One of the English classes I taught back in Toledo started out on the first day with a student threatening violence against me because he couldn’t use the textbook from his previous English class in mine. (I didn’t have any control over what textbooks I could use in that class, but he was giving every sign that he didn’t want to listen to anyone, as evidenced by his repeated misgendering of me.) A couple of weeks later, one of the two male African-American students in that class opened up about his experiences of racism at the hands of police officers, in one of those moments where I had to physically leave the classroom and collect myself so I wouldn’t lose my shit in front of everyone. This episode brought the students together in a way that it caused that class to be one of the most powerful and effective that I’ve ever taught, but of course I would’ve preferred that my student hadn’t had to go through those experiences at all.
A few weeks into the semester, the other male African-American student missed a class. Just before our next class met, he came up to me with a note about the court appearance he’d had to make during our previous class session. As he explained to me, he was at a friend’s house party when the police showed up for some reason. One of the officers asked to enter the house, and my student reminded the owner of the house that the police weren’t allowed to enter without a warrant. The police then arrested my student and charged him with interfering in an investigation, simply for reminding the owner of the house of his legal rights.
You can imagine my reaction to what my student told me. I didn’t need to walk away in order to calm myself down, but only because I immediately thought of the actions I might be able to take there; I was already thinking of local law professors I could get hold of to help my student fight back against what had been done to him. Almost as soon as I started saying what I wanted to do for my student, though, he cut me off. In the most polite way he could — far calmer than I could have possibly been in those circumstances — he explained to me (in so many words) that I didn’t understand that people like him had to put up with this bullshit, and he’d be better off if he didn’t try to fight what had happened to him, and as much as he appreciated my desire to help, any suggestions I might offer would be far more likely to cause him further harm than any good.
It was kind of a humbling moment for me, but I quickly realized that I had to respect my student and his lived knowledge of what he needed to do in his situation. As much as I read about history, and as many stories as I hear from my students, and as much as I’ve studied racism through every means at my disposal, the plain and simple fact is that I will never know what it is like to be a person of colour. Even my own experiences being discriminated against by police officers because of my gender do not give me insight into what people of colour experience at the hands of police officers every day across this country. That doesn’t make what my student experienced any less unacceptable — there is still a part of me, all these years later, that wants to get this student the help he needs to undo this injustice — but it does mean that I need to respect the limits of my own knowledge, and not apply the same rules of how I would engage in a similar situation with my (relatively) privileged status.
As the past few days have gone on, and I’ve seen everyone from national politicians to my friends on social media sharing information about what immigrant families have the legal right to do if ICE knocks on their door, I’ve thought back to what my student from a few years ago went through. I know the parallels aren’t exact, but they’re close enough to make me wonder what would happen if the current administration, or even just local law enforcement officers somewhere, decided to arrest the people providing and sharing this information to the potential targets of these ICE raids. Maybe there are laws out there somewhere that say police officers can’t arrest people who simply remind other people of their legal rights, but they sure didn’t help my student who got arrested a few years ago, and more to the point, the people who hold this power have repeatedly shown that they’re far more concerned with what they can get away with than what they’re legally allowed to do.
Just as a hypothetical example, let’s say that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets arrested later today by federal law enforcement officers, who claim that her sharing “what you should do if ICE shows up at your door” videos and graphics online was illegal interference with the publicized raids on immigrant families here in America. What do you think people’s reactions would be? The left would be outraged, of course, and the hordes of haters AOC has gotten in her short congressional career would gloat all over the place (probably led by the troll-in-chief himself), but what do you think Nancy Pelosi would do? She’d probably be opposed to the arrest, but do you think that she’d express that opposition in a way that couldn’t be described as “tepid” by anyone who heard it? Ignoring the Pelosi-AOC drama of recent weeks, Pelosi wouldn’t dare raise her voice because as bad as arresting someone to chill their free speech rights may be, it’s not as bad as, say, suggesting that rich people should be held legally accountable for breaking the law.
As many have pointed out, intimidation is at the heart of these raids, and the fact that they’ve been so publicized by the racist-in-chief is all the evidence you need of that. Even if ICE hadn’t knocked on a single door, the weeks of “warnings” have sent chills through not just immigrant communities across the country, but even through those of us who simply care about the immigrants among us. What happened to my student all those years ago was little different; a simple declaration of someone’s legal rights was framed by a law enforcement officer as “interference” with that officer’s duties, leading to the student’s arrest and everything he’s had to suffer through in the rest of his life as a result of that arrest, to try to intimidate him into keeping his mouth shut the next time he sees someone he knows interacting with the police, even if only to make a factual statement of legal rights.
While it is heartening that there remains so much vocal opposition to this administration and the daily barrage of cruelty it inflicts (both at home and abroad), the lack of strenuous opposition by the elected Democrats (and their pusillanimous “punditsphere” talking heads) most capable of not just shining a light on the true human cost of these attacks, but also doing everything in their power to put a stop to them, is a damning indictment on the last three decades of neoliberalism. Failure to address systemic bigotry at the heart of entrenched power in this country (in both public and private spheres) has only normalized it, to the point where all these stories of brutality and inhumanity, from our borders to our streets, become background noise to a large number of Americans, even as the parallels to the worst of humanity’s recent history become crystal-clear. The longer Democrats continue to treat these outrages as a mere “difference of opinion,” the more likely it is that the numbers of innocent people mistreated in cages — or behind bars — will continue to swell.
Much has been made of the far-right rallying cry of “lock her up” these past few years, but really, using law enforcement to imprison and destroy the lives of people who don’t meet the definitions of what the most wicked among us is nothing new. If Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or anyone else who shared information about the legal rights people have if ICE knocks on their front doors, gets arrested for allegedly interfering with law enforcement efforts, then none of us has the right to be shocked about it. Even for those of us who aren’t behind bars or inside cages (yet), it’s far too easy for us to stay within the bars and cages that have been erected in our own minds as a result of the mistreatment we’ve received throughout our lives. As long as those with the power to at least try to do something about this continue to treat all this suffering and naked discrimination as some kind of abstract political argument, and not the daily life-and-death struggle it is for the rest of us, then the ranks of those caged by this culture of intimidation — physically or mentally (or both) — will keep getting bigger.