Reflections prepared for a presentation at the forum titled, “Everybody’s Got a Right to Live,” hosted by the New York State Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, in Elmira, NY on October 26, 2019.
by Tim W. Shenk
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations
Everybody’s got a right to live! That’s the name of tonight’s event. When we say that, if we really believe it, it means we’re going to take seriously a huge range of issues that affect our right to live.
We’re not single-issue people. We can’t live on bread alone. We can’t live on housing alone. We can’t live on education alone. When we say Everybody’s Got a Right to Live, it’s a big commitment we’re making. It means we’re in it for the long haul.
I’ve been asked to talk about something going on at the US-Mexico border today [October 26]. The U.S. southern border is one of the most militarized areas of the country. It’s one of the places where the U.S. government is systematically denying basic our constitutional and human rights.
We know about the children in cages, and we’re starting to learn other things. We’re learning about how active-duty U.S. military forces are deployed there against U.S. law to deter and detain families seeking refuge from poverty and violence in their home countries. We’re learning about the security companies and arms makers who are making a literal killing by selling weapons of war and surveillance technology for use at the border.
The militarized border represents all of these abuses, and also the silent daily tragedy of families being separated. This week I got to talk to a worker on a dairy farm near Geneseo, New York, and he said his biggest regret being here was not getting to be with his family. His sons are 6 and 9 years old and he hasn’t seen them since his younger boy was an infant. That is so incredibly hard. I’m a dad of a little one, so it hit me hard.
The U.S.-Mexico border is one of the places where all of the evils of the Poor People’s Campaign come together. Poverty in Latin America, often poverty that’s made worse because of U.S. policies, forces families to try to come to the United States looking not for a better life, but for any life at all.
Systemic racism, or white supremacy, is a tool that justifies treating immigrant families as people without human rights or human needs. White supremacy is an enemy of all poor people. It directly oppresses a large section of poor people: poor people of color. And it has been developed to control poor whites and convince them that their interests lie with the people who are hurting them.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the aristocracy took the world and gave poor white people Jim Crow. And when their stomachs cried out for the food they didn’t have, all they could eat was Jim Crow. So white supremacy is a powerful tool aimed at controlling all poor people, and keep us blaming each other.
Militarism, then, is the firepower that enforces the ideas of white supremacy and white nationalism. And ecological devastation goes hand in hand with all of it: the Department of Defense is responsible for nearly three-quarters of all U.S. government greenhouse gas emissions. So while the military is killing people around the world and now on our own soil, it’s also killing the planet.
All of these forces coming together is why in September the national Poor People’s Campaign went to El Paso to launch our 9-month, 25-state tour called “We Must Do M.O.R.E.” M.O.R.E., in this case, stands for Mobilizing, Organizing, Registering and Educating.
We launched the tour along with our brothers and sisters at the Border Network for Human Rights, a founding member of the Campaign.
Two weeks after the launch of the MORE Tour, Border Network founder and director Fernando Garcia visited us here in Elmira, New York. We got to exchange stories about how militarism and war and the prison economy affect each of our communities, and Fernando shared that they were about to do something impossible called “Hugs Not Walls.”
Today at the border, we’ve done it. We’ve won a huge victory. And I include us in this because, not only are we all part of this nationwide Poor People’s Campaign family, we have direct connections to the events there today. Today at the border between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, a massive event took place today with people coming together from each side of the border.
Two hundred fifty families separated by U.S. border policy — over 2,000 people in all — met in the middle of the Rio Grande to embrace. Sometimes family members haven’t seen each other in years, or decades, and they’ve traveled from all over the U.S. and Mexico, to say no to walls everywhere, and yes to reuniting families.
Hugs Not Walls is not a metaphor. And in El Paso you don’t say it lightly. In El Paso when you denounce the wall, you’ve got to know who’s got your back, and you’ve got to be sure of what you’re doing.
Why did Fernando say they’re doing the impossible? What’s impossible is that they’ve asked Customs and Border Patrol to stand down. They said to the Border Patrol, today we’re going to ask you to not do your job patrolling the border.
Today, they said, we as the communities of the border, documented and undocumented, U.S.-born and Mexican born, today we take control of border security, so that our families can reunite even for a few minutes, so mothers and fathers can kiss their children, so grandparents can meet their grandbabies, so brothers and sisters and spouses can embrace.
Through “Hugs Not Walls,” Border Network is unmasking the cruelty of a system that allows an avocado and a sack of corn to cross the border freely but doesn’t allow little children to see their mommies.
These sorts of events show the power of a people united. So I want to take time in the midst of all of the heaviness to celebrate. Something big has happened today, that is a victory for our people along the border, and when our people are victorious, we celebrate!
The more we learn about our history, and the more we’re connected to this movement, the more we see all of the times throughout our collective history that we’ve done the impossible to emerge victorious over the forces of oppression.
This goes all the way back through history, to the stories of our sacred texts. These texts tell us to tear down walls, to welcome the immigrant and to treat everyone as children of the Divine.
I’d like to finish with a song. Please join me as we rise up together:
Oye, mi gente
Traemos la fuerza
Es nuestra única bandera
Rise up, my people
My condors, my eagles
No human being
Will ever be illegal
Tim W. Shenk is the coordinator of the Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR) and a member of the New York State Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.