In Nogales Sonora I met a man who had just been deported from the United States. Before his deportation he was held in solitary confinement for three months. He was arrested after the van he was traveling in was rammed off a cliff by Border Patrol agents in the hills of the Sonoran desert, in southern Arizona. The van rolled down the side of the cliff and six of its passengers were killed. 15 people survived the crash, all of whom were arrested and taken into border patrol custody. The man I met had also been held in solitary confinement up until his deportation – a period of three months. He told me that another man arrested with him was stiill being held in solitary after being accused of being a guide for the group.
The man I met insisted that the man still in solitary was not a guide, that he had been framed. Quite frankly I don’t care. Whether or not he was guilty of the crime of transporting “illegal aliens” is entirely irrelevant. The fact is, he witnessed the brutal murder of six human beings by the US Border Patrol, and for this he was placed in solitary confinement.
As prisoners across California go on hunger strike to protest brutal prison conditions, their loudest demand is the abolition of solitary confinement. The hunger strikers have pointed out that solitary confinement is a form of torture. The case of the man in Nogales reminds me that this torture is not arbitrary – on the contrary, it is pointed and tactical. This man was held in solitary to be silenced – so that he could not share the horrors he had witnessed at the hands of the state. Isolated from the world, branded a criminal and then deported – who would ever hear his story? And even if they did, who would believe him?
The murder of six human beings by US Border Patrol in a van in the Sonoran Desert three months ago will probably never be reported in the mainstream media. After all, who would believe a “criminal,” an “illegal alien” and a “smuggler”? In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, the hypocrisy of these objections is astounding. The racist US criminal “justice” system has ruled that a vigilante who murderer a Black teenager needs hardly any corroboration when recounting the scenario that led to Trayvon Martin’s death, yet the testimony of a “criminal illegal alien” does not even merit a news report, let alone an investigation. Lost in the hills of the Sonoran Desert, the bodies will probably never be recovered. If they are found they will simply be added to the list of the anonymous dead, who number in the thousands since US free trade and border militarization policies have forced millions across this deadly desert.
Solitary confinement was one tool used to cover up this murder. Isolation was used to prevent the spread of information, to inhibit support and solidarity among the incarcerated. This is the same function solitary confinement serves everywhere. Solitary confinement seeks to isolate prisoners, to individualize their experiences, stifle their communications and prevent them from organizing to resist the injustices they experience together.
Criminalization was the broader strategy of the cover up. By branding the witnesses “smugglers,” “criminals” and “illegal aliens” their testimony was discredited. How many other abuses have been covered up this way? It is common knowledge that when a prisoner is assaulted by a guard, the prisoner is immediately charged with “assault on an officer.” This Orwellian reversal protects the guard from repercussions for the violence he or she has committed. Once charged with “assault on an officer” the prisoner is usually put in solitary confinement. This is what happened to Occupy Oakland activist Marcel Johnson, currently incarcerated in San Quentin after he was assaulted by officers in Santa Rita Jail following his arrest at an Occupy demonstration. It has happened to countless others. And when it is the word of a police officer or Border Patrol agent verses the word of a “criminal,” well, there is little question who will be believed.
Solitary confinement is not only a violation of human rights. It is a tool of political warfare, a weapon in the arsenal of criminalization tactics used by the US government in its war on Black and Brown communities. By branding Black and Brown bodies as “criminals” the United States justifies its violence against them, perpetuating a racist system of neo-slavery and institutional White supremacy. Black and Brown bodies are warehoused in prisons for the profit of private prison companies. US free trade policies devastate the economies of Latin American countries, whose inhabitants are forced to cross a deadly desert to work for subhuman wages in the United States, only to be branded “criminals” and deported. At every turn Black and Brown bodies are subjected to violence and dehumanization, justified through a narrative of “law and order” and enforced through the tactics of criminalization, incarceration and solitary confinement.
Writing from a migrant resource center in Nogales Sonora, where dozens of recently deported “illegal” migrants pass every day, I can’t help but think about how their status as “illegal aliens” automatically excludes them from even the pretense of justice in the United States. Their very existence in the US is a crime. And in a country where one in three Black men can expect to be incarcerated, the message is clear. To be Black or Brown in the United States is to be a criminal.
The recent verdict acquitting George Zimmerman confirmed for the world what too many Black folk already knew – that being Black in the United States means you can be murdered with impunity. The case of six murdered migrants in the Sonoran Desert confirms what too many latin@s already knew – that to be latin@ without papers crossing the border means you can be murdered not only with impunity but with total anonymity. As a “criminal” your death is not even worth mentioning in the paper. The only names that make the papers are the ones that cannot possibly be criminalized no matter how the police, media and courts try – the perfect innocent victims. As for the rest of them, the “criminals,” well, their names will never be heard on the news.
Tonight as I keep Trayvon in my prayers, I also remember all the so-called “criminals” whose names will never make the papers – whose lives have been deemed so worthless by our racist society that we will never know their names. May they rest in power.