Immigration Enforcement and the Afterlife of the Slave ShipRoundup
tags: racism, immigration
Ryan Fontanilla is a doctoral student in history at Harvard University and served in the United State Coast Guard.
Around midnight in May 2004, somewhere in the Windward Passage, one of the Haitian asylum seekers trapped on the flight deck of the U.S. Coast Guard’s USCGC Gallatin had had enough.
He arose and pointed to the moon, whispering in hushed tones. The rest of the Haitians, asleep or pretending to be asleep, initially took little notice. That changed when he began to scream. The cadence of his words became erratic, furious—insurgent. After ripping his shirt into tatters, he gestured wildly at the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) watchstanders on duty.
I was one of them.
His eyes fixed upon mine. And he slowly advanced toward my position.
I stood fast, enraptured by his lone defiance, his desperate rage. Who could blame him? Confinement on this sunbaked, congested, malodorous flight deck would drive anyone crazy—there were nearly 300 people packed together in a living space approximately 65 feet long and 35 feet wide. We had snatched him and his compatriots from their overloaded sailing vessel back in April. They had endured week after week without news about the status of their asylum claims, about what lay in store for them.
Then I got scared. I considered the distinct possibility that, to this guy, I was no longer me, but a nameless uniform, an avatar of U.S. sovereignty: a body to annihilate, a barrier to freedom. I had rehearsed in my mind how such a contingency might play out. We were armed only with nonlethal weapons—batons and pepper spray. The Haitians outnumbered us 40 to 1. Was I ready? I had never been in a real fight before. Now a few of the Haitian men were standing alert. Were they simply curious? Was this their plan all along? What if the women and children joined them?
Lucky for me, one of the meanest devils on the watch intervened on my behalf. He charged toward us, stepping upon any Haitians who failed to clear a path. After a brief hand-to-hand struggle, he subdued the would-be rebel, hauled him down to the fantail, and slammed his head against the deck. Blood ran from his face. Some of the Haitians congregated on the edge of the flight deck to spectate. We fastened the guy’s wrists with zip ties and ordered the witnesses to disperse. The tension in his body gradually dissipated.
After fifteen minutes, the devil leaned down to him. “Are you done? Done making trouble?” His silence signified compliance.
Soon after, the Haitians were transferred to the custody of the Haitian Coast Guard. When we arrived in the harbor of Port-au-Prince, thick plumes of black smoke rose from the landscape. We were witnessing the aftermath of the CIA-orchestrated February coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the subsequent invasion of the country by U.S. Marines under the auspices of international “peacekeeping.” Haiti was at war.
None of that mattered. Every request for asylum lodged from our boat had been rejected. Every person returned to Haiti. No exceptions.
The Gallatin left the harbor. I said goodbye to Port-au-Prince. My first patrol was over.
Out at sea, I smoked for hours on the fantail, lingering upon my memories of the past months. I tried to imagine how the Haitians would remember their doomed voyage, their detention aboard the Gallatin, their encounters with us—with me. A disquieting intuition repeated in my head: the USCG cutter, the Haitians’ sailing vessel, and European slave ships represented a triad of homologous instances in which people of African descent have suffered involuntary concentration in small spaces upon the Atlantic. I dreaded that I was in closer proximity to the enslavers of the past, and to the cops and jailors of the present, than I ever would be to those Haitians.
So, that night, with the butt of my last cigarette, I committed to cast my memories of the Haitians overboard. In the depths of some unmarked swath of the Windward Passage, I prayed, no one, including me, would ever find them again.
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