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Judy Ackerman Protesting at Rio Bosque

EL PASO – A 55-year-old Army veteran hunkered down in front of construction crews who were building the fence along the U.S.-Mexico border Wednesday, halting work for about eight hours before she was arrested.

Judy Ackerman, one of about a dozen people at a peaceful protest east of El Paso on Wednesday, was handcuffed by Texas Department of Public Safety troopers after several hours of figuring out which authority was responsible for removing her. It wasn’t clear what charges she’d face.

Work on the fence resumed immediately after Ms. Ackerman was led away. Before her arrest, the white-haired woman sporting a reflective vest and hard hat cheerfully chatted with authorities. About 20 workers were milling around the site, leaning against heavy equipment and dump trucks and taking pictures of her with their cellphones.

“They have a job to do, but today their job is to take a break,” said Ms. Ackerman, a retired sergeant major who spent 26 years in the Army.

She crossed a canal before workers arrived and took up a position on a levee where large steel poles were being erected. The levee is in a desolate area several miles east of downtown El Paso, near the 370-acre Rio Bosque Wetlands Park.

“They have this wonderful park here, and the wall is messing it up,” Ms. Ackerman said.

She was on land maintained by the International Boundary and Water Commission. Al Riera, the principal engineer for the commission, said officials were notified about her presence early Wednesday and spent several hours trying to figure out what agency should remove her.

The Associated Press

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I gave this speech at the Brownsville City Commission meeting last Tuesday.  The city was honoring my students for their recognition as part of the Princeton University Martin Luther King Essay Contest.  One student, the one who had spent the most time on her essay, gave a great speech to the Commission, advising them to fight the fence and support increasing the legal ability to immigrate.  So during the public comment’s section, I gave this speech.
Jesus often called the young people to him by saying, “Suffer the little children to come unto me for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”  He also quoted Psalms 8:2 which states, “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings, thou hast perfected praise.”
Although I can’t quote these lines to my students while teaching, they have helped guide my thinking as a teacher.  Among other things, they alert me to listen to the wisdom and insight that children often have naturally, some of which, we as adults miss.  These children here today have taught me so much about tenacity, faith and life, and for that I thank them.
My only admonition for the City Commission is that you fully consider, and not disregard, the “perfected praise” that has come to you “out of the mouth of babes.”  “Let no man despise [their] youth.”
Furthermore, knowing these students as I know them, I believe that we as adults must do everything we can to be as courageous, active, and tenacious as we can, just to keep up with them.  In light of that, I ask the members of the Commission to join The Border Ambassadors, LUPE, CASA, Proyecto Azteca, Southwest Workers Union, and most importantly the students, by supporting the March Against the Wall and any other peaceful, grassroots, direct-action event supporting the preservation of La Frontera and preventing Segregation.

Today, I gave this speech to the Brownsville City Council Meeting during the public comment portion.  The Brownsville Herald ran an article on Sunday that said that the Mayor was betrayed by the City Council who went behind closed doors to allow the Army Corps of Engineers onto city land to survey for the wall.  It is in response to that that I wrote this speech-on the back, and in the margins of the agenda.   

Yesterday, Princeton University recognized five of my 8th grade students for essays they wrote on the topic “What would Martin Luther King say and do about immigration?”  Princeton opened this year’s essay contest to my students because they used my blog, nonviolent migration, as a resource for their contest.  These five students, Melissa Guerra, Yessenia Martinez, Abigail Cabrera, Vanessa Trevino, and Blanca Gonzalez were the only five students who had the faith to submit an essay and all were recognized by Princeton. 

I asked the rest of my 121 students to speak honestly about why they had decided not to write for the contest.  The overwhelming number of students responded that it wasn’t worth trying because they felt that because Princeton is in the North, they would prejudge their work since they live on the border.  This experience reminded me once again just how excluded these children feel.   Even though this wall will be South of most of my students, my students are smart enough to know that the same motive behind this wall is also shouting at them, saying, “You are not us; keep out!” 

These students, who started with such enthusiasm when the contest was announced, lost hope and they let their fears overcome their faith.  This broke my heart because I love my students, but your capitulation is something other than heartbreaking because you are no longer 8th graders.  We expect you to hold out hope.  We expect you to keep the faith.  We expect you to work for us, and let us fight this fight. 

At this time, we want to express our love… and forgiveness… to all the members of the commission.  However, as a result of your action, we must now find a legal way to undo what you’ve done so that my 8th graders don’t come to learn that you prejudged them too. 

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Once again, I have to point you in the direction of a friend of mine who wrote an excellent article entitled, “Duty Free.”

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Stop the wall this spring break. 

A year and a half ago, Border Ambassador Jay Johnson-Castro went on a 15 day walk through the Texas communities that will be affected if the Secure Fence Act of 2006—already federal law—becomes a reality.  His walk, which he undertook basically alone, was covered by the BBC[1] and other international media, as well as multiple articles in the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express News.[2]  Hearing of the walk, Republican Governor Rick Perry (a proponent of the wall) held a press conference about border security in the tiny community of Rio Grande City while Jay was walking through town.

Why would one man require a response from such a powerful person?  Why would Governor Perry even care about one Don Quixote-like figure plodding through the long stretches of nothingness?  Why would the Houston Chronicle give its front page as a pulpit for a solitary nobody doing something so crazy?  These questions have elusive answers, but those familiar with the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s are better equipped to make sense of them than most.  Two clues are found in familiar phrases from that generation.  “Unearned suffering is redemptive,” which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often said, and “You got to move,” a favorite phrase of the Highlander Folk School—who trained Rosa Parks and others—have oriented my understanding of why a walk can be so powerful.

Following that motto, “You got to move,” this spring break—from March 8th to the 16th—local educators and students, along with religious and civic leaders will walk 115 miles (13 miles each day for 9 days) from Roma to Brownsville as a form of nonviolent direct action.  We invite you to partner with us in an alternative spring break, by following this link.  http://www.mysignup.com/noborderwallwalk  There you will make a commitment to participate and input your information.  We will then contact you with the necessary details.

The purpose of this walk is to show support for local landowners who do not want to give the Army Corps of Engineers access to their property.  These landowners are facing litigation by the U.S. Government, and are acting very courageously in spite of this threat.  Many more landowners would resist the government if they knew they were supported.  A second purpose is to gain the attention of the nation, especially during this election year.

Through today’s New York Times,[3] land owner Eloisa Tamez’s plan for resistance was shared with a national audience.  Eloisa works closely with Jay Johnson-Castro in the fight to prevent this wall from segregating our community, but she isn’t the only land owner along the proposed fence route.  Now is the time to share her story, Jay’s story, and spread the message of our collective struggle.  Please join us and invite your friends, family, and neighbors to do the same.

This youtube video is not explicitly about immigration, but the principle of mutuality certainly applies to the flow of people across borders in the persuit of happiness.

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Late last week, one of my students told me about the “mojaditos” being arrested in her neighborhood, still wet from the Rio Grande.  She is a popular girl, is on the dance team, and earns straight A’s.  She is writing an essay for the Princeton University Martin Luther King Essay Contest about Martin Luther King and immigration, and her use of the word “mojaditos,” sounding in my ears, created an ambivalent emotion. 

In Spanish, Mojado means wet.  Like the dehumanizing use of the English adjective “illegal” as a noun, mojado, when used as a noun, means “wet-back.”  Mojado is the word Antonio tells me he hears spit from the angry lips of Border Patrol officers.  This is the word I hear a few students use to ridicule their classmates who, fresh from Mexico, speak so little English.  Like the words joto and stupid, mojado is one of the many ways that my adolescent students, trapped in an age desperate for acceptance, exclude each other.

Mojadito, however, is a different kind of word.  The suffix –ito means little, and often is used with fondness.  While living in Monterrey, my darling Mari would affectionately call me her guerito (little white boy).  Pobrecito is a fond way of saying, “my poor little baby.”  Mojadito, while derived from a racial slur, was being used by my student in a tender way.   Her language and even her thoughts were confined by racial segregation, but at least her emotions were freely empathetic. 

*          *          *

 

Before being thrown into Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King made the hard decision to break a city law in order to be imprisoned.   He wrote about that decision in the chapter “A New Day in Birmingham”:

 

“I intended to be one of the first to set the example of civil disobedience.  Ten days after the demonstrations began, between four and five hundred people had gone to jail; some had been released on bail, but about three hundred remained.  Now that the job of unifying the Negro community had been accomplished, my time had come.  We decided that Good Friday, because of its symbolic significance, would be the day that Ralph Abernathy and I would present our bodies as personal witnesses to this crusade.

“Soon after we announced our intention to lead a demonstration on April 12 and submit to arrest, we received a message so distressing that it threatened to ruin the movement.  Late Thursday night, the bondsman who had been furnishing bail for the demonstrators notified us that he would be unable to continue.  The city had notified him that his financial assets were insufficient.  Obviously, this was another move on the part of the city to hurt our cause.

“It was a serious blow.  We had used up all the money we had on hand for cash bonds.  There were our people in jail, for whom we had a moral responsibility.  Fifty more were to go in with Ralph and me.  This would be the largest single group to be arrested to date.  Without bail facilities, how could we guarantee their eventual release?

“Good Friday morning, early, I sat in Room 30 of the Gaston Motel discussing this crisis with twenty-four key people.  As we talked, a sense of doom began to pervade the room.  I looked about me and sat that, for the first time, our most dedicated and devoted leaders were overwhelmed by a feeling of hopelessness.  No one knew what to say, for no one knew what to do.  Finally someone spoke up and, as he spoke, I could see that he was giving voice to what was on everyone’s mind.

“‘Martin,’ he said, ‘this means you can’t go to jail.  We need money.  We need a lot of money.  We need it now.  You are the only one who has the contacts to get it.  If you go to jail, we are lost.  The battle of Birmingham is lost.’

“I sat there, conscious of twenty-four pairs of eyes.  I thought about the people in jail.  I thought about the Birmingham Negroes already lining the streets of the city, waiting to see me put into practice what I had so passionately preached.  How could my failure now to submit to arrest be explained to the local community?  What would be the verdict of the country about a man who had encouraged hundreds of people to make a stunning sacrifice and then excused himself?

“Then my mind began to race in the opposite direction.  Suppose I went to jail?  What would happen to the three hundred?  Where would the money come from to assure their release?  What would happen to our campaign?  Who would be willing to follow us into jail, not knowing when or whether he would ever walk out once more into the Birmingham sunshine?

“I sat in the midst of the deepest quiet I have ever felt, with two dozen others in the room.  There comes a time in the atmosphere of leadership when a man surrounded by loyal friends and allies realizes he has come face to face with himself.  I was alone in that crowded room.

“I walked to another room in the back of the suite, and stood in the center of the floor.  I think I was standing also at the center of all that my life had brought me to be.  I thought of the twenty-four people, waiting in the next room.  I thought of the three hundred, waiting in prison.  I thought of the Birmingham Negro community, waiting.  Then my mind leaped beyond the Gaston Motel, past the city jail, past city lines and state lines, and I thought of twenty million black people who dreamed that someday they might be able to cross the Red Sea of injustice and find their way to the Promised Land of integration and freedom.  There was no more room for doubt.

“I pulled off my shirt and pants, got into work clothes and went back to the other room to tell them I had decided to go to jail.

“‘I don’t know what will happen; I don’t know where the money will come from.  But I have to make a faith act.’”

  *          *          *  

Today I received a news alert with the question, “Who will be the immigration movement’s Martin Luther King?”  I really think hundreds of people have asked themselves this exact question in the past two years.  I don’t have an answer, but the passage I just quoted highlights, for me, the qualities as well as the quandary.  Princeton University is asking a very similar question to middle and high school students right now. They essentially ask the question, “What would Martin Luther King say if he were to attend an immigration rally today?”  (http://www.princeton.edu/mlk/essay).

When Dr. King faced himself in an instant of introspection instigated by the loneliness of leadership, he realized that his life led him to the decision he was making.  And he realized that he could make no other decision than to trust in God, in his sense of history and morality, and choose to act in faith. 

What made this decision so difficult for Dr. King was the fact that no bail could be provided for the three hundred in jail and that unless he stayed out of jail and tried to secure funding, they would likely remain in jail for a significant period of time.  This is perfectly applicable to our situation with unjust immigration restrictions because arrested immigrants are not given bail.  Not only that, but they aren’t often given jail sentences; they are most often deported. 

Undoubtedly, the act of turning oneself in to an ICE agent as an unauthorized immigrant in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience requires a greater courage and a greater conviction than even the greatest generation of Americans—the civil rights activists struggling nonviolently against segregation—faced.  Will my thirteen-year-old student, newly empathetic for the mojaditos, find the kind of courage that Dr. King found?  Will any of my students?  Will their lives lead them to a similarly defining moment where they even have the tools to ask the questions Dr. King did? 

While writing this, I see, for the first time, the potential for the level of heroism of my friend, Marlene Flowers, in my students.  She was about the same age as my 8th graders when she was first arrested for violating a city bus segregation statute.  I met Marlene as an energetic grandmother with a résumé that included fifty-four such arrests.  Her powerful presence makes it difficult to imagine that first arrest.  Even harder for me is to imagine her before that first arrest, before the idea of nonviolent civil disobedience first germinated in her brain and resonated in her soul.  But I now wonder if she looked a little unsure, excitable, and even scared, like so many of my students.  Resolving to civilly disobey an unjust law is certainly distinct from changing the way we feel about some other law-breaker, but moving our hearts from mojado to mojadito might mean a heart agape enough to eventually find morality and courage and charity (agapé) enough to bring about a new era of human rights in the United States.  Today my hope is that it represents a new day in Brownsville, for at least that one student.

 

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Much dialogue on marijuana in the last few decades has centered around the large rates of incarceration and the exorbitant cost of imprisonment. According to estimates in Eric Schlosser’s book Reefer Madness, some 20,000 inmates are currently imprisoned primarily for a marijuana charge. Proponents for legalization have a valid point when they argue that if marijuana were no longer criminalized, it would save the United States millions of dollars in lost labor and imprisonment fees.

What is more bizarre, then, is that very few politicians or advocates have spoken loudly or clearly on the topic of immigrant criminalization. With more than 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living and working in the United States, this number defies all logical enforcement and flouts our underfunded prisons.

There are essentially two types of bad legislation. Some failed legislation are good laws badly enforced, as in the case of the Emancipation Proclamation or school desegregation in the South. Both of these were good laws which lacked a concerted effort at universal, uniform enforcement. While some states succeeded in integrating students of all ethnicities, many states found loopholes and ways to thwart real enforcement.

The other sort of bad legislation are bad laws impossible to enforce. Prohibition, as laid forth in the 18th Amendment, was a good moral choice but bad legislation. State-mandated alcohol abstinence was impossible to enforce; it succeeded in little more than feeding mob activity and criminalizing thousands of people who up to this point had been law-abiding citizens.

Our current immigration system in the United States would fit into the latter category. With over 12 million illegalized citizens, it is fiscally and theoretically impossible to punish, discipline, fine, imprison, or detain every extralegal immigrant in the U.S. Its enforcement is impossible, but that has not stopped us from pouring $6.7 billion dollars into border security for 2007. Border security received more than a 3% raise from 2006, while education funds remained essentially the same and emergency funds were cut by 2%, even in the wake of the Katrina fiasco. With all these increased border security measures, the cost to apprehend a single illegal immigrant crossing the border has risen from $300 in 1992 to $1700 in 2002. And we still have over 12 million undocumented immigrants.

The only immigration reform which has been approved in the past few years has been in bulking up our border security. However, that is missing the crux of this situation – this is ultimately self-defeating, prohibitively expensive, and impossible to enforce.

Martin Luther King, Jr., in his outspoken speeched against Vietnam, stated that, “Justice is indivisible.” To have a law on the books which is unjust and not being enforced is to shake the very bastions upon which our justice system stands. Ultimately we must join with King in agreeing that, “no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.” While amnesty will not solve everything, offering a feasible path towards citizenship for potential illegal immigrants as well as undocumented workers currently residing in the U.S. will begin to address this article of failed legislation and this pock upon our moral countenance.

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The next three week’s readings come from Martin Luther King’s most influential book, Why We Can’t Wait.  In this week’s chapter, “The Sword That Heals,” Dr. King discusses many of the same principles that we have discussed in earlier weeks.  This time, the principles of nonviolent civil disobedience are told in their historical context.

 

Civil Disobedience

            One of the most persuasive passages I’ve read about civil disobedience comes from this chapter.  Dr. King wrote,

          There were no more powerful moments in the Birmingham episode than during the closing days of the campaign, when Negro youngsters ran after white policemen, asking to be locked up.  There was an element of unmalicious mischief in this.  The Negro youngsters, although perfectly willing to submit to imprisonment, knew that we had already filled up the jails, and that the police had no place left to take them.

            When, for decades, you have been able to make a man compromise his manhood by threatening him with a cruel and unjust punishment, and when suddenly he turns upon you and says: “Punish me.  I do not deserve it, I will accept it so that the world will know that I am right and you are wrong,” you hardly know what to do.  You feel defeated and secretly ashamed.  You know that this man is as good as you are; that from some mysterious source he has found the courage and the conviction to meet physical force with soul force.

            So it was that, to the Negro, going to jail was no longer a disgrace but a badge of honor.

When I read these paragraphs, I am completely convinced that nonviolent civil disobedience—when practiced widely—has more power to break the psychological shackles of unjust laws crippling our community than almost any other principle.  Moving across international borders to pursue happiness is not wrong!  We must stop acting like it is.  We must challenge (not just ignore) the laws that prevent that pursuit.

 

Constitutional Litigation

            In this chapter, Dr. King gave a summary of the various approaches for equality since Emancipation.  He started with Booker T. Washington’s admonition to work hard, moved on to W. E. B. Dubois’s call for education, explained Marcus Garvey’s ideas about racial pride and a return to Africa, and ended up describing the NAACP’s recourse to Constitutional litigation.  It is then that Dr. King said, “Nonviolent action, the Negro saw, was the way to supplement—not replace the process of change through legal recourse.”

            This quote brings me back to a problem I have been wrestling with for quite some time, without sufficient success.  What success can we hope to see in a civil disobedience campaign without Constitutional litigation?  This is difficult because of the plenary power doctrine, which says that Congress has absolute power of the area of immigration and the courts cannot overturn its legislation.  If the Supreme Court is unwilling to apply the Constitutional guarantees to immigration law, how damaging is that for us?  How necessary is litigation in the fight for rights in the United States?

Nonviolent vs. Violent Reform

            I love King’s quote here in pages 27 and 28, and just have to share it.

          Angry exhortation from street corners and stirring calls for the Negro to arm and go forth to do battle stimulate loud applause.  But when the applause dies, the stirred and the stirring return to their homes, and lie in their beds for still one more night with no progress in view.  They cannot solve the problem they face because they have offered no challenge but only a call to arms, which they themselves are unwilling to lead, knowing that doom would be its reward.  They cannot solve the problem because they seek to overcome a negative situation with a negative means….  The conservatives who say, ‘Let us not move so fast,’ and the extremists who say, ‘Let us go out and whip the world,’ would tell you that they are as far apart as the poles.  But there is a striking parallel: They accomplish nothing.

Let us not be guilty of the same accusation.  When I am properly trained, I plan to actually do what I’m talking about.  I plan to break the law and submit myself to arrest.  I am trying to get in contact with a law student who is organizing a civil disobedience campaign for this summer in the Arizona desert.  He plans to defy the law that makes it a felony to aid someone that a reasonable person would consider to be an “illegal immigrant.”  Given that people are dying in the desert, he plans to provide food, water, and a car ride to anyone who needs it.  I’m hoping he plans to get arrested.  If so, I’ll likely join him.

 

The African American Example

            Dr. King knew this day would come.  On page 31, King said, “The Negro saw that by proving the sweeping and majestic power of nonviolence to bring about the beloved community, it might be possible for him to set an example to a whole world caught up in conflict.”  He often said some variation of,

          When the history books are written in the future, somebody will have to say ‘There lived a race of people, black people, fleecy locks and black complexion, of people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights.” And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and of civilization.

When I study history, I am compelled to say it – to quote it just like King said it.  When I study history, I am compelled to look at the sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands who marched, the thousands who were jailed, the hundreds who were beaten, and each person who was killed, and say ‘I will not let your lesson go unlearned.’

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