A Shuffle That Breaks the Soul

By John H. Richardson
Thursday, May 11, 2006

A bus pulled into the garage of the Tucson courthouse and unloaded about 15 Mexican border crossers, all sweaty and dusty from their failed attempt to cross the desert. The courthouse guards stood in a line across from us. One of them made a joke: "Smells like chicken."

They all laughed.

Then they put on rubber gloves and searched us, patting around our ankles and belts. They put chains around our waists and cuffed our hands to the chains and then cuffed our ankles, too. As they cuffed the ankles of the Mexican man standing next to me, he started to sob. In a firm but gentle voice, the guard cuffing him whispered in Spanish " Calmate " -- be calm -- but the man couldn't control himself and kept on sobbing.

The other guards were not so kind. They gave us hard stares, laughing among themselves.

I was the odd man in the group, a white, middle-class journalist from New York arrested while covering a protest over a lion hunt. But I had to admit there was a certain rough justice to my presence. Every year when the leaves get thick on my lawn, I go down to the day-laborer waiting zone in the next town and hire a few Latino men to help me. I always ask their stories, and they always tell me the same tale of fleeing poverty or political oppression and slipping across the border and living for years away from their families, afraid to go home.

But it had all been abstract until that moment. As the guards herded us into the building, we all quickly learned that the leg chain made it impossible to take a complete stride -- the chain came up short and jerked, cutting the cuff into your ankle. It took only a step or two to learn to shuffle, but something in that awkward shuffle broke the soul. I realized that this is what animals feel like when they are hobbled. Reduced to that helpless crippled motion, they know what it is to be dominated.

That was my tiny glimpse of what the protesters who have been turning out in so many American cities are talking about -- the loss of human dignity. And the loss got deeper with each hobbled shuffle. As the guards herded us toward an elevator, we saw a small wire cage in the back. The formal purpose of the cage was clear, to separate the prisoners from the elevator controls and the guards. But there seemed to be another reason, too. "Pack it in, pack it in, pack it in," the guards said, over and over. Again, it was hard not to feel like so many cattle, and that seemed to be the point. It would have been easy enough to wait for the next elevator.

I knew it wasn't fair to blame the guards. I was the one who summoned men like these to rake my leaves, and the guards were just the working-class guys stuck with the ugly job of "processing" us.

Yet some of those guards went out of their way to make the processing even uglier. As they lined us up against a cinderblock wall in the hallway outside the courthouse, one of the Mexicans turned around to whisper a few words to the man behind him. A guard barked at him, "Do that again and I'll jam your nose in the wall."

There was a love of power in his tone, easy to recognize and hard not to despise. After all, this is the way our government wants it -- the way we want it. The day-laborer waiting zone in the town near mine is a formal one, designated by the town board after much protest and discussion. If we had chosen to levy a $10,000 fine against the homeowners and businesses that hire them instead, there's no doubt what I would have done: hired an expensive lawn service or raked the leaves myself.

Or, more likely, left the lawn a mess.

But that, too, is a simplification. If my town went back to harassing the day laborers by rousting them out of their houses at dawn and trying to close down their restaurants, as it has in the past, my liberal friends and I would be the first to protest. We're also upset to learn that the skilled Italian American stonemasons in the area are getting killed financially by competition from skilled illegal laborers. There seems to be no good answer.

But I do know this: No matter what amnesty may be passed or how high we build the walls, we will always be fighting this dirty little war of attrition against the overflow. As with locking up drug addicts or despising the "reserve army of the unemployed," we need to keep capitalism humming; it seems to be an inevitable cruelty.

That's why it felt so weirdly right to be on that chain gang. As I stood with my nose pressed to the cinderblock wall, I heard one of those tired and dirty men mumble something in a mocking tone about "the land of the free." I didn't hear the whole sentence, just his tone and the words all American citizens consider holy. And I heard what the guard answered:

"You had your freedom in Mexico."

If I couldn't do anything else, I could at least do a little penance.

John H. Richardson is a contributing writer to Esquire and author of "My Father the Spy: An Investigative Memoir."

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