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Archives: On Trains: to all migrants, past, present, and future

In this guest text, inspired by Miko Revereza's No Data Plan (2019), Keish Kim and angel sutjipto write about the socio-political roles of trains. Excerpted from a forthcoming essay, the text is included in full below, following a contextual introduction from its authors.

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After watching Miko Revereza’s feature film No Data Plan (2019), we felt compelled to examine the socio-political role of trains throughout history as well as its contemporary uses. This is an excerpt from our forthcoming essay, “[A] Migrant Vernacular.” Invigorated by decolonial scholars Eve Tuck and C. Ree’s “A Glossary of Haunting,” we offer a collection of words that haunt our lives as bodies deemed “alien” in the part of Turtle Island called the United States. We write in second person POV because we are tired and traumatized from exposing the vulnerabilities of “I.” When we write “you,” we are addressing readers who are deemed “alien” by centres of empires/nation-states: the [past/present/future] undocumented, the sans-papiers, the stateless, and those who exist in a state of bureaucratic limbo. Simultaneously, “you” haunts. “You” makes the reader uncomfortable. Where are you, the reader, in relation to [A] Migrant Vernacular? We hope this excerpt contributes to a radical and embodied listening practice around narratives of migration.

[A] Migrant Vernacular has also been adapted into a podcast. You can listen to A Revolutionary

Love Letter: To All Migrants Past, Present, and Future on Spotify, Apple Podcast, and Stitchers

and our Instagram handle is: @MigrantLoveLetters

No Data Plan (2019, Miko Revereza)

The 7 train, cutting through Munsee Lenape, Canarsie, and Matinecock lands, rumbles in the distance. Bracketed on both sides by low rise buildings, the 90th Street station stands on an elevated platform. You lean against the weather-worn railing, and look down at the Colombian and Ecuadorian restaurants, the 99 cent stories, and the offices of lawyers and notarios that line Roosevelt Avenue. You push yourself off the railing and step towards the platform to see if the incoming 7 train is local or express. It’s local.

The train roars into the station, rendering its driver and passengers a blur. The gust of air forces you to retreat behind the yellow lines. The sound overwhelms your senses but if you pay attention, you can feel the platform tremble underneath your shoes. The train screeches to a stop, the doors open, and a mass of bodies make their way inside. You find yourself pressed against the closing doors. The train pulls away from the station with a high-pitched whine. Looking back through the oblong shaped windows, you imagine seeing the glass windows of the receding apartment buildings tremble from the noise at all hours of the day.

(Recent research shows that subway workers and commuters are breathing in air pollutants that may aggravate asthma, increase the risk of heart attacks, respiratory conditions, lung cancer, or even lead to premature death.)

Inside the subway car, there is an unspoken acknowledgement: we are all working class people. We are working class people going to work, to school, to church, to visit family, to hang out with our friends. We lug bookbags, suitcases, musical instruments, grocery carts, laundry bags and even coffee tables from Craigslist or IKEA up and down several flights of stairs. Some of us move apartments using the subway. Because if we could afford to take a cab, or hire a rental company, we would have. But we don’t.

As the 7 train snakes its way around Long Island City, we are taunted by rows and rows of empty apartments in whitewashed buildings. (5 Pointz LIC Luxury Apartments AVAILABLE NOW -- starting at $3,000 for a studio.) Your stomach churns. Every day, you witness Black, Brown, Asian, white, disabled, and folks experiencing homelessness walk through the train cars on crutches, or roll-on wheelchairs, shaking their donation cans. More often than not, you see Black and Brown men carrying speakers or guitars, traveling as a group so that they can keep a look out for cops. Their artistry cuts through the cacophony and brings to life culture born out of surviving the Empire State. On days when you are able to give, you give. Sometimes, you shake your head and mutter, “Sorry.” On other days, you sleep right through everything, trusting your muscle memories to wake you up before your stop.

The subway permeates every aspect of our lives on Lenapehoking. Worrying about fare hikes every other year, while service remains abysmal, and our commute grows longer, and longer.

In recent years, you notice the increasing number of people lingering near the turnstiles or the emergency exit door. “Can I get a swipe?” is a familiar refrain. “Yes,” you respond each time, pulling out your unlimited Metrocard from your wallet as the other person moves towards the turnstile. You do not care about the specifics of their situation—where they are going or why—only that you recognize the disproportionate violence people face when they get caught jumping the turnstiles.

Up to $100 fine.

Facing arrest.

(Coalition for the Homeless sued the NYPD in 2020 through a FOIA request for information on how they operationalized the Subway Diversion Project. A program intended to support people experiencing homeless to get into shelters without criminalizing them. Instead, the Coalition says that multiple people received tickets and were even arrested.)

Being brutalized by NYPD.

(You think of Benjamin Marshall, a 15-year-old boy -- a student, a child -- who suffered a concussion at the hands of the NYPD for allegedly failing to pay the $2.75 fare. You are reminded that cops are not workers.)

For you, most days a commute is just a commute. At the most, you are annoyed by minor inconveniences like when A train decides to run on the local track all the way to the Rockaways. You tense when cops enter the subway car, but for the most part, you know that they are going to leave you alone. The fact that you are employed & economically mobile, that you speak English and have some proximity to whiteness, even if you lack U.S. citizenship, protects you from state violence. It is rare for you to fear for your physical safety every time you approach a turnstile or step on the subway platform.

And you recognize the reality that for many people—Black, Brown, Asian, disabled, people experiencing homelessness, and those who engage in forms of labor neither respectable nor taxable—a commute becomes another place where constant vigilance is required to survive. A train ride is not an idyllic passing of time and space but instead, another location where


Colonial, imperial practices intersect with capitalist notions to police whose bodies can exist on a moving train.


Yet another place for—and a type of—fugitivity.

Filmmaker Miko Revereza said in an interview: "On the train, everyone is telling their neighbor their life story. You get to see what modern fugitivism looks like and how mundane it looks…We travel along the same arteries as the constant flow of commodities—countless shipping containers in passing: lumber, coal, corn, rice, french fries, pharmaceuticals, phosphate, gravel, footwear...”

This time, when you buy the Amtrak ticket, you remember recent reports from networks of concerned friends and comrades: Border Patrol agents started to check identifications, again. You remember the Chinese labor running under the tracks of the Transcontinental Railroad. You remember how Chinese im/migrants concocted subversive networks for identifications to make a life in the white settler land; they were called ‘Paper Sons.’ You are reminded, the Homestead Acts stole lands from indigenous people for the railroad tracks to be laid. And today, you worry about your mother taking a cross-country trip from the west coast to the eastern coast of this stolen land for your college graduation. You regret for a moment, attending college so far away.

In February 19, 1942, with Executive Order 9066 signed by FDR, more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes to military barracks, travelling hundreds of miles on trains to camps. In the pictures by Clem Albers, Cold War Politics does a good job to separate U.S. cruelty from the same racist mechanisms that justified all genocide that happened before. Even just two months before this photo, Nazi leadership under the guise of resettlement and “deportation,” filled their freight trains en route to “killing centers” via the European rail system.

(Photo by Clem Albers dated April 1st, 1942, with inscription, “Los Angeles-Japanese leaving” you see hundreds of civilians with luggage approaching the cargo train SP6028.)
Photo by Clem Albers dated April 5th, 1942, with inscription: Santa Anita, B-414, Japanese Arrival From San Pedro. You see civilians lined up by the train and military personnel wearing metal helmets and holding guns.)

You wonder about the list of items inside those shipping containers that Revereza listed: for the lumber, coal, corn. Who tended the lands before extraction / and who works the land / under whose command / whose labor is exploited / whose temporary work visa expired / who is standing in front of the hot boiling oil making the french fries / timing between the frozen chicken patties while the children at home anxiously wait for dinner / who is skipping a trip to the doctor’s because insulin prices went up again / how many overtime hours go unacknowledged / for the im/migrant seamstresses working on a shipment deadline / and which parts of the electrical boards came from China or Tijuana?

The dispossessed gains yet another name with the refusal to comply. The fugitive. The criminal. The illegal alien. You wonder if this is what modern fugitivism looks like, and how mundane it is. It’s almost as if we are all tangled in this elaborate web -- one that shape shifts as it stretches across time and space to ensnare the bodies of Black, Brown, Asian, disabled, formerly incarcerated, and people who are experiencing homelessness.

Dear reader,

Whose face are you imagining right now?

Do you see your own face reflected to you?

Can you see how these forms of state-sanctioned violence that you once thought you were

protected from will eventually find its way to you?

- Keish Kim and angel sutjipto

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