Life in the Border Zones of Violence
Driving Through Flag Country
We are two hours north of the relentless sirens, our Bronx soundscape these months. That moment where car-weary conversations border on delusional. “Mom, can we have an All-American experience when we get there? Like jumping from a rafter into a haystack?”
We laugh and miss our turn. We search for a shoulder to turn around and find the American flags that sparsely dot the siloed countryside have suddenly converged defensively on one roadside plot. The stripes overlap, reinforcing each other, and a spray-painted sign that screams, “Help Trump Build the Wall!”
My son ducks under the seat.
“We didn’t want you here anyways,” the Berlin border guard said in broken English. On the other side of a plexiglass that was selectively protective long before a pandemic, I was certain I had misheard him. Did he know me?
This was one year ago, when movement was taken for granted and handing over a passport was an automated action. I had fallen asleep immediately after escaping the corralled congestion of humanity waiting to board the budget airplane in London. My response to the tarmac’s frigid air upon arrival was automated too—I wrapped my scarf over my head.
The interaction began simply enough. He glanced at the passport, then up at me.
“No.” No? I was suddenly awake.
“No, go back.” I was sure I had gotten in the wrong line. Back where?
“Go!” He was agitated, red-faced. “Go back on the plane!”
I stood in shock, staring at the state.
I spun a narrative shield, a learned response to danger: a professor… invited lecture… staying only one day… white literary hosts. I wove a pattern of credibility to cover the profiled parts of me: a nose ring, skin color, the multipurpose scarf. My fear sold me out.I am reminded that even when we lose the thread of movement-building across struggles, one tug by a discriminatory state will bring us all down.
He ignored my defensive plea against an unknown offense and sent me to stand in isolation. As other passengers filed past, I wondered, is this isolation or detention? Did they know my work with resistance movements? I dared not ask. I waited in silence.
The crime was eventually made clear. There was enough room to stamp the passport, but no empty page. Eventually his colleague reasoned with him, less out of empathy than efficacy. The original officer glared as he handed back the offending blue book. “Don’t come back.”
In the taxi, shaken, I called two women who live close to my heart. Both, one West African, the other Mexican, recall prolonged airport detentions as they tried to enter the United States. Each in their own way gently push back, As an American you forget sometimes how difficult it is for us to enter your country. They invoke a nationality that had long-since felt un-natural. All-American.
Self-isolating in a Berlin hotel room until that evening’s reading, I am reminded that even when we lose the thread of movement-building across struggles, one tug by a discriminatory state will bring us all down. Stories gather at the border. Later that week, my Amma reacted to my re-telling with a moment she had sequestered to the unprocessed memories archived in the minds of the marginalized. A tale I had never heard.
She was just married, moving away from military-occupied homelands in Sri Lanka towards the exotic liberated territory of Oklahoma. In transit, she was stopped in Germany. She was separated from my father and questioned. We often joke that Amma never breaks the rules, even grammatically. She always spoke the “Queen’s English.” The border guard did not. The confusion through a language barrier ends with Amma being placed overnight in solitary confinement, guarded by a soldier.
Unlike me, for Amma, her dismay over a possible broken rule came before her fear. It was only when she emerged from isolation the next morning that she learned her lack of pre-citizenship papers, like my father’s, led to the assumption she was a “terrorist” from the rebel group in Sri Lanka.
I was born in Tulsa six decades, to the day, after the Tulsa Massacre.
Safely inside the gates of the white liberal outpost where we’re staying, my son runs to see if a striped bass can be coaxed out of the pond by his erratic fishing techniques. He waits at the water’s edge in anticipation, a belief that the fish are there. Much the same way he would sit diaper-clad in a high-chair waiting for the face behind peek-a-boo to reappear. A mature object permanence.
Through the trees lining the property, edges of Trump signs loom. The stay-at-home order is intrinsic: self-preservation. Inside, he is free. I suggest a walk to the upper pond which holds the lure of rainbow trout. He wants to ride there in the back of a pick-up truck. All-American. He asks if he needs a mask and gloves for protection. Nope. He is safe here.
He picks up his fishing paraphernalia and looks down at his t-shirt. A white silhouette of Africa imprinted on a grey background, given to him by a Congolese activist. “Mom, maybe it’s safer if I take this off?” Even a political consciousness in its infancy knows the object of discrimination.
Somewhere in Belgium, a statue of King Leopold is toppled.
The night before we escaped a tense city to the Catskill creeks, I spoke to one of my students stuck on the Manhattan Bridge three hours after curfew. “I’ve just never seen the police be so aggressive.” Her voice trembled.
It wasn’t her first protest. Our students were young when they began to question injustice inside their own lives. The videotaped killing of a black man was not the first they saw of white supremacy.
But on this night she felt the filtering chemicals, heard the body-slams, stared through the reinforced plastic into the violence she already knew, abstractly, was out there. The state revealed itself, intimately, in a way she hadn’t seen before.
A white fourth-grade classmate complains that my son’s avatar for their virtual meetings looks “violent,” “menacing.” It is a picture of one of his favorite artists, a young black rapper. I pull up the video of Amy Cooper. His father tells him what happened to George Floyd. The state begins to take shape. My son’s stage of development demands absolute fairness, “Mom, if we don’t believe in capital punishment, how will white cops learn a lesson?”
I am unsure if his rapid-fire questions are coming from the increased presence of violence or the absent structure of a classroom.
Sometimes the state comes uncomfortably close, making its presence felt inside the boundaries of its power. A rubber pellet that strikes the eye of a young boy in Kashmir and a journalist in America. Sometimes the oppressed seek refuge oceans away from their original oppressor. Both still know the violence of the state is there.
Amma decided to leave Tulsa when I was two. At a job interview to join a local health practice she was told she would never get hired with the red dot on her forehead attached to a foreign name. Three years later she left Bakersfield, California when she realized we would have no community, no sense of where we were from. We settled in Los Angeles, where they decided we were safe.
My son asks me,“What was it like for you when Rodney King was attacked?” He is fascinated with the idea that his own parents were once young, and he looks backwards for the clarity the future now lacks.
The memory of violence is visceral. I remember flashes of fear in my parents’ eyes as they picked us up early from school. A priest in California who survived the shelling in Sri Lanka runs inside every time he hears a helicopter hover. Bedtime rituals in the Bronx are disrupted as reason rationalizes with adrenalin: Police gunfire? No, a firecracker. An undocumented activist protesting at the border hopes her mask blocks facial recognition surveillance software.
The incessant anxiety that drives activism.
In the weeks before we travel upstate, we are having one of those quarantine days that my son describes as “if there was honey poured over the calendar and we’re all walking slowly through it.” He is yelling from the bathroom, his fishing lure has gotten stuck in the toilet (practice pond). I try to mute his background noise on a phone call with lawyers.
I am writing a statement for an asylum seeker, a repetitive third or fourth attempt to enter a plea for one activist’s life. The green booklet which pits him against the Department of Homeland Security et al, a copy of the one we submitted to the Supreme Court, is still sitting on my desk—unresolved.
At a hearing in early March, he would be the last defendant to present in person. Back home, the government of Sri Lanka has already tortured him once for an assumed affiliation with resistance. If allowed to stay, the ruling would require that every asylum seeker at the United States border get a hearing, immediate removal would be illegal. Standing in front of the monument to justice he is convinced that in this country he can be free.
He really wants to stay in America. He has already learned the national anthem.
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
As the disease spreads, the decision is delayed. The appeal process begins even before his fate is handed down. On our call we discuss the arguments that may weigh the judgment in his favor. His lawyers tell me not to emphasize that the state military accused of war crimes in 2009 has consolidated power in the COVID crisis. “Our polling finds that general public opinion in America favors a strong state at this moment.”
The call ends and the lure, a now leg-less rubber frog, is retrieved. My son bought his first fishing pole on a family visit to Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the super-sized Bass store that was its own small world we walk past stocked aisles of guns in the “Hunting” wing to find the gear he wanted. He points to a t-shirt prominently displayed emblazoned with an American flag. If you don’t like it here, I’ll help you pack your bags. I rush through the check-out.Bedtime rituals in the Bronx are disrupted as reason rationalizes with adrenalin: Police gunfire? No, a firecracker.
Nearly three years later, we take the disabled bait out, biking over to a nearby lake where stocked waters shore up his confidence. In the early days of summer his large eyes always take prominence as his skin tone deepens into our genes. We ride past unmarked groups of men on the grassy fields.
Their draped guns give them the feel of the military, uniform colors suggest park rangers. They are not taking questions and have been given public license to enter our parks. Because our safety is at stake.
He speeds up to pass their casual hang-out. “Will they shoot if I don’t wear a mask?” he asks.
My students are queer, undocumented, immigrant, black. All American.
For them, racial justice is not “a pandemic within a pandemic.” Inequality is not temporary, sudden, or unexpected. It is the driver of disproportionate impact: the reason that a disease sits heavier on the bodies of the dispossessed. Well before the protests activated the not-entirely-apathetic, they were laying the groundwork for a movement.
These days my own anxiety attaches itself obsessively to my son. He is impatient, unwilling to wait for answers that do not pop up at search engine speed. He has learned how to share his Google docs: a fictional short story entitled “Smuggler, Mr.” about Algerian refugees en-route to America, a mission statement for a junior biologist website, an autobiographical piece mimicking the style of “Stamped.” His own anxiety has begun to dabble in analysis.
The Supreme Court determination arrives on Justice Sotomayor’s birthday. She was born just a few blocks south of us in the Bronx. She was one of two dissenting voices when the defendant’s plea was rejected. The decision, she decried, “dismantled a critical component of the separation of powers.” Meaning, the President would now be free to build his wall.
She has always been able to see the unwritten subtext: We didn’t want you here anyways.
The ride back to New York City is quieter. Two full days of trying to catch things that swim and fly is exhausting. The mayor’s fear of dissent has dissipated, and the curfew will be lifted when we arrive. Driving through small towns desperately clinging to a way of life, we listen to NPR playing eulogized reflections on George Floyd’s death. More than one politician claims he “gave his life” to a higher cause.
His life was taken, by a state that many blindly believed to be nonviolent.
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
My son is ten this year, born on the same day as Malcolm X, a few blocks north of where he was killed. As the Bronx is boarded up in anticipation of looting, he asks, “Is the difference between a protest and a riot just the violence?”
I suggest he look deeper for what they have in common: to see a frustration he cannot yet feel.