Brief visit to New York, I landed on Monday afternoon and two days later I am back in the airport again, waiting for my midnight flight back home. By midday I will be landing in Heathrow. I cut the visit to New York short because of the general election.
No, I have no right to vote. But after sixteen years of calling Oxford home and many hours spent lately tweeting, retweeting, staring at dozens of voting projections and graphs, commenting and strategizing with friends, colleagues or random people on the street about the impact of the election, after having gone through a roller coaster of emotions, at times hopeful, more often despairing, it just didn’t feel right to miss the day. And it became even clearer to me while I was in New York. But, just to avoid disappointment, let me add: this is not a Trump story.
I came for a workshop on statelessness at New York University. The event was held in the historical Woolworth Building, once and for seventeen years the tallest building in town (red herring). In my short visit I had the opportunity to discuss about research methods and challenges of working with a marginalised and excluded population, had some insightful conversations on research ideas, and joined a panel on borders and belonging. How does lack of papers shape the sense of belonging of those affected? What is the legacy of protracted exclusion from society? These the questions that guided the conversation.
I offered some thoughts drawing on my work on stateless Roma families in Italy. I did the research in 2014 so some refreshing was needed and inevitably in the process the present claimed its space in my thoughts. How does it feel to be excluded from the polity? Not having political rights, including the right to have one’s view counted? Hannah Arendt’s seminal work is the inescapable starting point for answering these questions. Her reflection on the triple loss experienced by the stateless – loss of home, voice and the protection of a state – resonates with the experiences of today’s stateless people. But her equivalence of statelessness with rightlessness is perhaps more complicated nowadays when international human rights and more localised sources of rights and entitlements, at least to some extent and unevenly, complement and in some cases challenge the state. But there is another side to this story of loss and exclusion, a side perhaps not foregrounded enough in Arendt’s theorisation, it is what the excluded do and can do to challenge their position in society, how they can carve a space for their voice to be heard (see the concept of infrapolitics in James Scott), how they can articulate a claim for belonging despite being told time and again they have no right to exist. I looked back as some of the stories we were told by stateless Roma in Italy, but then Brexit came to my mind. I remembered how I felt during and after the EU referendum. Not only I didn’t have the right to vote in a decision that was going to have such an impact on my life and that of millions EU nationals living in Britain, but because of my very exclusion from the vote, everyone else seemed instead to have the right to talk about me, of judging, weighting, pondering my contribution to society, and putting a price-tag on my value. I didn’t feel like an equal human being but like a commodity.
So I’m flying back to be in Britain for the election, to speak out and mourn with my friends and family what it is likely to be the worst result for EU nationals. I have donated to parties and campaigns, I have inundated my voting friends (sorry!) with articles, comments, and other electoral memorabilia. This is what I can do for now. I’ve been in Britain for sixteen years, I have survived four prime ministers. But the time I reach my adulthood in Britain in two years time I’ll probably (if I get myself to apply) be a British citizen and have the right to vote too. For now it is up to you to vote for me.