Ok, so do you know about active denial technology? Anytime we get hurt, we feel pain, and our first response is to move away from the source of that pain. For instance, if you touch a hot light bulb, it burns your skin. Your body recognizes the pain and causes you to jerk your hand away from the light bulb. This natural reaction is the basis for the U.S. military's new pain beam, which burns the surface of the skin in order to drive away adversaries. Officials say that the "non-lethal" weapon, called active-denial technology, doesn't cause lasting damage to the people hit by it.1
TC wrote to say he was thinking about haibun. About Basho and travel. Journals and road trips. Then he gave out a great big direction, an umbrella, which basically asked us all to write something about what we were doing and where we were being taken over the summer, in thought and in body. Over the summer I was working at my job in the state of well. . . the state of well. . . the state of well. . . . I’m faltering here. I look around at my community, my workplace, the artists’ enclave where I live (complete with the hearts and the passion of the writers and friends who surround me), and I’m happy to be a part of them, our community, here, in the state of well . . . Then I count the close-by instances of violence done to bodies in the name of borders, by the legislature, the governor, by many of our elected officials, the corruption of the private prison industry and its reach into our state government, the loud speech of it all, and I’m sick. I start to choke on the name. I turn back to my friends, the activists around me, and the children and adults with whom I work, and I’m filled with a richness of heart that is every bit as big as the canyons, the mesas, the Sea of Cortez or the deer dancers at Easter. I hesitate because the name of the state sticks in the back of my throat. I’m ashamed when I say it out loud, even though I can exchange the name with those of a number of states in our country. I’m ashamed of living in a place so associated with poverty, squalid funding for education, massacres and genocide, toxic mining, corporate cynicism, as well as the two famous bills of the second session of the 49th Legislature in 2010, and other bills beyond those.
Cecilia Vicuña came to Tucson this last May for the Poetry Off the Page Symposium at the UofA Poetry Center. She and I had the chance to speak toward the end of the conference. She looked at me and in all seriousness said that she thought Tucson was the spiritual center of the world at that moment. Although I was taken aback at the global reach of her words, Cecilia projects such a clear spiritual weight in her being and her work that I believed her. She said we were microcosm of what was happening around the world – that what was happening here, in this state, was a bellwether, and that we must pay attention. And speak.
SB1070, the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, was written by now ousted (by voter recall) State Senator Russell Pearce. When the bill was passed, it was the strictest anti-immigration act in the country (others now equal or go beyond SB1070’s scope). HB2281, a bill written by then Superintendent of Public Instruction (now Attorney General) Tom Horne was designed to shut down the Mexican American Studies program at Tucson High School in the Tucson Unified School District, just a few blocks from where I live. Governor Jan Brewer signed both bills into law.
For some time, I’ve been trying to find a way to write about SB1070 and HB2281. I printed them in full, laid them out, and watched them warily as they created a radioactive fissure on my table. When I got too close, my skin would start to burn like I was being hit with that military pain beam described above. A few years ago, I saw one of those instruments in person while on a tour of Raytheon Missile Systems. The mechanism was mounted on what was referred to as a Vehicle-Mounted Active Denial System (VMADS for short). The active-denial system weapon is designed to transmit a narrow beam of electromagnetic energy to heat the skin without causing any permanent damage. The beam is sent out at the speed of light by a transmitter measuring 10 by 10 feet (3 by 3 meters). An intense burning sensation continues until the transmitter is turned off or the targeted individual moves outside of the beam's range. The exact size and range of the beam is classified, but it is designed for long-range use.2 Our guide informed us that Raytheon sold to government and non-government entities all over the world, including the U.S. He also said that the active denial system could be turned on up to a mile away from a mob. He used the word mob. I wondered how long it would be before mobile VMADS would be used to break up peaceful demonstrations, if they weren’t being used that way already. This was a weapon, not unlike SB1070 or HB2281, designed to enforce colonization and fear.
I thought back to TC’s constraint, his bucket of possibility, and decided to walk into the particular pain beam created by the 49th Legislature. Mostly I needed to see the language of the bills laid bare, exposed to the light. I needed to start deflecting the beam back.
This summer I also traveled to visit friends and family in New York and Paris. My travel dates coincidentally matched up with Pride Weekend in New York and then right after, with the Pride March in Paris. The big issue in Paris was gay marriage. The New York event celebrated the legalization of gay marriage in the state, recently signed into law by Governor Cuomo, who walked at the head of the march down Fifth Avenue. Over the years, I’ve watched the march in New York become less and less political, and more commercial, infiltrated by high-dollar corporate sponsors who actively pinkwash. That being said, the march is still a brilliant opportunity for diverse groups within the community to declare their presence.
Once I returned to Tucson, I started to carve into the texts of SB1070 and HB2281. I also began to examine the photographs I took during my travels, from streets, museums, and from both pride marches. It became clear, almost immediately, that I was looking, on the one hand at the language of fear, claustrophobia, boundaries, fences and borders; and, on the other hand, at the language of protest, flamboyance, defiance, and celebration. I made the decision to bring my images and own texts into the same physical space, on the page, as the language of the bills. Ultimately, I wanted to say, to the language of fear, that one simply cannot eradicate culture, passion, expression, and language with some sort of pain beam, even if it appears in multiples. So here you have my mashup, my travelogue, my haibun – and my attempt to expose and bleach the shit out of (at least) two evil acts.
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Many thanks to TC Tolbert, Afton Wilky and Kristi Maxwell – for their review, their ears, eyes and hearts.