In the Dead of Winter, the Green Shoots of Spring Beckon
As 2019 fades out and 2020 beckons, it’s tempting to focus on the doom-and-gloom. On Brexit, in the UK, and the stunningly awful election result there earlier this month. On the rise and consolidation of authoritarian governments from Brazil to India. On the daily horror show of Trumpism – the sadistic treatment of immigrants, the irrational antipathy toward all-things-environmental, the degradation and dumbing-down of public discourse, the endless self-dealing, the hostility toward the free press and so on.
But instead, for this final column of 2019, I want to focus on the people I have met this year who give me hope. I do so, not out of blind optimism, but out of a sense of possibility; a feeling, from conversations had around the country, that the ugliness of raw nationalism and the stew of racially and religiously and sexually motivated bigotries that Trump is part cause part consequence of, is generating an extraordinary moral awakening.
Perhaps the most meaningful reporting expedition for me in 2019 was traveling to Arizona this spring, where I met men and women in Tucson and in Phoenix who rushed to volunteer to help asylum-seeking families who had been detained at the border, placed into horrific, fetid, disease-ridden detention centers, and then unceremoniously dumped onto city streets by ICE and CBP with nothing but backpacks containing a few pre-fab, barely edible, meals, the flimsy clothes on their backs, and their legal paperwork detailing when their first court hearings would be held –usually only a few days later, in cities hundreds or thousands of miles away from where they were stranded. Many had not a penny to their name; oftentimes even their cellphones had been confiscated by border patrol.
In the churches that had been opened up as temporary way-station for these impoverished and frightened immigrants, I met priests and rabbis and imams, doctors and nurses, social workers, translators, civil rights activists, attorneys, and numerous ordinary people who simply couldn’t stand by and watch as, in the words of a woman I interviewed with Lutheran Social Services, “atrocities are carried out on our streets.” They came out to care for the sick, to give toys to the scared and skittish children, to provide clothes to families with nothing; they came to help migrants navigate the bus routes needed to get them across country; to feed them; and to give them words of comfort after weeks in which government officials had gone out of their way to humiliate and degrade them.
Other examples: the interfaith leaders who traveled down to the border wall separating San Diego from Tijuana, knelt in prayer in the no-trespass zone by the steel bars of the wall and the rolled razor wire that extended out into the ocean, and calmly, non-violently, waited until they were arrested by gun-wielding national guard and police. All to draw moral witness to the horrors of keeping immigrants in camps in Mexico.
As they were led away, one after the next after the next, hundreds of supporters, gathered on the windswept sands, with military drones buzzing them overhead, sang civil rights songs and spirituals. Those notes, carried over the dunes, were some of the most beautiful sounds I have ever in my life been lucky enough to hear.
I get chills down my spine just thinking of that scene, of the Tijuana residents who poured out of their homes in the colonias just south of the wall, and ran over to watch through the bars as, in the land of the free just the other side of the cold, fierce, wall, men and women in prayer were grabbed by gun-wielding officers and frog-marched into detention.
There were the voting rights activists I met in Florida, men and women working to re-enfranchise the more than one million Floridians rendered voteless by Jim Crow-era permanent disenfranchisement laws against those with felony records. Some came from predictable backgrounds: ACLU attorneys, long-time civil rights advocates. But then there were those with entirely different backgrounds: in particular, some conservative evangelical preachers who had, over time, come to a deep understanding of the injustice of a system that allowed for no second chances.
There were the housing advocates I met in Los Angeles, working flat out to try to stop HUD from evicting thousands of mixed-status families from public housing. Day in and day out, they were holding hearings, organizing tenants, pushing elected officials to speak out for these vulnerable families.
There were the lawyers I talked with, both inside state government and also in the private sector, fighting back against federal rollbacks of generations of environmental protections.
There were the public health workers driving into remote parts of rural northern California to deliver clean needles to addicts; medicines used to save lives in overdose situations; and vital AIDS medication to people too poor to afford proper healthcare. And, in the south of the state, there were the volunteers I met in the Imperial Valley, in towns strewn along the increasingly militarized border, working to feed the homeless migrant farm-workers who pick our food and spend their nights living in cardboard shacks along railway lines and in abandoned lots.
Make no mistake, the winter nights are still long, the short days brisk and often stormy. But there are at least some signs of the buds of spring out there. There’s an energy amongst organizers and advocates, a determination to seize the moment and to craft an alternative, better narrative for the country over the years ahead. People who used to sit on the fence are now taking sides, pushing back against policies and practices they deem too immoral to turn a blind eye toward.
Our task, as 2020 dawns, is to tend to those spring buds with every ounce of energy that we possess, to unleash a better, fairer, kinder future than that envisioned by Trump and the cultists who support him.
As the radical Chilean folk singer Victor Jara sang in the early 1970s, in his version of the song Venceremos, “With the power that comes from the people/ We must make a better homeland./ Together and united we must strike/ At power, at power, at power.” Jara was brutally tortured and murdered during the early days of the Pinochet coup, in September 1973. But his words, the force of his lyrics, the righteous outrage and plea for dignity contained in his songs, live on. So, too, do the immortal phrases of the great social movements of old.
I’ll end today’s column with one such slogan, this from the mid-century Italian labor movement. Avanti popolo. The People Will Advance.
— Sasha Abramsky,