Thursday, March 31, 2011

It Can't Happen Here?

In my last posting, I pondered the possibility of bullets being used against U.S. protesters, as army and police have been called in action again peaceful demonstrators in the Middle East.  Here is an historic photo of the Memphis sanitation worker's strike of 1968, where garbage men picketed with signs inscribed "I Am A Man," walking in the shadow of armored personnel carriers and machine guns.  This is the strike that Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled to support, and where he was shot down by a bullet that was not military, but that according to the verdict of a Memphis jury in 1999 may have been fired with the help of other U.S. government agencies.  

Could the U.S. government turn against its own people, as in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and other despotic regimes?  If the photo--or the jury verdict--are any indication, it's a real concern.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Despotism and Repression: From Libya to Our Own Backyard

In Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Syria, police and army troops are shooting live ammo at peaceful demonstrators.  Could it happen here?

Last May, a fresh analysis of the Kent State University shooting, where four students protesting the Vietnam War were gunned down by the Ohio National Guard in 1970, found the violence was no accident.  Nor was it the result of nervous underlings acting against orders.  Commands were issued.  Reviewing old tapes, two audio experts working at the request of the Cleveland Plain Dealer removed extraneous noises from the recording.  A voice yells “Guard,” and seconds later orders “Prepare to Fire!”

Just last month, a 71-year-old peaceful protestor was tackled and beaten for wordlessly turning his back on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as she lectured an audience at George Washington University about supporting freedom of expression in the Arab world. Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst, Army intelligence officer and current member of Veterans-for-Peace, was left bruised, bloodied and handcuffed after being hustled from the room for standing in silent protest.  Charges of disorderly conduct against McGovern were later dropped.

Also last month, while tens of thousands of labor activists rallied outside the Wisconsin state capitol to protest laws that would deprive public employee unions of the right to strike, the Assistant Attorney General in neighboring Indiana sent out a tweet suggesting that riot police “use live ammunition” to clear away the demonstrators, whom he described as “political enemies” and “thugs.”  Was  the Assistant Attorney General just joking or using over the top language?  Called by a reporter from Mother Jones to clarify his remarks, the official responsible for upholding the state’s laws proclaimed “You’re damned right I advocate deadly force.”

The U.S. Army Field Manual on Civil Disturbance Operations states that “gatherings in protest are recognized rights of any person or group, regarding of where U.S. forces may be operating.  This fundamental right is protected under the Constitution of the US.”  The manual goes on to caution, however, that seemingly peaceful protestors may be unwitting stooges for terrorists, anarchists or other provocateurs who must be met with deadly force if needed.  So the manual advises that “non-lethal shooters must have the means to transition to lethal rounds, if required … There is no such thing as a non-lethal mission.”

No, I’m not comparing our country to Libya or Syria.  But we would be foolish to think it couldn’t happen here.  Against live ammo, the First Amendment is a defenseless piece of paper.  The only thing that keeps our country from turning into an armed camp or police state is the people’s determination to speak out wherever tyranny arises—especially when it’s in our own backyard.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Could Jesus Get A License?

The debate in New Mexico about who can get a driver’s license is part of a bigger national conversation. We’re asking who’s a citizen, who belongs, who’s entitled to public services like healthcare and education, who’s an insider and who’s outside the circle of our compassion?

Who is my neighbor, as Jesus put it? It’s illuminating to think about this debate in the context of Christian history. Back in the time of Jesus, of course, Rome was the world’s superpower, like America today. Big armies, gap between the rich and poor, a veneer of republican government laid over a corrupt regime. And back then, being a citizen of Rome was a big deal, just as having an American passport is a big thing now.

If I recall my Sunday School lessons, for example, Paul was a Roman citizen. Remember Paul? That’s how he managed to do so much traveling. He was in Corinth, Thessalonica, Galatia, Rome, planting churches and spreading the gospel. Old Paul had his travel documents. Nobody quite knows how or why he managed to claim citizenship, but being a bona fide citizen saved him more than once. Because being a citizen back then, as now, meant privileges. You couldn’t be arbitrarily imprisoned if you were a citizen. You couldn’t be flogged or crucified. Being a citizen meant you had protection of the laws.

In contrast, for example, to a man like Jesus who wasn’t a citizen, who was undocumented, an illegal, who probably never traveled more than 50 miles from the place he was born because he didn’t have his papers.

Jesus wasn’t exactly a slave, but was still the lowest of the low in a caste system where some people had rights and other people were expendable. He was the kind of guy who of course didn’t have any right to a fair trial. The sort who associated with questionable characters …was suspected of criminal activity … lacking any visible means of support. And of course Jesus spent his life caring for and ministering to the underdogs, the outcasts, the foreigners and aliens and other outsiders like himself that were looked on as human trash by respectable society.

We need to remember our Sunday School lessons as we participate in this current debate in New Mexico. We need to ask not just “What would Jesus do?” but “Who would Jesus be?” if he were to appear again here, now, this legislative session.

Maybe he’d be a child, born into this country, but now threatened with being relegated to throw-away status. Maybe his parents would be working people, like so many undocumented laborers, doing janitorial or agricultural work or the other dirty jobs that have to get done and that proper citizens don’t want. He probably wouldn’t even speak Latin, or English, or whatever the official language is. That’s probably who he’d be: a brown baby, a child living on the margins.

And if he were here today, he’d be reminding us and reminding our Governor that everybody is somebody. That the tens of thousands of residents of New Mexico called “illegals” are actually mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, they’re employees, taxpayers and contributors to our economy, not contraband or sub-human refuse but human beings like ourselves. Maybe not citizens of the United States. But still citizens of that kingdom of justice and compassion that Jesus spoke of.

I know there are more practical arguments for why it makes sense to make sure all the drivers on our public roads are licensed and tested, insured and registered. But I’m no expert on traffic safety or public policy. I’d just like to ask our legislators and Governor to ask themselves the religious and moral questions that should be part of this debate:

“What would Jesus do? And who is my neighbor”