by Tim W. Shenk
Tomorrow is the Fourth of July, the holiday where the people of the United States ostensibly celebrate our democracy, our laws, our freedom from tyranny and injustice.
Yet these last days and weeks have shown, yet again, what a sham is the phrase “liberty and justice for all.” The world is seeing, at the concentration camps for migrant children and adults at the U.S.-Mexico border, what advocates and immigrants themselves have been saying for a long time. This is cruel, this is unusual, and it must stop.
A year ago, accounts surfaced of “children in cages” on the U.S-Mexico border, and the question of family separation hit home deeply to those of us raising families.
In the past days and weeks, more horrifying information has emerged. Women in cells without running water have been told to “drink from the toilet” if they want something to drink. Children themselves have reported to immigration attorneys everything from not having enough clothes, bedding or food, to being sexually, physically and emotionally harassed and told to take care of other babies in detention.
Indigenous people and Japanese-Americans, among others, have rightly spoken out that family separation and unfair, inhumane detention are part of the DNA of the United States — and they call for a stop to these practices today. Others have shown how the crises bringing migrants to the U.S. are the results of an “implosion” in Central America caused by the development of transnational capitalism backed by the U.S. military in the region.
And Frederick Douglass, speaking on July 4, 1852, gave one of his most powerful and scathing speeches about U.S. “freedom” and “democracy” — words that would sound especially hypocritical and cruel on that day to the enslaved people of this country.
I excerpt it at length here because of its uncanny relevance today:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
Douglass, speaking nearly 170 years ago, and migrant children speaking up today have similar words for the United States on the Fourth of July. The words of the Declaration of Independence and its the promise of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness ring hollow indeed.Both contexts, then and now, are contexts in which the law is injustice.
This is the subject of the forthcoming CUSLAR Newsletter, available online now. CUSLAR authors look at immigration and the migrant exodus from Central America as part of a systemic problem facing all of society.
Steve Pavey said during his talk at Cornell University in April: “I’ll pose the idea that maybe we don’t have an immigration crisis. As Thomas Merton said in his ‘Letters to a White Liberal’: ‘We don’t have a Negro problem or an immigration problem or a poverty problem. We have a white supremacist settler state empire problem.”
This is the reality we in the United States must face, especially tomorrow on the Fourth of July. Tomorrow, as every day, it is our joy and responsibility to unite and train leaders from the ranks of those who live these injustices, to build a society in which everybody has a right to live.