“Blue Nowruz” was edited by Neil Gaiman and commissioned by Chris Anderson, curator of TED. It was performed live at TED on March 18, 2015; and at Arcana Bar and Lounge in Durham on March 31, 2016. Photo by Brad Doherty of The Brownsville Herald.
Deposition to the United Nations Commission on Blue Nowruz.
Name: Nefertery King.
Origin: Brownsville, Texas.
I will tell you, as clearly as I can, what happened the day of the protest.
You know where I got my implant? At the Earring Tree at the mall. You sat down to get your ears pierced and you got the implant for free. They even used the same piercing gun, just a different attachment. I remember thinking it looked like a grain of rice in my arm.
My Mom explained to me that it encoded my name and nationality. That it acted as a passport to wherever I wanted to go in the world. And that only a very few people in the world had the power to cross borders like Americans did. I was four, so I asked what a border was, and she said, “It’s an invisible line that we all agree is real.”
When we got home, she made me watch Barack Obama’s speech at Selma from fifteen years ago. I can’t tell you how many times I watched it in the years after. A hundred or two hundred. He said, the American character is to shake the law until it reflects our inner truth. That that is who we are as a nation. And that became really important to me. As I was growing up, in general, it felt like the world was turning faster and faster, like the international date line was a jump rope that would arrive again even before it left.
And in a world like that, we had to hold on to who we were. That was my American dream: to protect the American dream.
My circuit was twenty miles long, along the river in Brownsville, Texas, where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico. In a typical shift, I’d drive along the border to watch for illegals crossing over, catch them, process them, get them sent back. It bothered me. Personally. Even in my days off I’d park on the access road, and get out, and walk, and look for signs of passage on the river bank, like hairs caught on tree branches, and call it in.
The thing is, I hate lying. I hate it more than anything. We’d apprehend some illegals, knowing there were more in the brush, getting away, and I’d ask, ¿De donde sois? ¿Qué hacéis aquí? And they would lie and lie and lie, giving me one story or another that I knew wasn’t true, oh I got lost, oh I was just fishing, oh no I lost my passport, and I’d feel my chest get tight, because I fucking hate being lied to no matter what the reason. But then we’d take them into custody and process them and that made me feel better.
I loved doing it. Like part of me wanted to be lied to in the first place.
I was really happy when the laser perimeter went up. We had to check it on patrol. There were emitter posts along all two thousand miles of the border. I remember when we first tested it, we were just in awe. If you had the implant, the laser recognized you and let you pass. If you didn’t, the laser changed to excite the iron in your blood, which meant you showed up on sensors like a supernova. We’d drive out. Pick you up. Done. It made our jobs so much easier. It was a big deal, because now border enforcement was near perfect, and not just for us—the technology was about to spread to the rest of the world.
But then there was this protest. Not where I was patrolling on the U.S.-Mexico border, but on the other side of the world. It’s even strange to call it a protest, because it was just a picnic. In the desert between Iran and Iraq, on the Persian new year, hundreds of people put down picnic blankets right on top of the border, and put flowers at each corner of each blanket, and unpacked the traditional Nowruz food, eggs for rebirth and apples for beauty and sprouts for the coming of spring, before the soldiers moved in.
Soldiers from both sides.
All the picnickers were saying to their governments was: This line is imaginary.
And the governments were saying, No, it’s real, and we’re going to redraw it, with your blood.
And so what happened there became known around the world as Red Nowruz.
I didn’t think it would have anything to do with the U.S. But that’s the funny thing about the jump rope world: the movement had already arrived.
Now there were border picnics being planned for all over the planet for the next Nowruz, and the protestors said they had one simple demand to the United Nations: enforce your own Declaration on Human Rights, Article 13: that any human has a right to leave their country and to return. Which means we must open all borders, between all countries, because free movement is a human right.
I felt like, as a border patrol officer, it was part of my job to understand these people. So I stood in front of the mirror and tried to get in their heads. Tried to think like them. Tried to reverse everything I believed just to see how it sounded.
Like, I believed that borders must be respected.
So I’d say aloud, in the mirror, “Borders are arbitrary.”
Or, I believed, Nation states are sovereign.
So I’d say, “Nation states are inventions.”
Or, I believed, Freedom is not free.
So I’d say, “Freedom IS free.”
I sounded ridiculous to myself. Like a child. And so that’s how I came to see the protestors, too, like stupid children. I got really aggressive at work. My walks along the border got longer. It’s like, walking made the border real. My body was real and so I was making the border real with my own body.
The day of the protest, the first picnickers arrived to put down their blankets right at midnight, both on the U.S. and Mexican sides. And the protest wasn’t just happening in Brownsville, it was a continuous line all the way to Tijuana. We’d done special training for it; but so did the protestors, of course, in nonviolent direct action—they took open courseware from Amnesty International. Four million of them. Even if it were just our border, it was going to be the biggest protest in history.
We could see the line of lights on the Mexican side, across the river, which wasn’t very deep because of the drought, maybe a few feet. But nobody was crossing. They were just folks, just picnicking. Some were students from UT-Brownsville and they brought Oreos and Doritos. Then someone backed up a truck and started roasting a whole steer. Other people brought their versions of Persian food, in honor of Red Nowruz, the symbolic eggs and apples and so on. There was music, too. Around one in the morning a man with a guitar went up and down the line playing love songs. At dawn there was a gospel choir from Houston. In the afternoon there was an all-female mariachi band. And everyone kept checking their phones to watch the streams from all over the world. Al Jazeera was on site at the Iran-Iraq border, occupied by ten times the number of people who’d gathered that first time, and instead of Red Nowruz they were now calling it Blue Nowruz, after the app that assigned you a location along your border and made your smartphone pulse blue when you approached it, and then go steady once you were on top of it, and that’s all it did.
Or, that’s what we thought at the time.
One hundred and ninety-six countries in the world. One thousand borders. A picnic on every one. Even the island nations, like Iceland and Jamaica—there were picnics on the beach, with bonfires.
And there’d been no violence. The protestors had explicit instruction not to cross the borders, just to sit next to them, and in every stream you saw, that’s what they were doing.
But beyond them, in the shadows, were the police with guns.
I’d almost gotten through the whole thing, too. I was waiting out the last few minutes, leaning against a palm tree on the access road, with a big crowd of onlookers that had been gathering all day. But at ten to midnight, all the picnickers on both sides of the river stood up. I put my hand on my firearm. They weren’t doing anything threatening. They just stood up and faced the river, with their phones glowing blue, hanging on strings around their necks, so that their hands were free. I didn’t know what was happening. I thought oh, it might be some kind of prayer, like a Muslim prayer, another kind of tribute to those who died on Red Nowruz.
But then they interlocked their hands and started to advance, down the banks, into the river itself. I started to get that feeling, like when I knew I was getting lied to, like my chest was getting tight. They were getting closer to the actual border, they were technically in it, in the river, the real and actual thing, that I spent my life defending, and I heard the bullhorn saying Cease and desist, but I’d already drawn my firearm and was running through the brush right into the river, and pointing my firearm and yelling for them to halt where they were, and I could see some of them looked scared and pulled at their hands, but there were others who kept saying, Don’t break the line, don’t break the line, over and over. The two lines were in the middle of the river now, knee-deep, raising up their arms, and I was almost on them…
And then came the crush from behind.
That crowd on the riverbank? Not just onlookers.
I got pushed forward, I was forced to bend double, my firearm was knocked out of my hand and dropped in the river, and then I was squeezed beneath the archways made by the protestors’ arms, and suspended between the two lines, just for a moment, and it looked like a tunnel of stars, or like being inside the double ropes of Double Dutch when I was a kid, and then I was on the other side, and fell hands-first into the mud, but this one woman pulled me up saying, estás conmigo, hermana, and I ran up the bank with all the other crossers, just running because everyone else was, and stripping off wet clothes, because everyone was wet but no one was cold, into the streets and alleys of Matamoros, the town on the other side, which, despite living within sight of for ten years, I had never set foot in.
I’d never set foot in any other country.
And of course the dirt was still dirt, the birds were still birds, and the stars were the same as before.
A few days later I tried to get a room, but the owner scanned my implant and said it was blank. I said, That’s not possible, I’m American.
Can you believe I didn’t get it, even then?
The protestors had hacked all the borders. Crossing it had erased my implant. I had no nationality.
Most of those who crossed had just done it as a statement. They returned to the U.S. and paid a fine, did some jail time, had their implants reprogrammed.
But some didn’t.
Some ended up in a café in Buenos Aires, where they were picked up by UN Peacekeepers for questioning. And I came with you quietly. And I’ve told you my story honestly. Like I said, I hate lying. The American national character is to shake the law until it reflects our inner truth, right? What if my American dream is the end of America as we know it?
You want to know how I got here, nine thousand miles away, with no identification?