After noise and nonsense from the political right, the President of the United States, had to show his papers. The fact of a black man in the United States having to show his papers is not exceptional. In fact, in the age of the explicit legalization of racial profiling brought on by anti-immigrant bills in the southeast and southwest, the ongoing war against drugs and the rising trend of gang injunctions, this is the norm. People of color have to “prove and show” in order to move and go. The President must know this. He has even had beer with a scholar and a police officer in order to promote goodwill despite the persistence of this norm, which primarily impacts the poor, across class (Skip Gates). The President lives at the top of the south, in Washington, D.C., where my enslaved ancestors obtained or forged passes for a simple trip down the road. The only exceptional thing is that the President is the President. Which was already exceptional before his administration consented to publicly proving his citizenship. Again. The President of the United States, like everyone participates publicly in a shared experience of oppression. The hard place of paper. The reality of administrative violence.
And all over youtube and Facebook and at water coolers and in the taxi cab I rode in this morning, people are talking about it. And people are pissed and are making all of the references that I mentioned above and more. So many of us have personal experiences of paper invalidation: children brutalized by police; the mother who cannot come home from work to breastfeed her child; the brilliant young black man who cannot get financial aid because of a possible violation of probation curfew; transgender folks whose ID does not correctly identify their gender; elders evicted because they haven’t filled out the forms that public housing wants them to fill out.
So in response to the responses I want to offer an example not only of how consistent this act of forced “paper showing” is racism writ large, but also an example of the level of response it deserves–that beyond jokes and shaking heads. If we connect the violence of the president and the millions of people of color racially profiled under the same logic to the use of passes in South Africa to enforce Apartheid, we can not see administrative violence for what it is, but we can imagine a robust and impactful black feminist response to this paper cut violence.
Passes were a key structural technology of South African apartheid. Black and colored people could be asked to show their passes at any time by white South African police. As Alexis DeVeaux reported in her 1983 article “A New Look at Black South Africa,” passes were part of a structure that declared non-white South African children “unnecessary appendages” to their mothers who were conscripted into the domestic labor of reproducing white South African families. These administrative categorizations were used to sort people based on gender, constructed race and occupation. This is how people could be forced away from their families and communities and sorted onto different “homelands” aka “reservations” (to think of this land) aka open air prisons in (to think of Gaza). While black women were exempt from the pass system at first, possibly because of how well they were monitored or how vitally needed they were as domestic workers for whites, in 1956 the pass system was to be expanded to include women.
In August 1956, 20,000 South African women stormed the capital at Pretoria to protest the expansion of the pass system. They brought babies on their backs. They came from all over the country and waited for the Prime Minister J. G. Strijidom to come back to the building and offered thousands voices of protest and the lasting impact of their presences. They chanted the proverb: “You have tampered with the women, you have struck a rock! You have dislodged a boulder. You will be crushed.” Their self-fulfilling, self-affirming prophecy of the end of apartheid was a moment of unforgettable and collective truth-telling. It was the rallying cry fueled by the galvanizing memories of generations of women in the anti-apartheid movement. And in her essay “Apartheid U.S.A.,” Audre Lorde challenged those of us here in the United States who are people of color, oppressed by homophobia and believers in feminism to remember the particular manifestations of our own apartheid.
So where is our boulder? How can we mobilize our collective illegality, transforming our supposed invalidity into a robust and transformative affirmation of our presence? When even the President can be made to show his pass, what are the ways that we can show up, unstoppable, as ourselves, loud and ready to refuse? This is what is happening in Georgia, where immigrants’ rights activists, including undocumented organizers and students, have mobilized huge, diverse and inclusive demonstrations. The dislodged boulder includes students in North Carolina who blatantly risk arrest for speaking against the oppression of undocumented U.S. residents, students in Atlanta who risk arrest for protesting against labor injustice by Sodexo and all of us who know the true value of our presence and the true potential of our collective illegality. But in a time when even the pre-eminent representative of the state is himself showing papers, our transformative performance of what it means to be present, to have more than a right to be where we are, to show up and show out powerfully in our role as troublers of barriers and transformers of the universe, the state cannot be our only target. We cannot continue to reaffirm the existing state as the structure that will validate us, because it will not–as brilliant sistorian and blogger Elle Phd points out in her astute post “Pull Over That Ass is Too Black.”
Obama has not taken the ubiquity of the backlashing Right’s documentation demands as an opportunity to express solidarity with the many undocumented people facing the harsher side of the same logic that compelled him to post the long-form of his birth certificate. We should not follow that example. So where is the boulder of transformative action when racism has struck rock in the hard place of the contemporary moment? I would say that we have the opportunity to show up hard for each other and with our actions demonstrate that every form of interconnected oppression we witness in this moment impacts us directly, cannot be tolerated and stops here. Or in my vernacular: Oh hell no. Now you have dislodged a boulder. Now you have inspired an avalanche of self-affirming communal action. May every piece of paper with the power to invalidate our presence be destroyed.