However they came here, whether because we were desperate for labour or on boats in spite of our best efforts to block them or let them drown, there are, living among us, tens of thousands of people who weren’t born here.
This is their home because, whatever myths elites concocted to justify their power and autonomy, Malta is a place that belongs to those who live in it and not a cradle for some very specific tanned, white ethnicity.
The members of the tanned, white ethnicity call themselves ‘Maltese’, craftily excluding people of other heritage from any claim within this country. The others are ‘others’, ‘foreigners’, ‘immigrants’, ‘blacks’, words that do not merely describe their personal story of travel or their personal ethnic and cultural heritage. These are words that put a lid on their status, limit their rights, exclude the reluctant owners of these descriptors from the ordinary entitlements of anyone else living here.
There are basic rights the Maltese enjoy that the “foreigners” – let’s go ahead and call them by that exclusionary label, for that we must do to be understood – have not thought they miss. They cannot vote though they must pay tax. They must contribute, though they cannot be represented. They can work for local councils, sweep the streets and paint the benches but they cannot run for local office.
In the body politic, they are feet and hands but they’re allowed nowhere near vital organs. For “foreigners”, the maxim imposed by us is ‘taxation without representation’, the denial of enfranchisement that is at the heart of their exclusion from even more obvious rights that we take for granted for ourselves and for them are unimaginable.
Consider the right not to be beaten or killed by people in uniform, whether as an innocent bystander guilty only of being black or brown, or not to have your crimes aggravated by your status as a foreigner. The man beaten last October while lying prostate face down in the street was accused by apologists for his torturers that he had provoked his fate by drink driving.
Drink driving is a serious offence and our enforcement officers are heroic when they confront perpetrators and prevent them from harming other people. But the laws of this country do not provide for flogging as a punishment. Unless, implicitly, you’re foreign.
I could be accused of pulling at heartstrings, of deceitfully drawing generalisations from an isolated incident, or maybe an isolated incident multiplied by all the other times it happened without someone in a balcony happening to film it on their phone.
I am making a generalisation but not on the conduct of other uniformed transport enforcement officers. I am generalising instead on the broad attitude that met the incident.
If uniformed officers beat a drunk driver in the street because the driver was gay and the officers were homophobic the reaction would be of national outrage. I would share that outrage but I would be less lonely complaining about the incident and demanding political responsibility and procedural change.
As a community we have grown much over the past two decades in dealing with our prejudices on sexual orientation. Race is different. We deny “foreigners” the right to our sympathy, our unqualified solidarity, our anger at their pain, our protest at their exclusion. That is a generalisation I am happy to make.
And I will claim more. Because the exclusion of foreigners and the denial of their ordinary rights as “Maltese” – by which I mean people who live on a permanent basis in Malta – is deeply set in our culture and our collective conduct; our shared prejudices are in themselves the cause of the violence. Let me try to explain that.
I have no doubt there are homophobic uniformed officers out there. But they know better than to indulge their prejudices in violence because they know just what sort of widespread outrage they would have to face. The community’s cultural norms are in and of themselves a balm that soothes the toxic combination of hateful prejudices and relative power and authority.
It wasn’t always so and there are other forms of discrimination that are short of a beating in the street or random bullets in the backs of innocent victims. Yet, I think, exceptions and all, the point is understandable.
There are enough ‘foreigners’ living among us to statistically wonder why so few of them are studying at our university, so few are local councillors, MPs and political candidates- Manuel Delia
A racist uniformed officer faces no such outrage. “Categorical condemnation” from government ministers who happily hold back rescue boats from saving the souls of black people drowning in our seas are hollow and ineffective and seen by the racist thug for what they are: lip-serving officialdom, unmeant, inconsequential.
A country which professes its democratic credentials but which denies people who pay its taxes a share in the decision making within it encourages the people with rights to exploit, abuse, and, when it comes to it, beat and kill people without any.
There are enough “foreigners” living among us to statistically wonder why so few of them are studying at our university, so few are local councillors, MPs and political candidates, so few are police constables and sergeants, so few have joined the army, so few are enforcing traffic laws or issuing parking fines, so few are lawyers representing white clients, so few are on TV reading the news or hosting discussion programmes.
As I ask you to picture a black mayor for Mqabba instead of just a black street-sweeper, a black police constable arresting a drunk driver instead of a white one manhandling a black perp, I know I am asking what most still refuse to even imagine. They don’t just refuse to imagine it. They write laws to suppress any black or brown child’s uppity ambition.
This is a country that sells passports to people it never meets but denies the basic rights of citizenship to people born here to parents who made this country their only home in the world.
When discrimination is enshrined in the law of the land, when prejudice and racial hatred are systematised, institutionalised, and deeply internalised, brutal violence by men in uniform inflicted on voiceless, helpless victims is as inevitable as it is cruel.
But this too will pass and, one day, women and men born bound by the chains we force on them will stand up to our fear and our hatred and our greed and claim for themselves what was theirs since they first stepped on this island: they will have themselves a home.