To say that Harsha Walia “came under fire” for a tweet the past week would be an unjust understatement.
Indigenous nations across Turtle Island are continuing to grapple with the “discoveries” of hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigneous children who were sent to forced assimilation schools, better known as the Indian Residential Schools.
Many settlers have shown their solidarity as Indigenous people mourned in many ways—some helping with the toppling of statues of racist colonizers, and some publicly agreeing with the burning down of churches.
Walia, the author of recently published Border & Rule, echoed the sentiment of burning down churches.
Quoting a news story about churches being torched, on June 30th, Walia tweeted, “Burn it all down.”
The phrase “burn it all down,” is not a new way of expressing grief and anger for any institution, but particularly one that was directly complicit in committing genocide, and never apologized for its actions.
However, Walia’s tweet quickly became a battleground for tone-policing, and inadvertently, harassment and trolling online.
Walia shared a few screenshots of some of the direct messages on Twitter, filled with vitriolic racism and sexism, death threats, and some threats on reporting her to the RCMP.
“Are you a terrorist? I reported you to the RCMP nonetheless terrorist,” read one.
“You f*ckin c***,” read another one.
Rightfully for her own safety and mental well-being, Walia had to lock her account before further threats.
Then came the slanderous anti-Semitism accusations, which organizations like Independent Jewish Voices refuted, standing in solidarity with Walia.
The replies to all her tweets were filled with anger towards immigrants, some bringing up her own non-white immigrant background.
However, Walia had one thing to say; that she was not leaving any time soon, much to the dismay of white supremacists.
Tone-policing grief and action
Sean Carleton, a well known settler historian on Indigenous-settler relations, had a rebuttal to the claim that Walia’s tweet incited any form of violence.
In his twitter thread, he explained the history of the language around “burning things down”.
The phrase “burn it down” is often used in movement writing, metaphorically. However, this is often conflated in right-wing media outlets, which is something that we witnessed over the Black Lives Matter movement last year, wherein calls to actions are deemed violent because of the language used by Black activists.
“In short, @HarshaWalia’s call to “burn it all down” needs to be understood in the long history of that 🔥 phraseology on the left,” tweeted Carleton.
“You may disagree with this political perspective, and Harsha has acknowledged the compounding issue of her tweet's timing with wild fires in the west etc., but understanding the history of that phraseology is key. We mean burn it all down, but not literally.”
Walia certainly does not want to contribute to the wildfires and climate change by burning things down, an obvious observation made by Carleton.
“We want to build a new world from the metaphorical ashes of the old. That remains the goal - that's why the odious defenders of exploitative status quo seek to discredit those movements.”
Churches, murdered Indigenous children, desecrated traditional lands
As Catholic Canadians walk away from churches, it is strange to see that mourning the death of so many Indigenous children, so many stolen future leaders who would have kept sacred knowledge, those who could have lived their own full lives, quickly turned into labelling a brown woman a terrorist.
Interestingly enough, there always seems to be money present for when any Catholic church burns down. Notre Dame’s fire led to rich people pooling in almost $1 billion, which was still not enough for the church.
In Canada, the church said in 2015 that they could only fundraise $3.9 million for Residential School survivors, as opposed to the originally promised $25 million since 2005. However, in the same time period, almost $300 million were raised for buildings.
It is safe to assume, based on the monetary values, that there has always been more regard for the churches in the name of which genocide was engineered and perfected on Turtle Island.
The same outrage from the same people, notably columnists like Rex Murphy, Jonathan Kay, and others who contribute to right-wing outlets like Rebel News, did not surface upon the findings of Indigenous children, or the constant violation of ancestral lands for resource extraction.
After all, if the anger lies behind the assumption that burning down churches is disrespecting cultural spaces and spiritual havens... Indigenous people have long endured much worse, be it protecting the forests from old-growth logging (which could result in the burning of EVERYTHING), or defending unceded and unsurrendered territories from pipelines.
“White lives don’t matter. As white lives” tweet in the UK
Walia’s harassment online is not an isolated incident, and it speaks to how immigrant and racialized women are treated when speaking out on matters of social justice.
Last year during the BLM uprisings, Priyamvada Gopal, a Cambridge University professor, had a tweet deleted which caused an uproar in the UK.
After a year of “white lives matter” messaging in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, she tweeted, “I’ll say it again. White Lives Don’t Matter. As white lives.”
Anyone with critical thinking or merely reading skills can decipher that message, that white lives don’t matter by virtue of being white, they matter because they are human beings, an obvious right to life, which is clearly not afforded to Black people.
Gopal received abusive racist and misogynistic messages, graphic and disturbing death threats, her address being shared on anonymous bulletin boards online, all of which violated her privacy, safety, and well-being.
The local police and campus security had to get involved, showing how real these threats were, and that a simple tweet that was not in violation of any guidelines, was policed and taken down.
Politics of Distraction
Walia says that she wants to move on from this tweet as it is not conducive to her work on addressing and ending genocide.
She does point out that much of the rage comes from her identity as a woman of colour, and that it has placed her in a precarious position just for expressing her solidarity and grief with Indigenous people, that she has no right to an opinion in Canada.
It is unjust that racialized women are often burdened with the expectation to be strong in the face of adversity.
However, as Michael Stewart, a writer and academic in Victoria pointed out, she is a legend, and a force to be reckoned with.
About the author: Karan Saxena (he/they) is a journalist and writer from Mumbai, India. He is currently in Vancouver pursuing his Master of Journalism at UBC. He graduated from the University of Manitoba with a BA (Adv.) in Political Studies and a BA in Women's & Gender Studies. Karan loves researching and writing on queer culture, climate change, immigration, power structures, fascism and violence. He could talk for hours about fashion, French pop music, the ongoing exploitation of the global south, wealth inequality, and the versatility of tote bags!