[Footnotes is proud to present the work of Matthew Chrisler. Matthew Chrisler is a PhD Candidate at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is currently conducting research on education reform movements, racism and colonialism, and nonprofit political networks in occupied O’odham lands (Phoenix, Arizona). He works with groups in the Phoenix metropolitan area on issues of school policing, funding, technology use, and testing.]
For a week American media was saturated with the commemoration of John McCain as a national hero who embodied the ideals of civility and political service that make America great. Writing from occupied O’odham lands (Phoenix, Arizona), however, I want to make a case that the memorialization of McCain offers American civil society the opportunity to reaffirm bipartisan commitments to settler colonial empire. History is not only written by settlers, but helps secure their future on stolen land (Bruyneel 2016).
McCain’s death comes at a critical moment for American empire. The Trump Administration has shattered centrally held political narratives of America as a global democratic force (a recurring crisis, to be sure), while Indigenous, Black, and anti-colonial movements expose the racial violence inherent in American political life (Dhillon and Estes 2016; Taylor 2016). What I am interested in tracing here is how State memorialization McCain forges ties between American politics and the racialized dispossession of life, land, and labor that make it possible (Byrd, Goldstein, Melamed, and Reddy 2018; Coulthard 2014). America needs John McCain’s death to turn crisis into renewal.
Memorialization is an opportunity to revive national narratives. The work of commemorating someone also does not require them to be dead to do it. McCain’s post-diagnosis interviews, farewell letter, and the eulogies of President Obama, President Bush, and Henry Kissinger, call for returns to “American” values that spin tales of national progress while disagreeing on the particularities of how empire is managed. Cloaking imperial histories in a vernacular of universal civility and global leadership, the memorial does a lot of political work without seeming political.
McCain’s genealogy itself is a geography of American racial capitalism and imperialism. Born in the Panama Canal Zone under American occupation, McCain was the son and grandson of Navy Admirals, themselves descendants of southern slave owners. McCain’s role in American empire—an unrepentant Vietnam War bomber, Arizona Senator, and Republican Presidential candidate—has been an outsized one. From his career as a Navy pilot until his death, he advocated for American military invasion across the world. During his Senate career he consistently supported corporate protections and tax cuts for wealthy Americans. He contributed to the forced relocation of over 12,000 Diné (Navajo) and the attempted selling of Apache land used for women’s coming of age ceremonies to transnational mining interests. Along with Joe Arpaio, he supported Arizona’s SB 1070 law allowing police to arrest people suspected to be undocumented residents, as well as efforts to harden the U.S. border with Mexico by creating a deadly environmental deterrent to those seeking asylum and employment (De Leon 2015). All of which is omitted in official remembrances of his life.
In Phoenix, Governor Doug Ducey ordered that McCain’s body “lie in state” at the Capitol so that members of the public could pay their respects. I visited the Capitol to see how the public engaged with the State’s memorialization. It’s close to 2:30pm on a Wednesday, half an hour into the public viewing that is supposed to last until 5:00pm, during the hottest part of the day, but ends up going much later. As I arrive, large dump trucks block streets surrounding the Capitol grounds, directing vehicles into State employee parking lots. As I move toward the memorial lawn in front of the Capitol, I note that the prison inmates in orange jumpsuits who routinely clean the Capitol grounds and facilities are conspicuously absent.
Barricades and shade structures form a line on the southern edge of the memorial lawn, covering hundreds of people stretched down two avenues in the summer afternoon heat. I’m sweating through my jeans and t-shirt, while most have turned up in office and formal wear. Every few yards a volunteer hands out water bottles from an icy trough. Law enforcement officers in dress uniforms from State and city agencies provide a sense of formality and security. Many thank them for their service (in July, Phoenix police passed its own record for shooting civilians in a year). The flags in front of the capitol at half-mast wilt in the still air, while a TV anchor asks people to bunch up in the sun for more telegenic B-roll shots of the crowd.
A large LCD screen facing the crowded line livestreams people paying respects to McCain’s casket. They pause and make gestures of respect—salutes, signs of the cross, hands over hearts. A family moves out from under the shade to take a group picture, smiling, with the screen centered in the background. These and other profane moments do not detract from the sacralized reverence of McCain’s body so much as they align personal and State practices of memorialization.
The Capitol lawn draws visitors into a settler history of Arizona told in monuments—not as America writ small, but as a landscape of succession from one empire to another. Similar to its national counterpart, it is laid out as a series of “foundational” figures, documents, and events: Father Kino, a Jesuit priest sent to construct missions while mapping the northern frontier of Spain’s empire; a memorial to Confederate soldiers funded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy; a copy of the 10 Commandments; a memorial to law enforcement officers killed on duty as far back as 1865; restored guns from the USS Arizona and the USS Missouri; a pillar dedicated to the “Bushmasters,” a regiment of the Arizona National Guard whose history includes training and deployment in America’s colonial wars; and a September 11th memorial. These monuments lay out the settler history of Phoenix and Arizona: carved out of Indigenous lands and the collapsing Spanish empire; settled by ex-Confederate soldiers atop the sophisticated water canals of the Hohokam; rampant growth through exploitation of Indigenous land, water, and resources; and a key participant in American border formation, policing, global empire, and colonial governance.
Historical narratives supporting settler claims to Indigenous land are hardly accidental. Settler memorialization is based on divisions of historical and ahistorical subjects, abetted by Anthropology: For instance, anthropologist Julian Steward framed Indigenous peoples of the Great Basin as the “quintessential ‘peoples without history’” (Blackhawk 2006, 4). Another persistent theme is the framing of the Diné as recent arrivals and cultural borrowers, and therefore not authentic Indigenous historical subjects (Denetdale 2011). Audra Simpson has rigorously critiqued these divisions as colonial impositions of grids of intelligibility onto Indigenous peoples and lands (2014; 2016). Simpson notes that these projects define the domain of the political—where the political “describes distributions of power, of effective and affective possibility, the imagination of how action will unfold to reach back to the distribution for a re-sort, but also for a push on what should be” (2016, 326). Who has “national” history is part and parcel of a settler colonial sorting of those who have robust sovereignty, and those who purportedly do not.
National histories then become part of a nexus of white possession by reproducing the claims of settlers to sovereignty over the territories of empire (Moreton-Robinson 2015, xiii). National histories of racial inclusion, too, are linked to settler colonialism by articulating civil rights to national “progress,” while hiding the reliance of the nation on ongoing dispossession and racialized exclusions from citizenship (Cacho 2018; Harris 1993).
Dismantling the recurring nightmare of American empire requires us to divest ourselves from the political imaginaries exposed in these practices of commemoration. We should think, then, about how the memorialization of McCain in a place named “Phoenix” claims for settlers a new beginning that continuously arises from the extermination, containment, and erasure of Indigenous political and social life. American rebirth offers a conceptual framework for a(nother) settler move to innocence (Tuck and Yang 2012). Memorializing McCain as the torchbearer of American progress and civility is a future-oriented practice that safeguards the reproduction of settler relations to property, personhood, and (dis)possession. Instead, we should work with and for Indigenous peoples to rebuild their nations out of the ashes of empire.
Blackhawk, Ned. 2006. Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West. Harvard University Press.
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Cacho, Lisa Marie. 2018. “Civil Rights, Commerce, and US Colonialism.” SocialText 135 36(2): 63-82. DOI: 10.1215/01642472-4362361.
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Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahata. 2016. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Haymarket Books.
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