Francesco Levato’s Arsenal/Sin Documentos is poetic investigative reportage, if there is such a thing. It’s a genre-less amass of official US documents, such as the Customs and Border Protection’s Use of Force Policy, the US Patent paperwork on Hand-Held Stun Guns for Incapacitating a Human Target, the Department of State’s Celebrate! Holidays in the U.S.A., and many more. As a whole, these government manuals, handbooks, etc. are verbose and obfuscating. But in Arsenal / Sin Documentos, Levato declutters (and de-bullshits) the pages with margin-to-margin mark-outs with a thick-ass Sharpie. His omissions reveal the national publications’ foundational intentions—to legally dehumanize and inflict harm on Latin American bodies in the name of the American state. This book is going to piss you off.
Levato begins with “Policy.01, Levels of Behavior/Resistance.” A found poem within a Forward from the Commissioner:
This mandate the authority
the use of
The use of
attached as and referenced throughout the
Subsequent excavation in the opening piece reveals more code to justify the normalcy of menace:
a particular use
the totality of circumstances
against the rights of the
calculus of reasonableness an allowance
I can’t lie, the first few times I started this book, I kept allowing myself to be distracted. Fond memories of various trips across the southern border regular interrupted Levato’s incriminating spotlight. It was almost as if my body subconsciously eschewed more goddamned bad news. For example, there was this anecdote: I sit in a stopped car with the engine running while waiting for border traffic to move. The hot sun beats overhead. I wave over a street vendor who’s carrying armfuls of ceramic Virgin Marys painted with three colors of neon—red, green, orange—then haggle over a price just to kill time. After handing him what’s left of my pesos, I roll up my window just as smoke bellows in from the taco stand—the smell I most associate with being in México. Dirty children knock on my windows and I give one a crisp US dollar for a pack of stale chicle.
But then I snap out of it and get back to Levato’s collection. I read “Aviso al Pueblo,” a transcription of an official warning notice. “La ley migratoria de los Estados Unidos no hay ‘permisos’ para quienes / intentan cruzar la frontera sin documentos, al contrario / serán prioridad para la deportación inmediata. // Si alguna persona le dice o promete algo diferente, por favor, no le crea.” Which means if someone tries to cross the American border without proper documents, they will be immediately deported—no matter what’s been promised to them. Then there’s this one—a passage unmasked from a guideline explaining how to incorporate less-lethal force at the border:
shall be carried
documented on the subject’s
What is missing? The humanity, obviously.
My distraction again: I tap my steering wheel and notice the differences between this place and one hundred meters ahead, just beyond the guard shacks: colors here are brighter, the air is thicker with dust. I get my documents in order until finally a Border Patrol officer asks where I was born. I don’t know if I’m supposed to say America or be more specific and say Oakland. So I say bite my lip and worry my stutter will put me in the secondary where men in tight green uniforms will rummage through my things, which would be a bitch. [PAUSE] I suddenly remember this isn’t about me. Not at all, in fact. Blanketing such atrocities with good thoughts and feelings is the easy way out. The all-too-common and way-too-typical method to manage someone else’s living hell. So I nose back in. With intention. I read “TITLE II. Border Security and Trade Facilitation,” and imagine the people who have committed the meanings of this glossary list to memory: Situational awareness, Got away, Consequence delivery system, High traffic areas, Illegal border crossing effectiveness rate, A major violator, Operational control, and Turn back. Turn back gets me. “Turn back is an illegal border crosser who, // after making an illegal entry, // returns to the country from which they entered.” Can’t you just picture the moment during the officer’s shift change when one of them, between sips of stale coffee, refers to another human being as a turn back? I can.
In my interruptive memory I say “Oakland” and am overcome with relief when the stern-faced officers wave me through. I depress the gas pedal and drive away. Levato’s lines from “Issue #1—Re-identification of an Individual’s Race and Ethnicity”:
The first part of the question asks whether or not an individual
While this part pertains to ethnicity, to avoid confusion
the word need not be mentioned.
The second part of the question asks an individual to select
one or more races from then following five groups:
American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American,
Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White.
Note that an alternative such as “some other races” or “race unknown”
is not an option.
Those in power decide, using their own imaginary rules and guidelines, who the other is. Those in power decide, according to systemic expectations, how to treat the other. Can’t you hear their voices claiming they were simply following rules? Simply following their “Responsibilidades” and “Apoyar y defender la Constitución?”
I don’t know the true danger of borders. I know inconvenience, sure, and I also know the contorted faces of people in power. But never am I concerned with what a border—la frontera—might do to me or my body. Its threats, its forces—lethal or non-lethal—are completely off my radar. And part of my life’s privilege in action is not maintaining an awareness of the atrocities happening in front of me. More of Levato’s discovery from “Policy.08:”
a chemical irritant
Arsenal/Sin Documentos is an urgent study of governmental language that dictates how power is exploited through bureaucratic SOPs. Levato’s form may be referred to as erasure, blackout, cross-out, redaction, defacing, or whatever. But what’s really happening is an exposé, a divulgence, an enlightening and necessary peek behind the veil of what’s really going on with less-empowered human beings in America. Which is to say:
a deadly force
part of the
consistent with operational
Fuck that shit.
Arsenal/Sin Documentos, by Francesco Levato. CLASH Books, August 2019. 162 pages. $15.95, paper.
Tom Griffen is a writer and artist currently living in Spokane, WA. He holds an MFA in Poetry from Pacific University. His work has appeared in PANK, The Rumpus, Tupelo Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, Prairie Schooner, and others. In 2018 Tom walked across the United States. A book about his journey is forthcoming. Follow him on Instagram at @tomgriffen and read more at tomgriffen.com.