What It’s Like to Go Through a Papers Checkpoint in America

Things look like they’re getting better in Ferguson now that the highway patrol have taken the lead in the area.

Yesterday I wrote in passing about the papers checks that used to happen on a semi-regular basis outside my old neighborhood in Hawthorne. I realized as the day went on that I never really talked about them. In fact, I think that yesterday was the first time I’ve ever even mentioned it. I’m not sure why. Maybe I wanted to wait until I moved away, which I have done. So, without further ado….

The first time I got caught in a papers checkpoint I was leaving my majority Black and Latino neighborhood going north into LA to go to work. It was a total surprise, and at first I was really confused as to why there was a drunk driving check at eight in the morning. I was even more confused as to why a gardening truck was pulled off in the area where they usually keep the people who don’t pass the sobriety test. When every single person on the curb was a Latino, I started to get a feeling that this was definitely not about booze.

When I got to the officer at the front of the line, he asked me for my driver’s license, which I showed him, and he waved me through. I still didn’t get it. I assumed that they were looking for one person, and that all the streets in a certain area were blocked off. I was prepared to believe that the officers of my neighborhood had our best interests at heart, and that they were actually doing something to help and protect us. After everything I know about the police. I am some kind of moron.

The second time it happened, I figured it out. Years before, I’d neglected a traffic ticket, and I had to go to court for it. There was actually an entire Spanish speaking section of courtroom, and the majority of the cases I heard in the hour I was waiting for my case were for Spanish speakers being ticketed for driving without a license. My brain finally brought all this together when I saw the telltale traffic cone and line of detained people of color configuration ahead of me in the road.

In California, you need proof of citizenship in order to get a driver’s license. Undocumented workers don’t have that, so end up driving without a license. Since an officer can’t know whether or not a person has a license just by looking at them, they’d have to racially profile them, or catch them in a massive sweep like the one I found myself in at that moment. Therefore, this license check was probably what created the Spanish speaking section of night traffic court. And it’s the racial profiling equivalent of net fishing. Just post up outside the barrio and stop every person that tries to leave.

And at 8 a.m., where the fuck are we all going except to work? So you’re pulling people out of their jobs in order to prosecute them for their lack of documentation. Excellent idea. My neighborhood feels safer already. Now half my neighbors are sure as fuck never going to call the cops for any reason ever, and the other half are missing because they tried to go to work this morning.

When I got up to the front of the line, I already had my license out for the officer waiving people through.

“What’s this about?” I asked. I tried to keep the cunt from my voice. It’s not like this was his idea, after all.

He didn’t answer me. Just waived me through after verifying my legitimacy. That being the extent of my bravery in the face of an armed white dude, I dutifully made my way (late) to my office. I called MALDEF. Nobody answered, so I left a message. About six months after that, they called me asking for money. So that’s nice. After that, I just went through them. Because what the fuck am I going to do? There’s two swat vans and 20-odd armed men. I’m a lot of things, but I’m no fool.

People act like mandatory checkpoints aren’t something that happens here. I know that the checkpoints happening in Gaza right now are a way different breed than the ones I got caught in. But it feels suspiciously like I got to see something, by virtue of my slumming it in the ghetto for a few years that others of my social circles will never even hear about. Which is why I’m writing this.

Yesterday I said that 911 doesn’t respond for ghetto people, they respond to ghetto people. The fact that the Hawthorne police thought it would be perfectly acceptable to block the only major street in and out of my neighborhood and pick though me and my neighbors like chicken wings at the Sizzlers buffet means that they had absolutely no interest in our health and welfare. Our own police force saw us, the citizens of their city, as nothing but product. Ghetto police aren’t there to keep us safe. They’re there to keep us in. In compliance, in jail, in fear.