye to Port-au-Prince. My first patrol was over.
Out at sea, I smoked for hours on the fantail, lingering upon my memories of the past months. I tried to imagine how the Haitians would remember their doomed voyage, their detention aboard the Gallatin, their encounters with us—with me. A disquieting intuition repeated in my head: the USCG cutter, the Haitians’ sailing vessel, and European slave ships represented a triad of homologous instances in which people of African descent have suffered involuntary concentration in small spaces upon the Atlantic. I dreaded that I was in closer proximity to the enslavers of the past, and to the cops and jailors of the present, than I ever would be to those Haitians.
So, that night, with the butt of my last cigarette, I committed to cast my memories of the Haitians overboard. In the depths of some unmarked swath of the Windward Passage, I prayed, no one, including me, would ever find them again.
• • •
During their incarceration aboard USCG cutters, Haitians automatically bear the legal status of “economic migrant,” a person whom authorities deem to be fleeing poverty alone and therefore by definition ineligible for asylum.
In basic training, every recruit is disciplined to imagine how the USCG is like every other branch of the military, save one principle: we exist to save lives, and it is harder to save lives than to take them. I was never a very good sailor, but I took this principle seriously. At least in the USCG, I thought, I could evade the worst cruelties of the new War on Terror.
Perhaps I should have done more research on the USCG’s undeclared long war against Haitian asylum seekers, in order to appreciate precisely what the oath to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” would demand of me. This war had long preceded my term of enlistment. It arguably began in 1804, when the United States refused to acknowledge the newly liberated Haiti as a sovereign nation and did everything it could to insulate its slaving society from the shock waves of Haiti’s radical interpretation of universal freedom. But in our present day, it began in earnest with President Ronald Reagan’s Executive Order 12324 of 1981, also called the Haitian Migrant Interdiction Operation (HMIO), which exclusively tasked the USCG to “interdict” Haitian asylum seekers attempting to enter the United States by sea routes on unauthorized sailing vessels. Such people were already beginning to be derogatorily referred to as “boat people,” a term then borrowed (less derogatorily) into Haitian Kreyòl as botpippel.
The enforcement of the HMIO and its subsequent incarnations lies almost entirely within the jurisdiction of federal police power acting under the authority of the executive branch’s immigration and border enforcement powers. It does not take place between nations at enmity with one another, but between vastly unequal yet allied powers. Its strategic end is to create a kind of naval blockade, a fluid maritime border around Haiti, which remains under ever-present threat of invasion by a coalition of U.S. and foreign military forces.
Adding to its asymmetry, the “enemies” to be vanquished on the battlefield are also unconventional: they are not agents of a state, but rather noncombatant individuals who are, in one sense or another, simply acting to save their own lives. During their incarceration aboard USCG cutters, they automatically bear the legal status of “economic migrant,” a person whom authorities deem to be fleeing poverty alone and therefore by definition ineligible for asylum. The meaning of this category is defined solely by reference to its dialectical negation, the “political refugee,” a person whom authorities may (or may not) deem to have a legible asylum claim because they are fleeing state persecution on the basis of race, creed, political affiliation, or sexual orientation. These abstractions are historical artifacts of a half-baked, all-encompassing theory of preemptive deterrence: unless USCG patrols are used to place Haiti under a naval blockade, and unless botpippel are invariably denied asylum, the United States will become flooded with criminals and people who have no means of supporting themselves. By 2003 John Ashcroft and the Bush administration upped the ante, decrying botpippel to be vectors of terrorism. On January 11, 2018, President Donald Trump, during efforts to justify ending nearly all immigration and asylum, described Haiti (which he grouped with African nations) as a “shithole country” where, as he asserted several months prior, “all have AIDS.”
Haiti is now facing another such crisis. Its president, Jovenel Moïse, having already suspended nearly all elected government save himself, refused to step down at the end of his term on February 7, 2021, despite widespread protests that have shuttered the country. Moïse’s administration is currently being propped up by criminal syndicates, but they are slipping his grasp, and kidnapping for money is now so prevalent that people are terrified to leave their homes. So far, the Biden administration’s response has not been encouraging: though it has instructed ICE to temporarily halt deportations to Haiti, naval blockades remain in force, and the U.S. State Department has expressed the opinion that Moïse should remain in office for at least another year, enforcing the sense that Haiti is once again a U.S. client state.
The Coast Guard’s modality of killing Haitians is not straightforward, but it is intentional. This banal form of murder is analogous to what Ruth Wilson Gilmore offers as her definition of racism: “the state sanctioned production of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”
With regard to the Coast Guard’s longstanding orders to block Haitians seeking asylum, the modality of killing is not straightforward, but it is intentional. It consists of snatching the Haitian enemy from their vessel, forcing them to subsist in a state of bare life, and finally abandoning them in their home country at gunpoint. Of course, many may survive the ordeal and may even attempt another journey. But especially during acute phases of armed conflict and catastrophe, it is just as likely that—whether at the behest of starvation, disease, or violence—a return to Haiti is a death sentence.
This banal form of murder is analogous to what Ruth Wilson Gilmore offers as her definition of racism in Golden Gulag (2007): “the state sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” Based on the extant documentary record, I estimate that the USCG has interdicted at least 120,000 botpippel since the HMIO of 1981 took effect. Those who fell prey to an untimely demise following deportation died because the United States, though repeatedly responsible for undermining Haitian democracy and economic stability, nonetheless refuses to acknowledge that these actions have made Haiti, for many, mortally unsafe. The true death toll will never be known. Countless botpippel have simply disappeared at sea, plunged into a gigantic watery necropolis.
Since 2004 U.S. officials have brought their forms of border policing strategies and tactics against Haitians to bear on land-based immigration and refugee policies against non-white asylum seekers. One of the most significant technical innovations of enforcement against Haitians was the realization that by detaining them exclusively within a maritime environment, the United States could summarily classify all of them as economic migrants—whose claims for asylum de facto have no standing—and prevent them from lodging claims as political refugees, which are the only claims with any hope of success. They were thus proactively disabled from advancing a request for asylum in a U.S. federal court, with all claims instead evaluated by an INS-designated official aboard the USCG vessel. The New York Times recently reported that, since late 2009, similar techniques have been adopted by Customs and Border Control agents patrolling sea routes along the California coast, which has resulted in a notable escalation of CBP naval patrols and aerial surveillance of the region. And in fact, the USCG has cooperatively supported these efforts by sharing its infrastructure—ports, cutters, and aircraft—and its personnel with CBP. All of this has been with the aim of making sure that asylum seekers never make it to the United States, whether by land or by sea.
The Trump administration made the most significant use of this set of innovations to date, insisting that asylum claims must be made from camps on the Mexican side of the U.S. border—and therefore automatically invalid by virtue of being limited to the status of economic migrant. Thus, hundreds of thousands of non-white asylum seekers fleeing material precariousness, yes, but also the threat of violence in the Global South are, and will continue to be, caught in carceral webs composed of ICE/CBP goon squads, ruthless INS officials, and perilous tent cities, not to mention the prison guards employed at one of the numerous semi-secret migrant detention centers operating upon U.S. soil for those few who make it across.
From the perspective of Haitian immigrants and botpippel, this is nothing new. Thousands of their compatriots have already served time at infamous extrajudicial sites such as the Krome detention center in Miami (1980–present), Guantanamo Bay (1991–93), and, most often, the flight decks of USCG cutters. They know that the USCG has long scoured the Windward Passage for Haitians in particular, just as ICE/CBP goon squads now patrol U.S. deserts, highways, and city streets for the undocumented. And they know that Trump’s fantasy of building a “Great Wall” on the U.S.–Mexico border is not so farfetched, because the USCG continues to enforce a maritime one around Haiti.
The Biden administration has inherited this war and its prisoners, with thousands remaining stuck in legal limbo while hoping—in most cases, without hope—that their asylum claims will advance. Opening alternative paths to citizenship and declaring an indefinite moratorium on deportations would serve as foundations for more sweeping reforms in the future. But the core challenge in this political moment is to envision nothing less than the total decriminalization and demilitarization of immigration law enforcement.
• • •
The Trump administration borrowed the technical innovation of immigration enforcement against botpippel when it began insisting that asylum claims must be made from camps on the Mexican side of the U.S. border.
Botpippel are not the first undocumented people of African descent to have been policed by U.S. naval forces. The legal architecture through which the USCG legitimates the indefinite detention and expulsion of Haitian asylum seekers reaches back to U.S. efforts to suppress the African slave trade, outlawed by Congress in 1807, though domestic slaveholding would continue, and indeed its trade would be not only safeguarded but bolstered by this act.
This marked a decisive turning point in the history of maritime policing vis-à-vis immigration. Per the Slave Trade Acts of 1794 and 1800, the United States already claimed jurisdiction over U.S. citizens and U.S. vessels engaged in the slave trade within U.S. territorial borders (contemporaneously understood as extending three nautical miles into the ocean). By 1808, however, the United States sought to extend its jurisdiction over the sea itself. Slaver vessels operating around “any river, port, bay, or harbor . . . within the jurisdictional limits of the United States” as well as “on the high seas” were deemed illegal and subject to seizure without compensation. The actual physical distance from U.S. soil that these terms referred to was left purposefully vague. To board a given vessel, a Revenue Cutter captain only had to suspect, rather than conclusively determine, that that vessel eventually intended to offload “international” (i.e., non-native) enslaved people into the United States. The 1819 iteration of the law further stipulated that U.S. jurisdiction included “Africa, or elsewhere.” Hence, in theory, after 1819, the scope of U.S. maritime police operations was simply every maritime space on the globe.
Revenue Cutter Service captains turned the lack of any description in the 1808 law or its successive iterations about what should be done with temporarily masterless slaves into an advantage. They did what they would have done to any fugitive Black person at the time: indefinitely detain them until higher authorities determined their status, and thereby foreclose the possibility of local Black people conspiring to shuttle them to freedom. During confinement, captured Africans were compelled to perform labor as if they were slaves. For instance, those captured from the Spanish-flagged Antelope (1820) spent seven years toiling at a military fort in Savannah, Georgia, as well as on the local U.S. marshal’s plantation. As wards of the state, they were human only insofar as U.S. officials had a duty to force them to remain alive. Of those “rescued” from the Antelope, 120 ultimately died in captivity and 2 went missing. Following litigation, 39 survivors were sold to U.S. slaveowners to compensate Spanish and Portuguese claimants who had stakes in the Antelope and her enslaved cargo. Per the designs of the American Colonization Society, the remaining 120 Africans were freed upon condition that they be immediately deported to New Georgia, Liberia.
This anti-Black martial abolitionism was therefore a project framed around the unification of two countervailing tendencies. While white planters consistently pushed to extend racial slavery into the southern and western frontiers, white northern financiers and abolitionists were in favor of creating the most propitious conditions for the expansion of free white settlements throughout America’s urban and rural milieus. Black people were deemed unfit for freedom not only because of their supposed inborn asocial traits, but because their presence imperiled the possibility for white freedom. To actualize Thomas Jefferson’s “Empire of Liberty,” the United States required immigration policies that foreshortened Black peoples’ capacities for social reproduction and thereby re-whitened America.
This political aim was later extended in legislation passed on February 19, 1862, which authorized President Abraham Lincoln—who intended to solve the contradictions that led to the Civil War by sending every Black person in America back to Africa—to use U.S. naval forces to capture, detain, and deport undocumented people of East Asian/Chinese descent (“coolies”) while at sea. Henceforth, “the free and voluntary emigration of any Chinese subject” to the U.S. was proscribed unless a ship captain possessed documents certified by a consular agent residing at the foreign port of departure. At the time, the principal means for Chinese emigrants to obtain authorization would have been at behest of some corporation seeking expendable, non-white laborers contractually bound to work to death in mines and on railroads on the western frontiers—Native American lands stolen through imperialist warfare. White settlers presupposed that these Asians’ residency was provisional and temporary—and then Congress codified that principle into law in 1870, decreeing that every person of East Asian/Chinese descent, anywhere in the world, was ineligible for U.S. citizenship.
To actualize Thomas Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty, the United States required immigration policies that foreshortened Black social reproduction and thereby re-whitened America.
Twelve years later, An Act to Regulate Immigration (1882) played upon the notion that non-white immigration caused public disorder. Through the use of color-blind legal language, Section 2 of this law specified that the United States must only accept immigrants who were conclusively not “convict[s], lunatic[s], idiot[s], or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” The burden of proof lay on non-white immigrants to prove how their racial backgrounds were not already prima facie evidence for these conditions. Section 4 also stipulated that “all foreign convicts except those convicted of political offenses, upon arrival, shall be sent back to the nations to which they belong and from whence they came.” By which means a non-white person could demonstrate the “political” character of a given conviction were cleverly left undefined.
It was not a giant leap of imagination for the United States to apply these precedents to the maritime policing of Haitian asylum seekers in the 1980s. Nor should we be surprised that the logic of anti-Black martial abolitionism shapes present-day U.S. immigration policy.
• • •
Political philosopher Peter Hallward estimates that paramilitary death squads executed at least a thousand supporters of Lavalas, President Aristide’s party, in the weeks following Aristide’s exile from Haiti on February 29, 2004. The first kanntè (Haitian sailing vessel) the Gallatin sighted one morning in early April had likely departed shortly thereafter.
The first people from our ship that the Haitians met were members of the boarding team, armed with pistols, M-16s, shotguns, and zip ties. Their goal was to compel the hundred or so aboard the kanntè to surrender their vessel and allow us to deposit them on the flight deck of our ship. Negotiations can take hours. It is not uncommon for some to jump overboard, rather than allow boarding to occur uninhibited. If immediate acquiescence is not obtained, we will maneuver ourselves such that any further movement would cause the small boat to “ram” the Gallatin—an attack on a U.S. military vessel.
On the Gallatin, we waited for uptake, outfitted with facemasks and rubber gloves. One at a time, we aided the Haitian adults to make the final step from the small boat to the deck of the cutter. We frisked them for weapons and then marched them to the fantail to undergo initial processing. Most of them appeared exhausted and confused—but compliant. Some may have already been in fear for their lives. One night aboard the USCGC Dallas, which hovered in Port-au-Prince Bay as a deportation coordination outpost and as a temporary detention site for Haitians awaiting immediate transfer to Haitian Coast Guard authorities, my friend and his shipmates asked their Kreyòl interpreter how he managed to obtain compliance from the botpippel. “I tell them you will hurt or kill them if they do not obey,” he joked, “so, of course, they listen.”
My friend and his shipmates asked their Kreyòl interpreter how he managed to obtain compliance from the botpippel. “I tell them you will hurt or kill them if they do not obey,” he joked, “so, of course, they listen.”
Boarding all the Haitians took from midday until midnight. One of the last ones I helped aboard, a man dressed in a suit two sizes too large, looked into my eyes and smiled. He gently wept, clasped my hand tightly, and embraced me. I quickly pushed him off and pointed to the processing station at the fantail, leading him by the wrist to join the others. He stopped crying.
Three things happened at the processing station. First, Haitians deposited the last of their belongings with the interpreter, ostensibly for safekeeping. Who knows if anyone got their things back. Second, a Kreyòl translator and one of the officers gave them a cursory interview about their asylum claims, all the while surrounded by armed sentries, as well as other Haitians who might pass that intelligence onto narcotics smugglers, paramilitary gangs, or state officials back in Haiti. Lastly, they received a rapid, half-assed medical examination—conducted in English. So long as they nodded, or remained silent, they passed each test and were shuffled up to the flight deck.
We retired for the night after the boarding team set fire to the kanntè as a hazard to navigation. The Haitians probably didn’t know that this was the reason we unceremoniously torched their last hope for escape before their very eyes.
About a week later, we found another kanntè packed with around seventy Haitians and repeated the process. Another USCG cutter transferred a hundred more over to the Gallatin. Our flight deck was reaching full capacity.
We arrived at one kanntè too late. It had capsized. Pieces of the shattered mast and little bits of clothing and rubbish were floating around the hull. No survivors. How long had it been? Sharks were spotted circling at a short depth below the vessel.
• • •
The Gallatin’s commanders emphasized that our mission was, at its core, humanitarian in nature. We were duty-bound to provide freshwater, food, and critical medical care. During their time aboard, Haitians would be treated as detainees and were not to be treated, or referred to, as prisoners. The use of force was circumscribed within clear rules of engagement. The Haitians were not in any way to be harmed or killed unless they directly threatened the ship or its sailors. Unnecessary violence against them could precipitate an internal review, solicit undue international criticism, and imperil the deportationist efficiency of INS officials. We were told that our batons and pepper spray were precautionary, primarily symbolic.
It sounded like all I had to do was stand there and not screw anything up.
Each individual had only 7 feet 7 inches square to lie down and stand up. On the diagram of the eighteenth-century British slaver Brooks, the enslaved were each allocated approximately 6 feet 10 inches square, scarcely less than on the Gallatin.
Over the course of several watches, I concluded that, in fact, our job was also to relocate several crucial features of the abysmal living conditions that obtained on the kanntè onto the Gallatin’s flight deck. Though the flight deck was 80 feet by 43 feet, we blocked the edges to facilitate the crew’s movement and to create a buffer between us and the Haitians. Taking this into account, their living space was closer to 65 feet by 35 feet. For a prison population of 300 Haitians, each individual would have had only 7 feet 7 inches square to lie down and stand up. On the diagram of the eighteenth-century British slaver Brooks, the enslaved were each allocated approximately 6 feet 10 inches square, scarcely less than on the Gallatin. (Historian Marcus Rediker thinks that the Brooks diagram probably overstates the amount of space the enslaved were given.)
Although some cutters will drape tarps over the flight deck to shield the Haitians from the unmediated effects of the sun, the Gallatin provided no such shelter. We permitted them to shower, once, in saltwater, without soap. The stench on the flight deck took on a sweet, fetid tinge.
The only place they could go to achieve a modicum of solitude and to escape the stench was the makeshift metal toilet on the fantail. (On slave ships, solitude was found by secreting away to a hidden compartment or small boat to die alone; the “necessary tubs” that held human excrement were contained in the slave holds below deck.) They were permitted to use the toilet one at a time in the case of adults, and two at a time in the case of children and the elderly. For what was supposed to be no longer than five minutes, they had an opportunity to stretch, relax, and breathe fresh sea air. Nevertheless, these moments of respite took place under observation by the watchstander stationed at the toilet, not to mention the numerous Haitian onlookers at the rear of the flight deck.
Despite our commanders’ reticence on the matter, the ever-present fear of revolt hovered underneath the surface of our standing orders. We were to ensure order and discipline through counterinsurgency protocols and techniques of incarceration that one might find in any U.S. prison. The military imperative aboard the Gallatin was to produce a sense of radical uncertainty and temporal disorientation in the Haitians, such that they maintain hope for an asylum claim that had already been rejected.
In this context, there were four overlapping components to the security watch.
The first component of the ship’s securitization was constant surveillance. We were not supposed to take our eyes off the Haitians for one moment. During the watch, we would regularly survey the flight deck for any signs of general unrest, conspiracy, or organized protest. Any minor infraction could later contribute to the eruption of a larger riot, and thus needed to be quickly identified and neutralized. We also had to observe their behavior for indications that one of them intended to jump overboard or harm another Haitian. All that said, we found a used condom one day. Surveillance is never total.
The second was the limitation we placed on communication. We shrouded all USCG practices in a fog of secrecy. Conversing with the Haitians through anything other than hand signals and basic verbal commands was forbidden; physical contact was kept at bare minimum. Nonofficial speech among the watch was proscribed. Watchstanders were stripped of their identity, save their uniform, from which our nametags were removed. It was critical that botpippel forever be unable to identify us.
USCG personnel were permitted to inflict several limited forms of physical and symbolic violence against the Haitians, not only in response to perceived noncompliance, but also as a means of averting the need to inflict even greater violence in the future.
Secrecy preemptively disabled the Haitians from collectively piecing together fragments of information about where our vessel had been, where it was now, and where it was going. Officially, the concern was that they might exploit the situation to gather intelligence about our patrol routes and pass this information to human or narcotics smugglers. We militated against their mapping out how the ship operated, its layout and complement, where living spaces and the armory were located, and so on. These were standard tactics aboard slaver vessels. As freed slave and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano observed, “When the ship we were in had got in all her cargo . . . we were all put under deck, so that we could not see how they managed the vessel.”
On the Gallatin, the command also strove to maintain strict control over the narrative. They blocked sailors' access to the open Internet and censored letters from home that contained news of global or domestic politics (and even just bad personal news). Knowledge of whether a particular asylum claim had failed or succeeded was hidden from all. A watchstander harboring political solidarity with—as opposed to mere empathy and pity for—the Haitians might compromise operational capacities, good judgment, and core loyalty to the USCG.
Our third securitization strategy was to produce false knowledge of the future. The Haitians were led to believe that they were merely waiting aboard the ship because their asylum claims were still being vigorously debated by diplomatic entities in Washington. Their continued compliance was predicated on this differential of knowledge. They could not realize that they were moving in circles, being returned slowly to Haiti. If they lost all hope, we presumed they would eventually resist their intolerable conditions through violent means.
Hence, our fourth securitization measure: USCG personnel were permitted to inflict several limited forms of physical and symbolic violence against the Haitians, not only in response to perceived noncompliance, but also as a means of averting the need to inflict even greater violence in the future.
If it were not classified as a matter of national security, we might have a better grasp of how many times such instances occur aboard USCG vessels. I open this essay with a story of how we subdued and punished one person for resisting the rules. But it is known that punishment is sometimes inflicted on entire groups. A telling example took place on January 30, 1989, when the USCG captured the Dieu Devant with 147 Haitians aboard. One of them, Fitzroy Joseph, later reported in congressional hearings that, after they expressed a fear of being killed if returned to Haiti, USCG personnel “began wrestling with the Haitians and hitting their hands with their flashlights.” This was followed by threats to release pepper spray. Marie Julie Pierre, Joseph’s wife, corroborated his testimony, adding:
[We were] asked at once if we feared returning to Haiti and everyone said yes we did. We said ‘down with Avril, up with Bush.’ We were threatened with tear gas but they didn’t use it. Many people were crying because they were so afraid. [Ti Jak] was hit by the officers because he didn’t want to go back. They handcuffed him. The Coast Guard grabbed others by the neck and forced them to go to the biggest boat. My older brother was also hit and treated like a chicken as they pulled him by the neck.
Counterintuitively, our nonlethal weapons functioned as more efficient instruments of counterinsurgency than lethal weapons. Brandishing firearms might exacerbate an already tense situation in which the Haitians outnumbered the entire ship’s complement. It could also provide an opportunity for the Haitians to seize and turn our own guns against us (or one another). In contrast, losing a baton and a can of pepper spray represented a relatively minor threat to the ship’s overall security. In the event of an actual riot, the command could always mobilize armed reinforcements. From the perspective of the command, then, the first responders on watch were, to some extent, expendable. Nevertheless, sentries bearing firearms were on deck when we approached Haiti and prepared for final deportation. That is, the precise moment the Haitians realized their fate.
The practices of confinement on the Gallatin are a variant of what historian Stephanie Smallwood describes as a kind of “scientific empiricism” that developed aboard slave ships, which “prob[ed] the limits to which it is possible to discipline the body without extinguishing the life within.”
Like the enslaved Africans captured by the Revenue Cutter Service, botpippel were human to us only insofar as we had to compel them, through the threat or actuality of violence, to remain alive. The Haitians ate our tasteless food and drank our freshwater—otherwise they would starve, or we might beat them for going on a hunger strike. They tended to remain silent and immobile day and night—otherwise they would invite acts of exemplary punishment upon themselves. The practices of confinement on the Gallatin represent a variant of what historian Stephanie Smallwood describes as a kind of “scientific empiricism” that developed aboard slave ships, which “prob[ed] the limits to which it is possible to discipline the body without extinguishing the life within.” Just as contemporary slavers used force to conserve human commodities for sale, so does the USCG use force to produce nominally healthy economic migrants to exchange with Haitian authorities.
The rational utilization of limited forms of exemplary violence was an integral aspect of this carceral science. Rediker shows how slaver captains understood violence along a continuum that ranged from acceptably severe to unacceptably cruel. Whereas severity was the grounds of proper discipline as such, an act was cruel only if it led “to catastrophic results [and] sparked reactions such as mutiny by sailors or insurrection by slaves.” In turn, minor acts of kindness, such as dispensing better food or allowing slightly more free time to move above deck, were conditioned by these security imperatives. Furthermore, they exerted no appreciable change to the eventuality that the person would be sold to a slaveowner, for kindness was a self-aggrandizing ritual performance of authority that intended to lay bare the crucial imbalance of power relations at hand. This was, Rediker maintains, “as close as the owners ever came to admitting that terror was essential to running a slave ship.”
• • •
The USCG’s undeclared long war against Haitian asylum seekers is but one front of a much longer war against people of African descent in the Americas. The entangled histories of the African slave trade and anti-Black martial abolitionism reveal how this war intimately shaped the foundations and racist intentions that underlay modern U.S. immigration and refugee policy writ large. And the Gallatin, her sailors, and the Haitians who were trapped on the flight deck, are, in some small way, now a part of this history, too.
The Biden administration has the power to decisively end this war—indeed, every war against non-white asylum seekers. Until then, botpippel will continue to suffer the slave ships that survive into the present.
While you're with us...
… in May, COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Black Americans—coupled with the police killing of George Floyd—sparked a moment of racial reckoning. Articles such as this one reflect Boston Review’s commitment to combatting racism—from publishing strategies to end police violence to amplifying Black voices. Long before mainstream publications focused on racial justice, Boston Review provided one of the major forums for these discussions with seriousness and subtlety. We remain committed to the belief that race has a central place in any discussion of justice, democracy, and citizenship. Join us in providing free, open spaces for these conversations by becoming a supporting reader of Boston Review today.
February 11, 2021
28 Min read time