The founder of the Minutemen Project recently attended Columbia University to give a lecture. Several protesters stormed the stage and unfurled a banner that said in several languages, “No Human is Illegal.” A melee broke out when members of the Minutemen attacked those carying the banners.

My thoughts on the violence at Columbia are these. The Minutemen have claimed that because their speech was interrupted, their civil right to free speech was violated. From a legal perspective, and of course I’m not a lawyer, this is silly. The First Ammendment guarantees that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, it does not guarantee that if you have something you want to say, that a private university has to let you use its forum to say it, or that no one can interrupt you or yell so loudly that no one can hear you speaking.

Furthermore, I obviously believe the Minutemen are completely wrong, not just in their legal claims against Columbia, but entirely wrong on the immigration question. But I’m guessing that no or few Minutemen supporters are reading this blog. I’m guessing most readers have egalitarian beliefs about immigration policy. So I would like to speak to the other side of this altercation, those who stormed the stage to declare something I believe, that no human is illegal.
The Minutemen may be racist, they may be xenophobic, they may even be murderers, as you claimed. But this kind of hyperbole is divisive, sensational, and ultimately will do more damage than good. So will the way you conducted your protest. Please read Satyagraha by Mohandas Gandhi, Why We Can’t Wait by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau, and Walking with the Wind, by John Lewis before conducting another demonstration like the one you attempted last week.

Regarding language, Gandhi said that during a nonviolent campaign, we should speak about our opponents as little as possible, and when we do, we should be as mild as possible.

Furthermore, unlike your demonstration, nonviolence is not a disorderly, disorganized practice. Satyagraha (nonviolent resistance) has several prerequisites. Gandhi put them this way. In order to be a Satyagrahi, you must 1-have a faith in a living god, 2-have a faith in the goodness of human beings, 3-take a vow of chastity, 4-take a vow to be free of all intoxicating substances, and 5-take a vow of poverty. Gandhi, the person who brought home rule to India and inspired Dr. King to end segregation in the U.S., believed that nonviolence was a discipline, a way of life. Or as Dr. King put it, not merely a method, but a philosophy, and a way of being.

Regarding nonviolence, Dr. King said that nonviolence means more than refusing to kill a man, it means refusing to hate him. At the very heart of nonviolence, as taught by those who perfected it in the U.S. civil rights movement, is the belief that the perpetrators are also victims. The nonviolent activist is not acting against the perpetrator, s/he is acting against a system where all are harmed. Dr. King repeatedly affirmed that the segregationists were victims as well as the segregated. Understanding this excludes the possibility of name-calling, ridiculing, and hate. Pity the minutemen, if you must, but never hate them.

Growing out of this understanding, Gandhi and King taught that nonviolence does not seek victory, it seeks reconciliation. When you claimed that this demonstration was an act of nonviolent direct action, Dr. King’s phrase, you belittled the commitment of Dr. King and a generation of the most moral people humanity has ever produced. John Lewis wore a coat and tie to the lunch counters he picketed. And he walked, not ran, calmly toward his attackers on “Bloody Sunday.”

Recently I reread Les Miserables and found this statement by the Bishop who forever changed Jean Valjean’s life:

“If you are leaving that sad place with hatred and anger against men, you deserve compassion; if you leave it with goodwill, gentleness, and peace, you are better than any of us.”

This statement well describes the Satyagrahis in India who responded to Britain’s colonial violence with nonviolence. It well describes the civil rights activists of the 1950s and 60s who met the hatred and violence of people like George Wallace and Bull Connor with love, compassion, and nonviolence. And I hope in 50 years, we look back to see that it describes this generation of immigrants who met xenophobia, nativism, racism, vigilanteeism, exclusion, and dehumanization with love, hope, empathy, and most of all nonviolence, in the fullest sense of the word – not as you have co-opted it in your disorderly protest.

Let us try to find a way to reconciliation, not to “victory,” for so-called victory requires that someone be a loser. In our hearts, let us come to beleive that the Minutemen are as also victims of immigration restrictions that creates a legal distinction between people based on their place of birth.

Let us come to believe that these Minutemen are not Thenardier, they are not vilains; they are Javert–men and women of principle who currently have more integrity to the law than to the truth. That was always the difference between Javert and Valjean in my reading. Valjean held fast to truth–the direct translation for Satyagraha–while Javert held fast to the law, regardless of whether the law was correct or not. But Javert was no villain, Victor Hugo gave that role to Thenardier, a self-serving man without principle. Of course, let us hold fast to truth, but that means we love, pray for, and do good to those who want to be our enemies.

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