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NO PERSON IS ILLEGAL

Just back from another late-night visit to the occupation of the Portland ICE building, I’m deeply impressed by how it continues to grow. There must be more than twice as many tents as last night (probably upwards of fifty by now), more people, more food, more signs, including one from which I’ve taken the title of this entry.

 

When I was there earlier in the day, with the temperature at ninety-plus degrees, a local company called 50 Licks was there giving out free ice cream. Businesses and individuals have been donating supplies, from food and water to tents and storage bins. It’s really been a community effort, though of course it’s the people out there day and night who are bearing the burden of this action. A young woman waiting at the truck to get her ice cream turned and said my name. She could no doubt tell from my blank expression that I couldn’t place her, so she said her name and followed up with, “I have pink hair now.”

 

That was it, the hair threw me off. She was a former student, an excellent student and actor who appeared in several plays during her college years. You know how you sometimes run into people with a special gift, something that could almost make you believe in the Platonic idea of the soul’s pre-existence, like maybe she hung out in the spiritual realm and brought something extra divine with her into material existence. But she’s not acting anymore. She sat down while she ate her ice cream and told me about how she’s doing social work, how her radicalization, which started in college, has been developing over the years. She was a part of many social justice movements on campus, and I told her about how she really left a mark, like helping us to bear more fully in mind the crucial importance of diversifying the English Department curriculum. It’s a mark of white privilege that we (those of us who are white) carry it around, often walk in its midst, without even realizing how it’s keeping us from seeing what should be obvious, what is in fact obvious to people experiencing the world from diverse subject positions. It’s a dynamic that she says she’s becoming more aware of, which is crucial to the kind of work she’s devoting herself to. I imagine that she is indeed a divine gift to anyone she works with.

 

Part of the reason that I went back tonight is because radio reports today said the ICE building would remain closed until certain security concerns have been resolved. This sounds to me unmistakably like an impending police action to clear the protesters away; and given my experience with this kind of thing, when the authorities come, they come at night. I just wanted to be there when it might help to have some extra witnesses around. There’s something truly powerful in seeing all those vulnerable bodies camping out in the night, calling to mind the vulnerable bodies fleeing violence and repression, often with little or no knowledge of the language on the other side of the border or even that there are supposed to be official crossing points with official protocols to be followed, as if every refugee crossing the border is doing so with an official guidebook, legal counsel, and support structure to make everything run smoothly. It’s another sign of white privilege to assume that persons crossing the border “illegally” must be doing so for nefarious purposes or out of simple willfulness. It might also be something of white privilege to respond to the separation of children from their parents at the border with cries of “This is not who we are.” Actually, this is who we’ve been for a very long time; one need merely think of the treatment of indigenous peoples and persons brought from Africa as slaves. Perhaps we aspire to be able to say “This is not who we are,” but as an historical observation, it simply won’t hold. We’ll need a lot more divine gifts in the form of good people working for what is right before we can get even close to something like social justice.