On a recent domestic US flight – from SFO to JFK– federal agents checked every passenger’s identification before allowing them to exit the airplane. They said they were seeking a non-documented immigrant.
People complied. Now, I wasn’t there, so perhaps some of them questioned what was happening, but as far as I know, every person showed their ID. The “immigrant” was not found.
What if every single person on that airplane said as loudly as possible, right to the agents’ faces, “There is no reason for you to ask for identification. There is nothing that compels me to offer you proof of who I am. In solidarity with any immigrants who may or may not be on this airplane, I refuse to comply.”
Imagine it. All it takes is for one person to take a breath and begin.
We can practice saying these words out loud: “I refuse to comply.”
There’s a lot of talk about “resistance” these days. A lot of complaining about the current state of the US government. People are showing up in solidarity: at airports, at courthouses, on the streets, on the plains of North Dakota. However, even if they were only coordinated hours before, these are all planned protests.
Planned protests are good, and are often necessary civic engagement. I support planned protests, and civil disobedience as well.
But I want to talk about what solidarity looks like on the fly.
I want to talk about what is necessary right now –and has been ignored by some of us for too long– which is for all of us to prepare ourselves to be fucking brave in the fucking moment. To not comply with authority in order to better protect those among us who may be at higher risk.
The systems in place? For many of us, they may feel like minor annoyances. Inconveniences. What they really are is part of a machine that is deadly to many communities.
For years, as a frequent business flier, I refused to use the scanners, wanting to make the TSA’s job harder. I was always polite to individual agents, but I did not want to be pleasant to the machine. Finally, after several years of this, one early morning I just could not bear to be groped anymore. So I walked into the scanner and raised my arms.
Lack of solidarity had finally worn me down. That’s what the machine of empire wants.
The only time in the last three years that I refused the scanner was while traveling with a trans friend. The odds of her getting searched no matter what were high, so in solidarity, I submitted to the groping. Too little, for sure. It was an act of good faith, nothing more.
But what if hundreds of thousands of people in the airport said, “No. This is ridiculous. Why are we all under suspicion? We refuse to play your game anymore”? What if one million refused? Three million? What would happen then?
The machine would be given pause.
It would either falter and grind to a halt, or it would turn the crank harder, increasing the threat from inconvenience to actual blatant oppression.
And more of us would see the machine then, for what it really is.
We might see the same oppression that more marginalized people –Black Americans, Mexican Americans, disabled Americans, Native Americans, poor Americans, trans Americans, immigrant Americans– have been telling us for years they have been living, struggling, and far too often, dying under.
The machines so many of us think are there to keep us safe? They aren’t.
They are there to prove their control over us all, to offer some of us perqs and privileges –private property protection is an attractive goad to compliance– and to remind those whom they torture that no one will stand up for them. Ever. That solidarity is a whim at best, and at worst, it is a lie.
Last week, an off duty white police officer assaulted a thirteen year old boy. When the boy’s friends finally tried to intervene, the white man pulled a gun. In the video footage, among the sea of young brown people, it is clear that at least one other white adult male was there, witnessing the scene. He did nothing to help the young teens.
Solidarity requires standing up to people who claim authoritarian control of every kind, most often when it is being used against people who may not look or sound like us. Remember: it is bullying, even when it smiles.
Solidarity requires those of us with any kind of social privilege to stand up for those with less social privilege.
On a train once, there was a friendly, developmentally disabled Black man, singing. At one stop, police came on board and asked him to step off the car.
“Why?” I loudly said, “He wasn’t doing anything!”
Other people chimed in, too, saying similar things.
The police tried to wave us off, and calm us down, meanwhile insisting the man exit the train. I finally stood up, saying loudly to the police, “He wasn’t doing anything wrong!”
Some other passengers stood up, too. Backup. The thing we always hope will happen, but which doesn’t always.
Meanwhile, the man, clearly frightened, was frantically giving a phone number to another person, so she could call his mother and tell her why he wasn’t going to show up. She would worry if he was late. All of us kept repeating, “He didn’t do anything wrong! Leave him alone!”
If the police took this person off the train, they were taking me, too, and maybe some others, and I positioned my body so that this was made clear.
The police finally backed off and left. The doors closed. The train continued on its way.
Solidarity saved that man from who knows what fate.
I’ve heard the personal stories of people falsely accused, dragged from trains, slammed onto platforms, beaten in jails. One man, at least, was saved from that treatment on that one day. He was able to visit his mother instead.
That is what solidarity looks like: a group of random people deciding to say “enough!” to authoritarianism.
A group of random people momentarily suspending their own need for comfort or safety in order to help someone in need. All it took was one person to start it, and for others to feel brave enough to follow through.
If our idea of resistance does not include these common, very tangible, acts of solidarity, I’m not sure what exactly we are resisting.
We are most likely resisting an idea behind computer screens, from the comfort of our homes.
There is a long history of solidarity via direct action. We can take inspiration from the many stories of people who’d had enough.
Let’s learn from the past to build the future.
Let’s use our voices, our bodies, and our minds.
Let’s show up for those who’ve been shouting without enough back up for far too long.
Let’s resist this shit for real.
Author’s note: I mostly write this for the many middle class, able bodied, white people who may be new to the idea of active resistance. Everyone else? I see you. I know you’ve been resisting in a lot of ways, large and small, for a very, very, long time. Thank you.
This is part of a series of recent essays on Resistance and Empire:
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