1. One of the strong memories from my early childhood is waiting for hours in an extremely long line at the visa office. We were going from England to visit my Auntie Marion in Paris, and my mother, a Trinidadian citizen, needed a visa to travel. My father, a British citizen, did not.

I do not know why that memory stuck so strongly in my head—the line must have been extraordinarily long with all the other Black and brown people, former colonial citizens, who had to get permission to travel. That impression from my childhood reminds me that even before I understood or could articulate racism, colonialism, and injustice, I was shaped by these experiences. Why could my dad go to most countries around the world without thinking while my mother had to be approved?

2. Winnipeg. I am in junior high, walking to a friend’s house, when a cop stops and questions me. It is summer vacation, and we are young enough still for long, idle, endless days. The interaction isn’t hostile, but he wants to know who I am and where I am going. It is only much later, as an adult, that I see the interaction through his eyes, realize he saw a brown kid, maybe Indigenous, walking through a nice, white neighbourhood, so he stopped to check it out.

3. Halifax. Also summer. I like to run at night. I read a study once that said our eyes perceive distances differently in the dark, so we feel like we are moving faster. At night, I feel strong and swift. Night coming tenderly / Black like me, Langston Hughes wrote. I like to run up the hill, a steep rise from the ocean, a stony beach, the moon over the water.

My partner, a Black man, does not like me to run at night. I live in the South End, and he points to the constant reports of street watchers and flashers on the streets by the university. He insists on coming with me, but he’s not a runner. Instead, he waits at the bottom of the hill, playing on his phone, while I run up and down.

Too often, I have to run back because the police come. White students like to smoke weed by the water or at the picnic tables at the top by the bridge over the railroad tracks, but the cops aren’t there for them.

Instead, they stop Reed, question him about what he’s doing standing around. I run back, hoping my lighter skin does the trick, the proof of his story that he’s only watching for me, just trying to keep me safe.

4. Night, same hill. It’s my favourite hill. We drive there after the radio show, before we go home, and Reed sits in the car. A white woman comes out with a flashlight, shines it aggressively at the sign saying the beach closes at 10:00 p.m. We are not parked by the beach.

I’m running back to the car, and I stand there and just look at her. I get in the car, and we drive away. I wonder if she listens to cbc, hears me on it sometimes, welcomes my voice into her house when I’m not a brown figure lurking outside her door.

In the car, to Reed, I say, “Lady, streets don’t close.”

5. Dalhousie University. I have marking to finish, and I left the papers in my office. The building is changing the access system, so new faculty are told we won’t be issued access cards since they’ll be expiring soon anyway. Instead, if we need to be in the building after hours, we can just show our id to security and they’ll let us in.

When I go to security, he refuses to believe I’m faculty. I show him my key and id. They don’t want you up there, he tells me. I say I’m pretty sure my department head does want me to finish my marking. He keeps repeating, if they wanted you up there, they’d have given you a card. He won’t let me in.

Black faculty all have stories of working in their offices and having security ask them to identify themselves, as if they broke into the building and paused a minute while stealing to turn on the computer, type some words, read a book.

6. I’m travelling by bus from Winnipeg to Minneapolis to watch a gymnastics competition with friends. At the border, the guards pull me and the Indigenous guy off the bus. He’s been telling me about how he was adopted by a white family in Florida, but he’s trying to reconnect with his family in Winnipeg.

The border guard searches my bag. I have some books in there about critical race theory. He eyes them skeptically, questions me about them. I am acutely aware of all the stories about how people reading political books can be labelled terrorists. I quickly explain I’m a graduate student. “Prove it,” he tells me. I’m on vacation, I’m not carrying my student id card with me. I scramble to think how, other than the fact I travel with books of theory, I can prove I’m a student. I can give you my student id and password, I offer. You can log into the university system. “Why would I do that,” he counters. I’m trying not to be argumentative, but I can’t help but notice the computer’s right there, and how else am I supposed to support my identity. Start quoting medieval poetry?

Eventually, after about an hour, he lets me back on the bus. The white passengers glare at me and the Indigenous man for delaying their trip. This is the same border where, more remote from the checkpoint, African refugees will struggle through chest-deep snow and frigid winter weather to escape the Trump regime. The news will show images of frostbitten hands, all the fingers lost. My sister, a defence lawyer who volunteers to provide services at the border, says when she goes down there she hears stories about how the locals lock their barns to prevent the migrants from coming in to keep warm.

Abolitionist Intimacies, published November, 2022 by Fernwood Publishing.

7. I’m coming back from a poetry festival in Trinidad. When I get off the plane in Canada, as I’m collecting my bag, the phone rings. It’s prison, so I pick up. I say briefly, I’m just about to go through customs, I can’t talk, call me back later.

Taking the call right after landing might have been a bad idea. First, I get questioned in customs. How long was I visiting, where did I stay, what was I doing. I explain I was doing poetry and visiting family. It’s not good enough. I get pulled into a search. They x-ray my bags, remove everything, spreading my dirty underwear out. I try to stay calm and pleasant. The officer asks to see my phone. I’m not sure that’s legal, but I hand it over. I want to get out of here.

Finally, he lets me through. He tells me just in case I was wondering, they were looking for imported food. I know you can’t hide food in the handle of your suitcase. I’m a young woman, travelling alone, returning after a short stay in the Caribbean. They’ve profiled me; I could be muling drugs.

8. I pick a woman up from jail, and I need to get her on the bus to a rehab centre in Cape Breton. She says she wants to go home first to pick up her clothes. I’m worried if we wait too long, she won’t go, so I’m trying to keep the timeline short. Reed is driving. We drop her off, drive to Tims, sit around for a while, come back. She’s still not ready. We sit in a church parking lot across from the house. It’s obvious the place she’s staying is a drug house, and Reed is antsy waiting outside.

Sure enough, the police pull up, ask for our id. Reed is silent. I do the talking, explain I’m a volunteer with the Elizabeth Fry Society, I support women in the community, she’ll be out any minute. The cops seem kind of sheepish. They explain the pastor of the church called them. It remains unsaid, but it’s obvious he saw two Black people in his parking lot. We’ve just watched a bunch of white people go in and out of the house with no police presence at all.

The police drive away, but our information is still in the system. Reed is livid. When I get stopped next and it says I was sitting outside a drug house, what do you think happens to me then, he rages. If we ever get shot or go missing, I guess it will say we are “known to police,” and “frequented high crime and drug areas.”

9. You learn how to get through all the security and searches efficiently at the prison. Don’t wear jewellery, or take it off before you go in. You learn the dress code and avoid layers, short sleeves, skirts above the knee, hoodies, sweaters with pockets, leggings, perfume, open-toed shoes. However long it takes to get through the search, all that time comes out of visiting hours. If there’s a lot of people, they might do it in waves, and you can lose an hour.

Every prison is different. Some, if you get there early, they let you wait inside. As a bonus, then you’re first in line. Some make you go back and wait in the car and only come in fifteen minutes before. Some don’t let you sit in the parking lot at all, and you have to go wait at Tims. At certain times, the Tims in Springhill is always full of families and young women headed toward the prison.

Also, the advice from visitors is to avoid pumping gas and wearing hand sanitizer so you don’t hit on the scanner. Someone tells me an Elder once hit for road salt and she couldn’t come in for months. Stay away from any friends who smoke weed in case something gets on your coat, although the scanners aren’t great at detecting it anyway. Basically, touch as little as possible on your way up.

Scanners have a huge false positive rate, but it’s not like you’re going to be quoting studies at the guards when they’re charging you with importing contraband. Smile, keep your mouth shut, joke with the guards who like to joke, look happy. Once you get through the metal detector and the scanner, then the clothes check, you either stand in a line or sit in a line of chairs, and the dog comes out to sniff you. If he sits down, you’re fucked.

I read a story about how drug-sniffing dogs eventually get addicted and they have to retire them. The dogs are depressed when they’re not working so they sometimes pretend with them that they’re sniffing people, let them think they’re helping out. It’s like the dogs are institutionalized, too.

10. I know the Telmate script by heart by now. Telmate is a US-based company that has the contracts on the phones in Nova Scotia prisons. One of the points they sell to contractors is their surveillance capabilities over calls. They actually pay the province for the privilege of running the phone system; their profits come from the predatory fees they charge prisoners for calls.

The script always tells you, “This call is subject to recording and monitoring.” At visits in the jail, they have up notices informing you the area is recorded and under surveillance. In federal, where there are touch visits and not phones behind glass, the tables are clear so the guards can see your hands, and they embed recording devices into the metal legs. Still, people forget they’re being recorded all the time. It’s best not to talk about anything that could be remotely interpreted as any kind of admission of guilt, intent to commit a crime, conspiracy to bring in contraband, or any other threat to security. Like, if you have a cold, don’t talk about how you’re drugged up right now. Just be paranoid and careful.

11. Every year we protest the Halifax International Security Forum, and depending on the guests, the level of security can be intense. Some years, there’s snipers on the roof. The year of Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli defence minister was there, and the Palestinians came out in force. When the protest started, the barricades went up all around us. One year, while I’m poet laureate of Halifax, I’m at the city’s volunteer awards lunch before going to the protest. The mayor has just come from the Forum, and he talks about how the delegates are so amazed they can walk around Halifax without being recognized, without huge security entourages. He jokes about coming outside to people yelling about warmongers. I’m about to go yell at some warmongers, who can walk around freely in the city we live in while we are forced behind steel barriers.

12. Yet again, I don’t get the job, and yet again, I’m lying in bed, depressed and crying, when the call goes out. The Grandmothers by the river have been arrested. For three years, they’ve been protecting the water from Alton Gas, building a Treaty Truckhouse, and sitting in ceremony at the sacred fire. In the morning, people drove out to the Alton Gas protest site, but the police blocked the roads. Women carrying medicine couldn’t get through and neither could the media. Now there’s a call to meet the Grandmothers — Darlene Gilbert (Thunderbird Swooping Down Woman), Madonna Bernard (Kukuwes Wowkis) and Paula Isaac (Kiju Muin) — at the courthouse.

When I get the call, I get up, wash my face, and we head out. I think of the line in Virginia Woolf ’s To the Lighthouse. Here I am again. Awake.

This is an excerpt from El Jones’ new book Abolitionist Intimacies, out November 2 from Fernwood Publishing.

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