Papers, Please?

Posted by WiredSisters on April 14th, 2014 filed in Anarchism, Law, News and Commentary


The idea of a required national identification paper makes many Americans squeamish.  It calls to mind the infamous passes of apartheid South Africa, and the internal passports of the Soviet Union (and their predecessors of Czarist Russia.)  But the one thing worse than being required to carry such a document is being required to carry one and not being able to get it. Or, at any rate, not being able to get an identification document that will satisfy a particular official or private inspector.  When I was in college, I went home with my roommate to New York for spring break.  Back then the legal drinking age in NY was 18, although it was 21 in Massachusetts where I went to college.  I had a perfectly valid learner’s permit indicating I was 19, and kind of looked forward to being able to finally get a legal drink over the break.  But the tavernkeeper in Albany looked at my Florida learner’s permit and shook his head.  “Can’t take this,” he said.  “It’s from out of state.”  And then made all of us leave, including my roommate and her friends, who were also over 18 and could prove it.  It did not occur to any of us until later that his decision might possibly have been influenced by the fact that one of those friends was African-American.  More recently, there are now states that will accept a Firearm Owner’s ID card as valid documentation for voting, but not a student ID. 

We are all familiar with situations in which “legal” ID is legal for some things and not for others.  Probably most of us have produced a driver’s license or whatever upon police request, only to have the police officer in question look at it and say, suspiciously, “You’re a long way from home, aren’t you?” by way of commenting that the license revealed a South Side address and I was driving through a North Side park.   I am old enough to remember my fourth-grade teacher telling us about the evils of the Cold War USSR, where you had to have a passport to travel from Moscow to Leningrad, or even to move from one part of the city to another. Miss Rozelle, where are you now?

In fact, I was actually arrested for being unable to produce local ID, back in 1978, when the local Nazis were having a major demonstration a few miles to the west of the Wired home, and I and my friends were counter-demonstrating against them.  As we walked across Western Avenue, the police stopped us and demanded ID.  We showed it.  All of our addresses were several miles due east of Western.  The officer shook his head and told us we could not cross into the neighborhood, since we did not have local ID.  We walked off, ducked down an alley and across a couple of side streets, and finally back across Western, where, alas, the same bunch of police caught up with us and arrested us for “disorderly conduct”, ie violating a police order.  Ultimately we sued them and got a decent settlement for violation of our First Amendment rights.  The issue of whether we had to have local ID to cross a street never came up in the litigation.

There has been considerable litigation since then on whether a peaceable citizen going about his business can be required by a police officer to produce ID.  The latest word seems to be Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada, 542 U.S. 177 (2004), which states that a person can be required at police request to stop and identify himself, including giving his name, and even producing documentation.  However, they declined to specify what kind of documentation could be required, although they did state that one state’s law requiring “credible and reliable” identification had been struck down for vagueness. This leaves us where we started—in the worst of both worlds.  Yes, The Man can demand ID, but no, we won’t tell you what kind he has to accept. 

Traveling only makes things worse.  The infamous USA PATRIOT ACT requires ID for travel by air.  Amtrak sometimes requires it and sometimes doesn’t.  The bus lines are even more capricious.  Whatever ID one uses had better match the name under which the ticket was purchased, which sometimes causes problems for honeymoon travel, where the bride buys the tickets before the wedding and then changes her name before the honeymoon.  And, of course, one cannot even walk across the US-Canada or US-Mexico borders without a passport.

I share our president’s ire at the use of voter ID laws to make voting more difficult for people who already have more trouble than they should.  Sure, let’s get rid of those laws, which sound like a solution in search of a mostly nonexistent problem (so far as anybody can tell, nobody has even been arrested for impersonating a voter.)  But while we’re at it, let’s recognize that it is no longer possible to exist in a modern industrial post-9/11 society without a universally accepted identification document.  I’d like to abolish the whole system too, but it won’t happen any time soon.  In the meantime, why can’t we just insist that (1) everybody should be able to obtain a universal ID, free of charge and, if necessary, without having to leave one’s home, and then (2) everybody should be required to accept it.  So okay, the local Recorder of Public Documents, or whatever they call it in your part of the world, may have to hire some people to make house calls, and tote a camera and a notary seal, to visit the elderly and people with disabilities and anybody else who can’t make it to the local bureaucracy.  Oh, the humanity!  And then various common carriers, bartenders, and police officers will actually have to accept it, even from people they don’t like.  That’s not quite as good as being able to go anywhere on lawful business without having to account for oneself to any public official.  But it’s all the freedom we’re likely to get, for a while anyway.

Red Emma



One Response to “Papers, Please?”

  1. Lynn Gazis-Sax (Sappho) Says:

    One of my cousins, reading this on Facebook, says, “It may be the only means by which people will access the ballot box in some Red states.”