It waits in the line in which you are standing. Is it silent? Is it slow? Are you thinking hard about what you are going to say? How many questions will you need to answer correctly to gain entrance?
Where I grew up, the bottom of my street ran down to the River Foyle. On the other side was the Republic of Ireland. I could see it, just across the water. I have been crossing borders all my life. I’m not sure how old I was when I first realised that the practice of drawing lines on maps is not only used to cause confusion, wage war, and exert control, but also to divide communities, homes, farms, families, and cultures. Drawing lines has long been part of the British imperial arsenal. We see the outworking of a number of these borders in Sri Lanka, India, the Middle East, and here on the island of Ireland.
When I think of the Last Years of Empire, I see myself again at the river’s edge, looking across from my home to my aspirations of what Ireland will be like when that line has been removed. Derry City in the North of Ireland sits on the British-controlled side of that line, a border which runs for a couple of hundred miles through and around six counties.
I cross that manmade border a number of times each week. Sometimes for work, sometimes to see family, who live on both sides. We are now at the point where the city of Derry overlaps this line, you can walk between both without knowing, only the traffic signs notify you that something has changed. And even that was hard won. That’s where I live, at the edge of the British Empire. My eyes fixed on a future free of this 800-year nightmare that has consistently delivered misery and suffering to most of the people on this island.
As a child and young adult, I would drive into this large military facility at the border crossing were my father would routinely be questioned. Always the same questions. The same questions I would face as an adult crossing borders around the world years later: What is your name? Address? Where are you coming from? Where are you going? What were you doing there? Who were you with? This is part of the daily ritual that people living within the empire—and for the millions of people who live along these lines—must deal with day in and day out in their own homeland.
My father never said much when we would be pulled in to be searched by the police and army. He would hand over his ID, answer their questions with a simple yes or no. My father was an Irish Republican. He never said much about it, but later when I became more familiar with the coded language that people here use, I realised it was all there. His disdain for the empire, its police, and its army. I’m not sure how he felt about armed Republicanism, but that’s another story.
After the formulation of the Good Friday agreement in the late ’90s and the ending of a decades-long military campaign by the Irish Republican Army, the normalisation of peace here in the northeastern corner of this little island meant that crossing the border became something that was only noticeable by someone saying, That’s us now. Or, We are in the Republic. Through great struggle, people here now see a clearer, peaceful path to ending the hold that Great Britain has exerted upon us. I wonder how today’s young adults would have coped with the hassle of life here in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.
Brexit has been the red flag of late, with the consequence being that UK’s only contested land border with the European Union is now once again across the island of Ireland. No one wants a return to the old days of armed men in uniforms asking invasive questions, well maybe not everyone. It seems there are more than a few who remain loyal to overlords, and who would love nothing more a return to the dark days of our past. So, the conclusion has been to put the border in the Irish sea, where many feel it belongs, but this is not good enough for the small group of unionists who see it as another step towards the unification of the island, and so refuse to take part in the shared government (it’s funny that this is also the first time that they are no longer the majority).
Throughout my life I have stood on and crossed those lines. I’ve walked, bused, driven, and flown over many borders and even been arrested at a couple. I will never forget the checkpoints between Derry and Donegal or Tyrone and Monaghan. I pass the spot just outside Aughnacloy, where young Aidan McAnespie was shot in the back and murdered by a British solider in 1988 just for being on the border. I see the same people working along that thin line, stopping people, interrogating their business, their movements, their intentions—stationed there to maintain the divisive stranglehold of Empire.
I have always felt the importance of that line on the map, as palpably as you could feel the release after crossing.
We are being watched. I don’t know from where, but eyes are on us. Maybe that’s just the feeling I get whenever I come into contact with the “authorities.” The feeling that you are not part of the state or country where you live. Crossing a line, any line between counties, between communities, class, the line that they believe they must defend.
The sun couldn’t have gotten any hotter. We’d been driving off the main road for about five miles away and kept going until we could go no further. At the end of the road, I stepped out of the air-conditioned car to face the largest wall I’d ever seen. It stretched on forever, its massive metal rods casting an enormous shadow in the dust and sand. Everything else was baked white in the desert sun.
Two faces appeared between the bars, children living a stone’s throw away in Ciudad Juarez. We had been speaking with them for a little over ten minutes, when a border patrol truck pulled up a few meters away. How they knew we were there was beyond me, I hadn’t seen any cameras on the road. But there ye go…
They asked me the same questions I’ve been answering all my life: Name? Where are you from? What are you doing here? And as always, I played dumb and nice. I stood so they could see my hands, I answered their questions. I could see the confusion in their eyes: What’s this Irish fella doing in the middle of the desert looking at a fence? I explained where I’m from, that I have family nearby, and I wanted to see the wall that President Trump built. Just saying his name politely reassured the border cops that I’m one of the Good Guys.
They hung about for a while and then cleared off. Like a scene from an old western, I watched the dust rise and fall as they disappeared on the horizon, wondering if my skin was darker would the result have been different.
Later that day, we crossed the border and drove back out into the Chihuahua desert, miles and miles across the sun-bleached sand. Walking along the Mexican side of the border wall, we came upon a graveyard of empty water bottles, tattered clothes, and children’s toys scattered in the desert. That close to the Rio Grande and El Paso, they must have seen the lights of a new life. I find it hard to keep my shit together, the tattered clothes and toys slowly being eaten by the sand, slowly disappearing like the people who carried them. I walk away from the group and cry; my tears won’t help anyone.
As I walked with the others (Mike Ryan, Michael Marinez, Sidd Joag, and the our local hosts, Monica Lozano, Iris Morales, Mabel Weber, Adriana Alvarez) back across the border crossing at El Paso in the blistering heat, I couldn’t help but notice the look of faces struggling to get by, fighting for the right to be seen and heard, not left at the border to die. As I walked with them I saw firsthand the inhumane way they are treated at the borders, at shopping malls, in stores, by good God-fearing Christians, by well-armed White people, by the police, by the State. I’ve seen that look before on the faces that surround me every day in Derry.
The next day we made pilgrimage to a Walmart in El Paso where 23 people were gunned down by a White supremacist who espoused Great Replacement theory and was emboldened by the vitriol of hate-mongers like Mr Dump.
About a mile outside of San Antonio, we walked along the Wall of Crosses, 53 people left to die in a shipping container abandoned on a service road just south of this beautiful city on the 27th of June 2022. I wonder where the Civil Rights Movement went: Did it die on a deserted road in the blistering sun or is it with the Christians, hiding with thoughts and prayers in air-conditioned churches?
As the plane took off from El Paso International Airport, I looked out the window to see where I’d been from the air, and even from the sky it’s clear where the border is.
It’s hard to keep moving forward in a world that seems to be falling apart. Throughout my life I have witnessed horrific acts of brutality. I’ve lost family and friends in the conflict that surrounded me growing up. I’ve seen the people who are there to protect, kill.
Some of the things I’ve begun to understand during a lifetime of border crossings have saddened me to the core. I have felt helpless, powerless, and worse. I have tried to close my eyes to many of the injustices I have seen. I have turned my back and walked away on people who are my own. Maybe to protect myself because I knew there was nothing I could do. And it’s more than simple altruism, pretending that people are fundamentally good or things will always get better. It’s the “doing” that makes a difference. The tending of a garden, supporting a friend, making art, singing, dancing, acknowledging the value of life in all its forms. Enjoying the life you have, sharing that enjoyment with the people around you. The very act of living has become an act of defiance. But I remember: Some people stand up, fight back. They are the people often discredited as in the news as “terrorists, rapists, and drug dealers.”
Standing in the sun, I was reminded of the stories of the coffin ships and the thousands and thousands of poor Irish who almost made it across the ocean. Like these poor souls, they paid for the chance of a better life with their lives. My people have wilted in the shadow of the Empire. While in the U.S., if you are a person of colour—any colour but White—you are rendered invisible.
It’s the same road that runs across every border, but the traffic is not always going in the direction you want it to. And you are not always travelling in the direction you want. Whether standing on a shore, a bus stop, an airport or a train station….
That’s how we find out who has privilege. If you have never noticed, you are that privilege.