On a warm Tuesday morning a couple of weeks back, I was standing on a street corner in a small town in south Texas. I had on a new shirt, and I had ironed my pants nicely. I was wearing the sort of pleasant smile that my mom had taught me to use when in public.
I was also holding up a sign, facing oncoming traffic, that said “Equal Voice Network this way ☞ ” — this so that the folks that I had organized a meeting for would know how to get to the gathering space.
It was a busy intersection in a small town, so I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was, when the town’s very large police chief wandered out to the street corner. He stopped in front of me, pulled out a handkerchief, wiped his brow (a little dramatically, I thought), and then leaned over and asked me, “Who are you and what is it that you are you doing here?”
I told him I was standing on this corner with a sign that directed people to the meeting that we were having just up the block.
He frowned, (was it my smile?), and then said to me, “I have had several calls reporting a suspicious character. That would be you. You move along now so I don’t have to come out here again.”
He looked me up and down once more, glimpsed at the sign, and then did a slow motion turn back toward his office.
So I packed up my sign and headed inside. I was feeling out-of-sorts—as if my shoelaces were untied, or my shirttail had slipped out, as if something were wrong with me. Ah, I thought, this is the beginning of what happens to people have been profiled.
It was the first time in a long time that I had come under the eye of a police officer. This is not because of my mom’s instructions on maintaining charming smiles in public, but rather because I am a white person living in a community in which nearly everyone else’s skin runs to gloriously-hued earth tones. All of my neighbors look Mexican, which makes sense as Texas was, until just a short while ago, part of Mexico.
For me, then, being under suspicion was something new, although, in the end, no big deal. The police officer didn’t ask for my I.D., and he didn’t make me sit in the back of a patrol car while he ran my fingerprints.
He just told me to get out of the sun.
This, however, is not the way it is for most everybody else down here. As more and more police agencies respond to the call to “secure” the border, more and more of my neighbors enter the profile zone. As cries to “secure the border” get shriller and shriller, that zone gets hotter and hotter.
If your taillight goes out, or if you commit a “rolling stop,” and if you don’t look “white”, then, these days, you are apt be to come under closer scrutiny than before. It is unnerving, to say the least, to move from being considered innocent to being under guarded consideration. The person doing the questioning carries both a gun, and the authority of the US government. There is not a lot of room for error—and some of these agents have made egregious mistakes.
The net is cast wide—a federal judge was stopped by border patrol agents because there were too many people in his car (his response to the officer is the stuff of a local joke (“What, was I driving while Mexican?”). In an incident that is increasingly common, the daughter of a district court judge was prevented from boarding her flight (the officials didn’t believe her documents were real). At the same airport, the county judge was pulled out of line and questioned about his citizenship.
The saddest moment for me with all of this was when a dear, dear friend, a “Dreamer,” one of those children who had been brought into the US while still a small child, decided to self deport. She was a stellar student, and had lived nearly her entire life in Brownsville. The constant presence of border patrol agents on her university campus, the fear that she would be arrested and taken off of a city bus, all of that wore her down. She had put her faith in the passage of the Dream Act, but in the end, gave up. “I just can’t take it any more, I hate having to act like I am some sort of criminal. I hate it.” And so she left, and went to Mexico. It is now three years since she has seen her mom or her sister.
It was our suspicions that drove her out. That was Mitt Romney’s solution for immigration reform: drive all of the people who live here without documents insane, then they will “self deport.” That way, the nation saves a whole lot of money and a whole lot of bother.
Not such a good tactic, however, when the new majority minority soon to be majority is Latino. Apart from the fact that is an awful lot of people to hold in a suspicious state of mind, such a campaign would turn our entire country—and not just the border—into a constitution-free zone.
It is easier to be suspicious than to trust, however, and these days, we are, all of us, constantly reminded of the terrors that are out there. It is hard to believe that we will ever be able to imagine a different way of being than that state of low-level terror that we have known since September 11th. We are all still trying to figure out if there is any sort of consonance between security and peacefulness.
On the evening of the same day that I met the police chief, I was running around our yard playing “Ghost in the Graveyard” with the loveliest four year old in the world. As we came up to the shaded, scary side of the house, she said, “Would you please hold my hand?” I took her hand, and we skipped under the dark banana-leafy ginger tree and then out of the shadows to the other side. She smiled, and I smiled, and we went on with the game.
It was good to be trusted and I am sure that it was good for her to have someone to trust.
High above us, as the evening sun went down, a black helicopter slowly looped up and down our side of the Rio Grande, offering, in its own way, an ambivalent form of security. The “thump-thumping” of its rotors reminded all of us of the badness “over there.”
The temptation is to give in–to give up, to join the fight against terrorists by agreeing to be terrorized. On this day, however, I stood in the dying light of the afternoon, hand in hand with a four year old. The helicopter circled back around. And our evening prayer was simple—that our town not become a graveyard filled with ghosts. That we not be afraid.