Rumors and Checkpoints: Undocumented Knowledge, Mobility, and Organizing

In Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (2019), Manu Karuka defines rumor as a source, speculative methodology, and mode of communication. Manu Karuka explains that “the rumor of the colonized is an inclusive, democratic form of communication…[rooted] in shared experiences, interpreted through a common repertoire, maintained and nurtured as a basis for navigating the collisions, collusions, and traumas of colonialism…[and] can provide historians access to an anticolonial politics, whose organizational forms emerge from the daily life of colonized people” (Chapter 1, page 4). To me, this interpretation of rumor might also be used to describe the ways that undocumented communities share knowledge. In particular, I thought of the ways in which undocumented communities respond to rumors of checkpoints. Oftentimes the spread of news that there might be a checkpoint at specific street intersections allow undocumented families and workers to avoid those sites of surveillance and thus enable a form of limited mobility. However, at the same time, these rumors, whether real or not, create a sense of anxiety and terror that confine undocumented communities to their homes out of fear of being detained and deported. Clearly then, rumor is both a tool of the oppressed and oppressor (colonized and colonizer). 

Karuka then goes on to explain that rumors are inherently incomplete due to the “evasions that colonized and racialized communities necessarily made in order to sustain themselves” (Chapter 1, page 12). For the colonized, rumor is a double-edged sword, limited in its utility as the ambiguity or unverified truth of the rumor simultaneously causes both fear and restricted mobility. Nevertheless, it is the evasiveness of it that allows undocumented communities to organize, move, or stay put with some sense of authority over their bodies, bodies which themselves are often in a constant state of strategic evasiveness. Although limiting, rumor might offer a way to understand the nuances of undocumented knowledge, mobility, and organizing.


Karuka, Manu. Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad. Vol. 52. University of California Press, 2019.