I leaned back into the warm water of the outdoor hot tub as my friends laughed and chatted; raising my arm up into the chilly November air, I watched as steam wreathed up from my skin. The stars shone dimly overhead in the clear sky, though the nearby city lights tried to drown them out. Cassiopeia gazed down from her sparkling throne, and the Big Bear hid behind the trees. The Little Bear and Draco were not bright enough to see, but the Pleiades huddled together on the shoulder of Taurus. The Bull’s red eye glared sullenly, waiting for Orion and his Big Dog to rise.
Meanwhile, the other half of our group of friends warmed their hands around the bonfire that was crackling merrily in the dark. I turned to rest my chin on the rim of the hot tub, letting my eyes lose their focus as I basked in the yellow glow and pungent smoke.
My mind turned to the last time I was in a hot tub.
It, too, was with a group of friends in a dark backyard. But in my memory it was the first night of August, and I was in the desert in Phoenix. I remember smoke that night, too, though it came from cigarettes, and not a bonfire. Rather than getting the hot tub up to temperature, we had taken the lid off some hours ago to wait for it to cool off enough that we could get in.
It was my third night after being released from the Maricopa County 4th Avenue Jail. The little four-year-old boy who had been healing my aching heart with his hugs was safely tucked into bed; the grownups were taking advantage of the unseasonably “cool” evening by relaxing in the tub. The stars were partially obscured by monsoon clouds that night; the lights of Phoenix reflected off their undersides, turning them grey and pink.
As we sat and relaxed and talked and laughed, I looked up at the sound of a helicopter. It was slowly flying over the neighborhood, sweeping the backyards with a searchlight. None of my companions looked up.
“Is something going on?” I asked. “Are they searching for a missing person?” I hoped not; there had been enough activity going on over the last couple of days.
“Oh, they do this every night,” my friend said.
“Over where that helicopter is, there are a lot of Hispanic families that live there. They’re doing overhead sweeps to discourage them from smuggling their friends in from Mexico.”
“But I can’t imagine that would actually work,” I protested.
My friend shrugged. “It probably doesn’t. But it gives the citizens of Arizona—the white citizens, that is—a nice visual reassurance that they’re being kept ‘safe’ from the immigrant community.”
The conversation turned to other things; I sat there, appalled that people’s irrational fear of immigrants in Arizona was so rampant that they would condone late-night helicopter sweeps of their own back yards. I tried to imagine the police searching the back yards of the small Wisconsin suburb in which I’d grown up, and I could easily see the uproar that would happen as the citizens protested the violation of their privacy—letters to the editor, yard signs, buttons, fliers. It would have been brought up at the city council meetings; the police chief would have been interviewed and questioned and probably raked across the coals for this nightly violation.
Yet there in the dark of Phoenix, my companions didn’t even look up as the helicopter swept back and forth. It wasn’t that they approved; after all, these were the friends that had also just been released from jail after protesting the anti-immigration laws that had gone into effect three days previously. No, they definitely didn’t approve. They had just been living with this racial profiling for so many days, weeks, years that it didn’t shock them anymore.
Tonight, as I sat in the hot tub with a different group of friends here in Minnesota, I wondered what their reaction would have been to the throbbing pulse of a law enforcement helicopter breaking up the quiet night, shining a light around the darkened neighborhood, ostensibly for their own good, because they needed protection from a mysterious and threatening “other.”
I wonder what they would have done. I wonder what any of us would have done.
So on this quiet evening of warmth and friendship and camaraderie, I was aware all over again of my own privilege and the assumptions that are so easy to make about the world in which we all try to survive.