“We are not fighting for integration, nor are we fighting for separation. We are fighting for recognition as human beings.” Malcom X spoke these words in New York City on April 8th, 1964 and I hear him speaking to me today. Only a few days ago on my way home from Georgia I stopped in Nashville during a four hour Greyhound layover. I wandered up capitol hill where I stood perched on the high ground overlooking the occupy movement in Legislative Plaza. The stone marker before me bore a plaque in memoriam to the horrors of the middle passage. It recounted the woe of a hundred million captured Africans bound below decks by the hundreds. Half died during the voyage, couped up, flesh rotting in chains, stricken by disease and perishing of famine.
Grounds for Empathy
My vantage point was increased having come up from Tyrell County, Georgia where I was jailed for resisting immigrant detention and deportation, held on charges of criminal trespass at Stewart Detention Center, our nation’s largest immigration detention center. Anton Flores, lead organizer for the rally and march on SDC and former prisoner of conscience, bailed me out after three days. On our drive to his home he repeated a radio announcer’s description, saying, “Tyrell County, if you remember, was known during the civil rights era as ‘Terrible Tyrell’ for its flagrant racist hate.”
It struck me there on capitol hill that this monument stood also for the brothers today facing deportation, the mothers and daughters separated, and it stood also for the cause to question all imprisonment. Because peoples imprisoned today remain subjects of sale. Under the 13th amendment to the Constitution prisoners are property of the government. I personally experienced forced labor earlier this year and couldn’t in conscience tolerate it.
Why are they doing this to us, I asked. We were on “Con Air” making passage from Oklahoma to various parts of the country. I was destined for Seattle, though I didn’t know it, and was separated with others when we landed in Las Vegas. It was a Friday morning. Rather than continue the journey we had stopped and now a party of us were given into the custody of Pahrump County Detention Center run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). On Tuesday the journey resumed, but not after the CCA, a privately owned company with public shares sold on the stock market, had booked us and included us on their list showing the Congress why they should be allocated so many funds a year in contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Hallucinagenic really, the bright lights of experience, and I couldn’t believe the trip I was on.
But standing remote now and in possession of my rights of citizen on that prominent ground, I saw the Occupy movement down below with eyes of hope. After all it is the gift of this movement that awakens so many of us to the possibility that comes with our unified and resolute no to the profit schemes subjugating the 99%. NO! to the violation of our positive values, our hopes and dreams for true democracy.
The timing of an insight is sometimes everything.
It was the week of Thanksgiving, of Black Friday and as I write this—Sabbath for the first Sunday of Advent. The plaque before me suggested a revision of my sense of history. If we could all surrender our sense of context once again to re-vision the middle passage’s closing chapter in 1865 to four hundred years man on man profit-making. If this Advent the coming of Christ we look for in and through our stand with the Occupy movement could be another memorial, another closing chapter remembered by future generations. The question is if we will have anything to do with it. Some will make new years resolutions and still be handed a rewards card from the Marriot that reads “Welcome Back Elite Member”. Others will place themselves into the Gospel and renew their understanding of history, and will see the road tread by Jesus to Jerusalem. Given the perspective one will see a capitol hill and another, the mound of Golgotha.
Meanwhile, Advent to Kairos Chicago...
It is a time of preparation for our fast and witness against torture. If we have a task this advent it begins in revisioning ourselves significant, powerful witnesses. I think of us as the journeying Magi bearing gifts for the Christ child. If we preach the cross even now it shouldn’t be surprising, for even Frankincense, used to prepare a corpse for the tomb, was a royal gift. Look to the Frankincense of your experience then, fellow travelers, and renew a commitment to a belief in redemptive suffering.
We must follow the guiding lights of nonviolence, always, though they lead us to Nazareth and all tell us “What good ever came out of Nazareth?” or what good does fasting do, or civil disobedience, or occupying a street corner? As Malcom X came to realize, ordinary human beings would have to act with boldness on behalf of unrecognized dehumanized beings: “It is a time for martyrs now, and if I am to be one, it will be for the cause of brotherhood. That’s the only thing that can save this country.” New York City, 19 February 1965