With Elm City ID, identity subsumes community

Yesterday marked the kickoff of New Haven Solidarity Week, Yale’s contribution to the Elm City Resident Card program. It was also Guy Fawkes Day, celebrated on campus because of the film “V for Vendetta” — a glorification of terrorism in the face of an oppressive regime. Both events sparked an uncommonly favorable attitude on campus toward revolution, or at least toward putting belief into action.

But it would be a danger to draw too many parallels between the two. The merit of the ECRC program lies not in its (falsely) perceived defiance of federal policy. Rather, it relies on the ability the program provides members of a community to build relationships through shared identification — the engine that also drives the anarchist movement in “V for Vendetta.”

This seems counterintuitive; after all, V is himself anonymous. But his public presence — symbolized by the much-appropriated Guy Fawkes mask — is readily identifiable, providing a human banner around which his followers could rally. Identification allows us to contextualize someone: to connect a name and a history to a face. Without the ability to turn events into identities, it is impossible to build upon individual encounters between people, much less develop relationships.

Official identification, especially any form of ID card, is a shortcut to understanding someone else in lieu of an actual relationship. “May I see some ID?” isn’t just used by Toad’s bouncers, but anywhere someone needs to prove he is who he says he is. It verifies that its bearer has a history and recounts its basic facts. In doing so, it allows people to interact with each other as individuals, given independent identities by the cards in their wallets.

But the type of ID card determines the facets of a person’s identity which she presents as most important and structures all further interactions. Many of us have a choice as to which form of ID we will produce in a given situation; some of these are more “official” than others, but all of them make certain assumptions about what we consider fundamental.

And all of them are limited. It’s obvious that not everyone owns a student ID; plenty of people can’t spare the money for a passport, much less the travel it enables; and even the driver’s license promotes the environmentally dangerous fiction that the most important thing one can do in America is drive one’s own car. What is needed is a form of identification that transcends these limitations — such as a resident ID card, which declares that the most important fact about the bearer is his community, where his identity is known and valued.

Other identification measures that have been produced for undocumented immigrants, such as Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s recent driver’s-license proposal, are inadequate in serving this larger purpose. In fact, in including other services — such as library access and children’s health information — the ECRC moves beyond a basic declaration of identity in facilitating further interactions.

This is also why the New Haven government ought to adopt a less conciliatory attitude toward local banks that do not recognize the ECRC as a valid form of primary ID. These banks not only reject the notion that residency trumps the proper application of turn signals, but the notion that a city can identify a resident rather than a state or country.

In fact, often these higher levels of government pursue identification as an end of itself, rather than a means to understanding residents; At best, they treat residents as names on a page, and at worst they render them wholly invisible and anonymous. Anonymity may be what allows the revolutionary V to take action, but in real life it casts too many out of sight and out of mind. The extent to which marginalization enables dehumanization was highlighted by the release last week of e-mails planning this summer’s immigration raids of local homes and businesses, which included the sentiment, “It should be a fun time!! Let me know if you guys can come!!” No human being deserves such callousness.

The New Haven police were not invited to the party; to the contrary, they were familiar with those affected, if only indirectly through contact with the community. With the ECRC, they, along with the rest of us, can begin to relate to each other identically whether officially and unofficially — as equals, fellow residents of the city.

Sure, you don’t have to get an ECRC this week. But don’t refuse because you don’t want to “camouflage illegal immigrants.” Consider instead the program’s wider implications, and the possibilities of an official ID card that declares the most important thing to know about you is the place that you call home.

Dara Lind is a junior in Berkeley College. Her column usually runs on alternate Thursdays.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    First comment on a Dara Lind article. Excellent article as usual, though I have a question:

    The lady seems to put strong emphasis on community, yet, what happens if a community doesn't support an identity?

  • Anonymous

    Aha! This is what I call the "Hazleton question," in reference to the Pennsylvania town that's been even more aggressive in passing local legislation to hurt undocumented immigrants than New Haven has in passing legislation to aid them.

    This is a little problematic for me, I'll admit. The best response I can find is that when I talk about "community," I'm not referring to the opinions of the majority; a healthy community will feature unconditional support and inclusion of all its members by default. So those communities that "don't support identities" are failing to enfranchise a segment of the community, which isn't a legitimate move.

    The bigger question this raises is how this gets fixed, and I'm really not sure I know the answer to that. I'd hazard that direct interaction with undocumented immigrants is likely to change hearts and minds on the issue, but that's difficult to engineer socially. In any case, we happen to live in a city that already recognizes the identity and contributions of its undocumented population, and that's something for which I'm exceedingly grateful.