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Jeff Sharlet @JeffSharlet
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What do you tell your kids about borders? Crossing into Canada a few days ago, I warned my 9-yr-old, Saira (not her real name), not to giggle. Crossing was a breeze. Coming back, I said, would take longer...
Entering U.S. involved a lot more questions. The guard questioned Saira. Who is, as I said, nine. But she smiled a lot and all was ok; then he told us to turn off the car, & Saira gasped. Border patrol were surrounding car next to us, hands on their guns, shouting...
Our guard had his hand on his gun, too, & his eyes on the car. "Out of the car!" a guard barked. I was confused. It'd pulled up after us. There'd been no search, no time for search. They couldn't have found drugs. A woman emerged...
"About 28," Saira later estimated. Wore a nice white tank top, glasses. Latinx. Hands in the air. Face stunned and scared. They made her walk backwards, grabbed her arms. "Are they going to--" Saira asked. They did. They cuffed her.
They repeated the drill with the man in the passenger seat. He kept glancing over his shoulder as he walked back w/ hands in air, & they kept yelling at him, but he didn't want to fall. Not a time for any mistakes. That's when I made mine...
I took pictures. There's a sign on the border booth forbidding cameras, & I didn't notice, so that part's on me. The prohibition of documentation of armed agents of the state? That's on the U.S. government. The guard, tho, blamed me...
He grabbed my phone. "I'm sorry," I said. I was w/ my daughter; not a time to invoke journalism. He held up his hand & then began scrolling. Well past the two pics I'd just taken. Which constitutes an illegal search, no? I was more worried about my daughter...
"Daddy," she asked, "are you going to get arrested, too?" I sighed. "No," I said, "I don't think so, but I might lose my phone." This distressed her, too -- it was filled w/ our vacation pictures. "Pull over," the guard said. "Go through the green door."
Inside was a room crowded, mostly with families. Not detained; paused. Some longer than others. There was no line. "You wait for them to call your name," another dad explained. I noticed something; Saira noticed, too. They kept calling the white people...
Why were white people called before the many non-white families who'd been waiting longer? You can guess easily as my 9-yr-old did, but the journalist in me can't say for sure. That's part of power: evidence of discrimination without certainty. Everyone guessing.
I'm not suggesting that the U.S. border guards had a deliberate plan to favor white people over non-whites. They just appeared to do so. They weren't all white themselves. That's how power works, too: the uniform is that of white supremacy.
I was worried about my daughter, of course. And that concern shaped something ugly in me: A hope that our whiteness would keep us out of further trouble. One more aspect of power's control: it plucks the strings of the ugliest chords within you...
Sure enough, after awhile a guard called us -- ahead of the black family & the Asian family in between which we'd been sitting, both waiting longer than us. I went to the counter, glad & guilty & furious. A guard held our passports & my phone...
I said what I believed needed to be said, especially with my 9-yr-old holding my hand: "I'm sorry. I was stupid." The guard nodded, & handed over our passports & my phone. "We deleted the pictures you took," he said...
Now, I can imagine some folks saying, "I can't believe you apologized to those fascists!" To which I'll say: That's how power works. It makes you complicit. It makes you craven. I've experienced it before...
I've reported in countries where men with guns forbid pictures, & I've had men point their guns at me & order me to delete my pictures. But before I was a journalist, when I was 20, I crossed the Sahara with my older sister. We ran into trouble in Algeria...
This was in 1992. A civil war broke out while we were there. An Islamic party had won a fair election, & the gov't had responded w/ tanks. Some 100,000 would die, but we didn't see any fighting: just a vast crowd, trying to flee, like us, at a remote desert crossing...
We were visibly American. A soldier separated us from the crowd. His rifle strap was too big for his frame, & as he walked the gun slapped his ass. Bap, bap, bap. I was 20, dumb, & I laughed. Bad move. My sister began apologizing. Then she said something in Arabic; he laughed...
I asked her what she'd said. "I said, 'My brother's an idiot,'" she told me. Soon, more soldiers surrounded us: delighted by the young American woman fluent in Arabic. (She's an Arabic lit scholar.) They let me stand, but they made her tea...
They offered her sugar & asked if she was married & what kind of man she wanted to marry & if she might marry an Algerian man. She smiled. After three hours, they let us cross. Everyone else remained, inside the country collapsing into war. That's how power works...
The power of gender, of the men w/ guns who demanded flirtation as the price of crossing the border, & of empire, the American one, that brought us to the front of the line, & of borders, that put little tyrants in charge of lines in the sand...
So even with the guns & the yelling & the confiscated phone, crossing back into the U.S. was a lot easier than out of Algeria, & for that I was glad, & ashamed. "What happened to the couple?" my 9-yr-old asked. I had to her I didn't know, that I was afraid we couldn't know...
I'm not reporting here, I'm just talking about crossing the border yesterday, on vacation w/ my daughter. Maybe that couple was wanted for real crimes, for all I know. But their car wasn't searched. "Was it like the kids?" my daughter asked. She meant on the Mexican border...
"It might have been," I said. She asked if we'd done something wrong taking pictures. "No," I said. She pointed out I'd said it was stupid. "Stupid because I got caught," I said. "Stupid because I was with you. I'm sorry." "It's not your fault," she said. Which was true...
The night before we'd watched The Hunger Games. (I know, a little much for a 9-yr-old. But she'd read the books, so...) We both thought of the evil "Peackeepers" & their white uniforms, & the shouting border guards in their black uniforms...
When we got to St. Albans, VT, we pulled over and went for a walk. I asked my daughter if she'd been afraid. She surprised me. "No," she said. She thought for a moment. "Mostly, I was burning with anger."
My daughter knew we were lucky. She knew if she weren't 9, I might have had a harder time, that if we weren't white we might still be there. But the anger was personal, too. It was all mixed up. That's how power works.
Later we came to a covered bridge on which someone had chalked "Love=Rage." That fit her mood, & the chalk was still there, so she added her own message: "Keep our country colorful." That helped, but she was still mad.
Because here's the thing: We got off "easy," right? White privilege, right? *Yes.* & still it sucked, because of what happened & because of the slime of fear & complicity it left on us. I hear white liberals talk sometimes as if they've nothing to fear...
...as if the power of authoritarianism threatens only people of color. It threatens POC more; but it threatens *everybody.* That's what authoritarianism is. You do nobody any favors by imagining you're immune.
As my daughter saw at the border, authoritarianism targets POC first & most severely; the secondary goal of white supremacy, tho, is to keep white subjects in line through a mix of privilege & subtle punishment for questioning that privilege.
Authoritarianism cultivates paranoia & self-censorship. It depends on us to internalize the ways in which it pushes around; it wants us to feel guilty for being afraid. It wants us to speak in the passive voice.
Anyway, before we got back on the road, I looked at my phone. Yes, they'd deleted the pictures I'd taken of border guards surrounding a Latinx couple; and, it seemed, they'd also deleted two previous, a pic of a mural & a pic of my daughter smiling over a stawberry smoothie...
So here's a new picture. I don't put my kids' pictures on the public internet, but with my daughter's approval -- this is part of her "burning anger" -- here she is, adding her slogan, #keepourcountrycolorful, to one of which she approves, not far south of the border.
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