Considering Kids in Cages in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Collins Tackles Social Commentary Once More

Considering Kids in Cages in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

In chapter one, Collins lists many things people in our country take for granted: Food other than cabbage soup and mushed potatoes. Buying new clothes instead of remaking them. Ration coupons. Coriolanus even considers the luxuries of garbage pickup – not only having the Avoxes to collect it but being able to throw out suspicious food and unwanted materials instead of frantically scrounging them for burning or insulation. All this is a product of the postwar culture, Bombs fell constantly, frightening everyone with the constant specter of death. During the war, the city was embargoed for two years. The elevator is broken so the grandma rarely can even leave. Symbolically, their wealth has trapped them.

This image of shortages and isolation may resonate particularly with readers as the book has come out during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. There is massive, almost unprecedented job loss, with many struggling to feed their families. Systems like electricity feel less dependable, adding to the stress and uncertainty. Most of all, there’s the frantic hoarding of food – though it’s illegal, they pile up 30 crates of lima beans that must be kept a secret. When their cook leaves, they’re forced to learn to cook them into unpalatable meals that nonetheless keep them alive. Coronavirus has resulted in more cooking at home, more hoarding of dried beans and canned goods, and of course, more relying on these staples. With meat-packing planets in distress, America may be eating more beans yet.

Of course, the family’s isolation for a different cause resonates even more. Young Coriolanus cannot have friends over and his cousin’s attempt at romance falls apart because she’s keeping him out of the house. Grandma’am, particularly fragile, must be protected from everything. She, in particular, cannot leave the house.

However, all this is somewhat coincidental as the book was written before the virus. Indeed, Collins appears to be protesting a recent cause more fitting with the book’s timing.

While Katniss and Peeta get the royal treatment with the finest food they’ve ever eaten and a luxury apartment, the children in the tenth games are treated much more brutally. The kids are put on livestock cars, their hands bound, and beaten when they leave them. As innocents tortured for their birth, this echoes with the Holocaust and other moment of historical brutality, made worse by the victims’ innocence. Then the Tributes are put in circus cage trucks and thrown into the monkey pen in the former zoo. There, as Coriolanus thinks, “Capitol children gawked at him.” They’re even treated by a veterinarian.

The obvious parallel is the caged migrant children at the border. During the Trump administration, the public became increasingly concerned of the plight of asylum seekers. Those who entered legally, fleeing persecution in destabilized countries, had their children locked up separately, for an indefinite amount of time, often with no documentation to assure their return. The Flores settlement, an agreement in the California case Flores v. Reno, set national standards for the detention, release and treatment of all undocumented children in federal custody. It requires the government to house the children it does detain in facilities that are “safe and sanitary” and provide “access to toilets and sinks, drinking water and food as appropriate, medical assistance if the minor is in need of emergency services, [and] adequate temperature control and ventilation.” US law prohibits holding children in Border Patrol custody for more than 72 hours in typical circumstances.

In April of 2018, Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump Administration’s Zero-Tolerance Policy for unauthorized immigrants -- to deter migrants the government would separate immigrant children from their parents so that the parents could remain in immigration jail for prolonged periods. After more than 2,300 children were taken from their parents at the border, President Trump issued an executive order to end family separation but then attempted to rewrite policy to allow for immigration officials to jail children indefinitely. “The Trump administration’s proposed termination of the Flores Settlement agreement isn’t just odious because it could detain families indefinitely. As in, years. It’s also odious because it is an attempt to inflict cruelty on immigrant children and use them as pawns in a battle against adults,” an editorial writes (“A New Cruelty”).The goal of torturing the children as a deterrent to adults links this present-day story with the Tributes’ plight. Why are guards torturing and mistreating them? Because of the circumstances they were born into, not for anything these underage dependents did. Likewise, as Sejanus observes, these Tributes were ages two through eight during the war. None attacked the Capitol or perpetrated atrocities, let alone making decisions. All are completely innocent of the war, as they are in Katniss’s time.

The acting Deputy Washington Director and Senior Researcher on Immigration in the US Program at Human Rights Watch interviewed children and reported that “the US Border Patrol is holding many children, including some who are much too young to take care of themselves, in jail-like border facilities for weeks at a time without contact with family members, or regular access to showers, clean clothes, toothbrushes, or proper beds. Many were sick. Many, including children as young as 2 or 3, were separated from adult caretakers without any provisions for their care besides that provided by unrelated older children also being held in detention.” The children interviewed had been wearing the same clothes for weeks. They were not given regular access to soap, toothbrushes or showers. Often they have a parent in the US but are not allowed to call them even once to say where they are. Clara Long concludes, “Based on our interviews, US officials at the border seem to be making no discernable effort to release children to caregivers while children are in Customs and Border Protection custody – though many have parents in the US – rather than holding them for weeks in overcrowded cells, incommunicado from their desperate loved ones.”

U.S District Judge Dolly Gee insisted that a “tortured interpretation” of the Flores agreement was used in attempting to indefinitely detain “blameless” migrant children whose safety “should be paramount” (Macias). Still, the practice illegally continues. Since these children have often, to public horror, been kept in massive cages, the Tributes’ confinement in the monkey cage seems a distinct parallel. They share a faucet, but receive no food, clothes, or medical care for five days. Rats and a rabid raccoon bite them. Afterwards, everyone blames Jessop for bringing rabies from the city. His mentor insists otherwise on camera. It’s their prejudice that casts him as diseased, when their own Capitol is the source of the plague. Further, the reporter Lepidus describes him as a loyal dog, and she pointedly calls him human, determined to honor his legacy.

After the district ten girl kills Arachne and dies, her body is paraded about on a hook with the starving, bound filthy children below her. Such tactics have used in slave revolts through history to discourage others. They are intended as a deterrent, a punishment so horrible that no one will attempt this again. It’s particularly used by the powerful to teach the powerless not to rebel – especially when the powerless are desperate enough to try. This too is the case of the migrants:

At a briefing, officials said the threat of detention would send a message that bringing children into the United States doesn’t guarantee their release. Would it? Separating families had no effect. The dangers families face on these perilous journeys have had no effect. The anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Trump administration has had no effect. There is also the matter of rights. There’s no need to punish families for exercising their legal right to claim asylum at the border. They can be released on bond or with court-ordered supervision while they await hearings. (“A New Cruelty")

Many Americans were horrified by this human rights violation. Much more disturbing were the number of Americans who had no problem with this. “It’s their fault for coming,” was the repeated refrain. This too has a parallel in Collins’ book. Of course, the children are used to represent their districts, much as they committed no crime themselves. Still, upon looking at the dirt-covered outsiders, it’s easy to dismiss them as less than human. Coriolanus and Lucy Gray realize this as she sings for the Capitol folks to try to establish herself as a person in their eyes. Still, Coriolanus cannot see them as his equals. During the games, he presents Lucy Gray as so ethical that she is not really a District resident but clearly has Capitol breeding. This sort of exceptionalism, hating a social group but considering one of its members a paragon who doesn’t deserve the same cruelty, remains a dismissive and destructive form of prejudice. The dean accurately points out it’s not breeding “but more food, nicer clothing, and better dental care.” This is also true of the migrants who are people like any others – just with fewer advantages, especially in detention.

On reaching the deprivation of District 12, Coriolanus is revolted. However, he doesn’t share his food with starving children or encourage his Capitol friends to start a charity project. Instead, he judges them. “These people had given up, and some part of him blamed them for their plight.” He tells his friends, “We pour so much money into the districts” that everyone in the Capitol resents them. The response is that the money goes to industry but not to the desperate families. Still, he considers himself superior. People from the Districts, as he’s been raised to see them, are “Human, but bestial. Smart, perhaps, but not evolved. Part of a shapeless mass of unfortunate barbaric creatures that hovered on the periphery of his consciousness.”

The casually racist Capitol dwellers are embodied in Coriolanus’s grandmother, who’s appalled at inviting the neighbors, formerly from District Two, into her house. Likewise, she tells Coriolanus not to eat with Lucy, as it suggests equality. Grandma is the racist, out-of-touch old guard. She sings the anthem each morning in true thoughtless patriotism, without thinking of the government’s duty to provide food and safety for her family. Their entire life is about maintaining appearances, though secretly she hoards lima beans to keep them alive. This last suggests she knows deep down that the government isn’t doing its job. Too many in America share this double consciousness, insisting that the government is perfect in all things as long as it stops illegal immigration. The knowledge that businesses are failing from trade wars and that climate change is causing hurricanes and heat waves is ignored. In fact, his grandmother echoes this blindered perception with a determined look toward the future. “When Coriolanus is president,” his grandmother insists constantly, “everything from the rickety Capitol air force to the exorbitant price of pork chops would be magically corrected”

When Lucy saves Coriolanus’s life, she decides, in another example of exceptionalism, “Well, like as not she decided the Peacekeepers would gun her down if she ran, but still, it shows some character. Perhaps, as she claims, she is not really district.” She can only accept that a district girl would save a life out of self-interest and finally praises her as being one of the capitol people instead of “one of them.” Clearly, her prejudice is blinding her completely. It’s awful that people can only respect those seen as “us” rather than “them,” and only deign to consider them human by admitting a few special outsiders into the circle.

Long, Clara. “Written Testimony: "Kids in Cages: Inhumane Treatment at the Border": Testimony of Clara Long Before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties,” Human Rights Watch, July 11, 2019.

Macias Jr, Martin. “White House Bid to Indefinitely Detain Migrant Child” Courthouse News, 10 July 2018

“A New Cruelty, Detaining Families Indefinitely.” Express-News Editorial Board, 26 Aug 2019.

Stipulated Settlement Agreement, Flores v. Meese, 2:85-cv-4544 (C.D. Cal. 1997).

Valerie Estelle Frankel is the author of pop culture works such as The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen: Exploring the Heroine of the Hunger Games and Katniss the Cattail on names in the original trilogy.

Valerie Estelle Frankel
Valerie Estelle Frankel
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