On the Freedom of Bodies: A Short History of Liberty

By Valeria Verdolini

In response to Turkey’s constitutional referendum on April 16, 2017, which replaces the parliamentary system with an executive presidency,  PoLAR and APLA commissioned a series of responses from scholars and activists working on democracy and human rights in the region. In this first installment, Valeria Verdolini and Francesco Vacchiano highlight the situation of Gabriele del Grande, who was detained without charge in Turkey from April 9th to 23rd. On April 24th, he was deported back to Italy. These pieces were written during his detention.

Gabriele del Grande, journalist, documentarian, and war correspondent, detained in Turkey since April 9, 2017.

My dear friend Gabriele del Grande, journalist, documentarian, and war correspondent was stopped by Turkish authorities in Hatay Province in Southern Turkey on April, 9th 2017. He was there doing research for his new book project “A partisan told me,” about the grassroots narratives of the War in Syria and refugees stories.

His work started more than 10 years ago, with the blog “Fortress Europe,” in which he sought to count all the deaths in the Mediterranean. Tracking this number, which became enormous over the years, was a way to give dignity to, and recognize the existence of, the “stories without bodies:” the missing in the sea and the contemporary tragedy of migrations.

After covering the war in Syria five times with international news organizations, he directed a civil disobedience documentary, “On the Bride’s Side,” chronicling a real road trip from Milan to Sweden with five undocumented refugees dressed up as a wedding convoy. The documentary was the chance for me to meet him for the first time, and we shared risks, smiles, and political activism crossing Europe in a group of twenty activists and refugees.

These five formally illegal bodies crossed the borders disguised, and (in contradistinction to the norm) their dignity and freedom were preserved even as they traveled across Europe. The camouflage and the convoy were powerful instruments of liberation and a symbolic protest against the Dublin Regulation (which limits the movements of asylum seekers to the first EU country of entry), and the fiction of European freedom of movement.

As I write, Gabriele del Grande is still in administrative custody in the migration center of Mugla, in the South-West of Turkey, a former prison transformed into a center for the detention, identification, and expulsion of migrants after the EU-Ankara agreements of March 2016.[1]

It is paradoxical that a spokesperson for migrants’ freedom of movement, who is constantly repeating “stop war not people,” is now facing his own detention owing to his work for people’s dignity and the voices of subalterns. He was finally able to speak to a lawyer on April 21st, and he could call home only after 10 days in detention, during which no one had the possibility to communicate with him directly. The Turkish authorities have not presented to him or his lawyer a formal accusation, and they have not stated the reasons for his administrative detention. For these reasons he declared a hunger strike on April 18th, and his partner, family, and a group of friends are also participating through a collective relay of hunger strikes to support the cause. Every day someone new publicly goes on strike, as a way of directing and demonstrating support and affection for Gabriele.

In the literature on detention (as in the case of Marion Dunlop, British suffragette in 1909; Bobby Sands in Northern Ireland in 1981; and most famously, Mahatma Gandhi in 1943), the hunger strike represents a strong political statement against institutional power. Even as the body is formally not free, the hunger strike is a symbolic exercise of power demonstrating possession of the body, and of its liberty and freedom, even in spaces of detention. The words of Michel Foucault came to my mind: biopower and “anatomo-politics of the human body and biopolitics of the population”(Foucault, 1978: 138; Foucault 2003). Hunger-striking and hunger-striking solidarity chains are a typical case of bio-resistance, and despite the material conditions in which they unfold, a powerful exercise of freedom.

Even though I have been reflecting on the “masses,” biopolitics, and the disciplining of the population, on the micro-level the power for self-determination is still the only exercise to act freely in a context of oppressed rights and the violation of liberty. The hunger strike is such an act of self-determination in the face of structural violence. This is our opportunity to choose, on Gabriele’s side.

Valeria Verdolini is a postdoctoral researcher in Sociology at the University of Milan-Bicocca. She has a PhD in the Sociology of Law, and teaches “Inequalities and Social Mobility” at the University of Milan, LLM program on Law and Sustainable Development. She followed the Tunisian Arab Spring as a researcher. As an activist, she works on prisoners’ rights (with Antigone NGO), and refugees’ protection and rights. She took part to the documentary “On the Bride’s Side” (2014). 

Short Bibliography

Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant L. (1992), An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology.

Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Bourgois, P. (2001), ‘The power of violence on war and peace’, in Ethnography, Vol 2(1): 5–34, Sage Publications.

Bourgois, P., & Schonberg, J. (2009), Righteous Dopefiend. University of California Press.

Fanon, F. (1963), The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.

Farmer, P. (1999), Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Farmer, P., & Sen, A. (2003), Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. University of California Press.

Foucault, M. (1978), History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Random House Inc., New York. (Originally published in 1976)

Foucault, M. (2003) Society Must Be Defended. Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975- 76. Picador, New York. (First published in 1997.)

Galtung, Johan (1969), ‘Violence, Peace, and Peace Research’, Journal of Peace Research 6: 167–91.

[1] In March 2016, the European Union and Turkey initiated an agreement meant to effectively close the Aegean route into Europe via which more than a million people entered Europe in 2015-16. Turkey agreed to accept asylum seekers with cases deemed by the EU authorities to be illegitimate, and in exchange, the EU promised to except Syrian refugees currently housed in Turkish camps. The EU also promised 6.2 billion euros to Turkey to assist with the over 2 million refugees currently housed in Turkey; to make it easier for EU Turkish citizens to receive visas. The “deal” has been widely criticized by human rights advocates and academics for how it outsources a migration “problem” to a country that, many agree, cannot be deemed “safe” in the terms demanded by international refugee law.

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