The prison industrial complex, together with the criminal justice system in our country, are perhaps the most inhumane, unjust and corrupt entities in our society. These injustices are exacerbated by the privatization of prisons which has resulted in intolerable conditions with little future prospects for Latino/African-American and low income White populations. The increased incarceration rates of undocumented immigrants provide further evidence of this reality. In 2005 there were approximately 280,000 undocumented immigrants held in detention centers throughout the United States, whereas by 2010 there were approximately 400,000 immigrant detainees. The rapid rise in the detention rates of undocumented individuals has unfortunately accelerated under a the current democratic administration, and is undoubtedly correlated with the role that private detention center lobbyists have played in advocating with local and federal legislators for more vigorous enforcement of immigration policies, including longer sentences. In addition the policy of partnership between federal, state and local enforcement agencies referred to as “Secure Communities” has added a whole new layer of abuses in dealing with undocumented people.
As a result of these profit-driven and draconian enforcement policies, Latinos, who comprise 16% of the U.S. population, now comprise 50.3% of the Federal Prison population. These stricter enforcement policies and longer sentences have been very profitable for privately operated prisons/detention centers. In NYC during 2010, 86% of the 50,383 people arrested for marijuana possession were either black or Hispanic, despite the fact that the use of narcotics occurs at equal rates proportionate to their populations by whites, blacks and Hispanics alike (as many studies have consistently shown). This begs the question: Why are the overwhelming numbers of arrests for drug violations people of color? The practice of “stop and frisk” in NYC has resulted in a high number of juvenile arrests for black and Latino youth, damaging their lives for years to come. These arrests often result in permanent criminal records for our young men and women of color, and ensuing repercussions with future financial aid, possible loss of child custody, loss of public housing/inability to obtain rental assistance and diminished professional/employment opportunities. In many regions of our country, Hispanics are less likely to have their cases dismissed than are whites.
This dire situation faced by communities of color leads me to advocate for a campaign, in support of “jury nullification,” a concept which is by no means new. White supremacists used this practice when refusing to convict white southerners who committed crimes against blacks and it continues to be used today to protect police officers who commit crimes against persons of color. This has been evident when the atrocities of police officers against persons of color are recorded and/or witnessed by many bystanders, yet the officers are still exonerated by juries of their white peers, who nullify the law and the reality of their guilt in perpetrating the atrocity. U.S. Presidents nullified jury verdicts many times throughout history. Lewis “Scooter” Libby former advisor to V. P. Dick Cheney was convicted of a felony by a jury of his peers and sentenced to a prison term of 30 months, but President George W. Bush commuted his sentence, which is legalized jury nullification, most often applied and utilized to benefit the rich and famous.
It is time that jurors of color or poor whites begin to refuse to convict any person of color or poor whites except for a violent crime against an oppressed person, such as rape or child sexual abuse. Our youth should be advised not to enter into any plea bargaining agreements for their cases, which would essentially bankrupt the judicial system with countless numbers of trials. Never again should a Latino/a, African-American or a low income White person agree to collude with a criminal justice system that is enslaving our people while making many rich investors even wealthier with each case of degradation afflicting our citizens of color.
I have always been an admirer of the notion of situation ethics, although like most other ideas about life, morality etc., it has its challenges/problems. This way of understanding ethical behavior is attractive to me because there are really no black and white situations in life, despite what some might have us believe. Although at first I was chagrined by President Obama completely ignoring the sovereignty of the Pakistani nation in order to assassinate Osama Bin Laden, eventually I became capable of seeing the benefits of having a more situational understanding of the sovereignty of nations. The safety and well-being of our people in the U.S. demands that we maintain flexibility and to become situational when we view/understand geo-political matters. This is a lesson and way of interpreting geo-political borders and notions of sovereignty that our Latin American sisters and brothers have been trying to teach us for many years, but we continuously fail to understand (do not get it). Sovereignty is sovereignty only until it impinges upon our families, our ability to be safe, our ability to feed our families, and the possibility of accessing life-saving health care. I am grateful that President Obama has learned the lesson so quickly. Just remember, Pres. Obama, “What is good for the goose is good for the gander. “
Should I vote for a second term for president Obama based solely upon his policies towards U.S. citizens or should his policies towards non-U.S. citizens matter? I ask this question because the hypocrisy involved in the dichotomization of human rights and dignity for U.S. citizens, compared to the lack thereof for foreigners is simply, in my estimation, immoral and anti-Christian. The association of human rights/dignity with U.S. citizenship in our country has created a rationale and justification for the violation of human rights of so many human beings here among us and throughout the world. Within our geographical parameters we can see this dichotomy–lets call it the doctrine of superiority of U.S. citizens–in operation in Guantanamo and among the population of non-U.S. citizens (i.e. undocumented immigrants) living within our borders. Unfortunately, human rights have become associated primarily with citizenship. Basic human rights are no longer interpreted as the inalienable rights of all human beings, regardless of where they were born or raised. Therefore, if you are not a U.S. citizen you are not “worthy” of the right to have charges brought against you and to undergo due process. Instead, you can be held in prison indefinitely and without representation. In terms of their lack of rights, immigrants seem to be viewed and treated as enemy combatants. Since when have artificial geo-political borders determined the human dignity and rights of individuals? How else can we justify the deportation of parents by our government without considering the plight of children left behind? There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of cases of children in school, literally abandoned with no one to pick them up at the end of the school day. They are then turned over to child protective service agencies throughout the United States. Countless families have been dismembered and destroyed, even while one spouse is a legal resident or U.S. citizen. How can President Obama now move on to expand the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strikes against other countries not only for “protection against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction,” but to include “values and commerce?” Should I and other people of faith solely be concerned with the implications of our policies on our lives as U. S. citizens or should we consider the humanity of others?
Upon reading about the abhorrent intentional infecting of Guatemalan mentally ill patients with STDs by the Unites States Government during 1946-48, I was reminded of the deceptive and forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women that resulted in the sterilization of 1/3 of all Puerto Rican women by 1965. I could not help but wonder how deceptive is the notion that with the enlightenment and modernity the western world entered a much more humane and “civilized” reality. In fact, when it comes to nation-state brutality perpetrated against humanity, we have created much more sophisticated, creative, subtle, and misrecognized ways to kill and dehumanize people. In a recent class discussion a student made an insightful observation when discussing the work of anthropologist Renato Rosaldo and his experience with the Ilongots tribe of the northern Luzon, Philippines. Rosaldo’s inability to understand how they could justify the beheading of members of other tribes when they experienced the loss of a loved one from their own tribe, was the focus of the discussion. Rosaldo discovered that this was how the Ilongots let out their anger! To us Westerners that sounds so far-fetched and savage! Well the student pointed out that this scenario is not so unlike what we have done after 9/11. We have taken out our anger against people who had nothing to do with the deaths or destruction of those buildings and our military has slaughtered thousands of innocent people. I wonder if many in our country, like the Ilongots, have been placing their rage that springs forth from grief and fear, on people from different tribes (i.e. those building a religious center). How far have we truly advanced from the “brutal past?”
How can it be that such virulent and harsh attitudes and treatment of newly arriving economic and political refugees/immigrants exist in a country that was founded by immigrants, who once felt free to occupy and take possessions of lands without reservations? Even more egregious and hypocritical is that our country, individuals and corporate entities continue to invade or cross into international and local sovereign borders without requesting permission and without the legal status to do so, but simply because of our might. Lets take a critical view of the perspective of President Barack Obama towards Pakistan, one that sounds eerily similar to that of former President Bush.
President Obama has been asked if he believed that it was okay to ignore the territorial sovereignty of Pakistan in the pursuit of terrorists. To this he replied that if the intelligence was there and the security of the state was threatened, he considers it permissible to cross Pakistani borders without going through the UN or Pakistani government. This view seems to have the same logic of our former President George W. Bush with his doctrine of pre-emptive strike. I would submit that both of these positions of illegal border crossings can only be taken from a position of power. In other words the violation of sovereign borders seems to be a violation only for the powerless or those with lesser military might. As the saying goes: “Mas puede la razon del poder que el poder de la razon”(More powerful is the reason of power than the power of reason).
Our collective history as a nation indicates that every time a perceived lack of space has been an issue since early in the colonial period, expansionism has been sought and accomplished through varied means. During the mid 19th century with the theological and ideological underpinnings of “manifest destiny” the great expansion into western lands was completed and heralded as a triumph of civilization and God’s blessing. Obviously the carnage and human suffering that were caused were ignored or may have been simply considered collateral damage.
It seems to me that for over thirty years now we have entered a new expansionistic phase in our country; one led by the well-to-do, developers, their supporting political friends and higher educational institutions. This new expansionist agenda promises development, prosperity and modernization to the “underdeveloped urban centers” throughout our country. It is not surprising that real estate advertisements for Sunset Park, Brooklyn seeks “new pioneers.” Just like their predecessors ideologues of expansionism during the mid 19th century, these new pioneers do not feel the need to respect the property of the urban dwellers, because like the expansionist before them they see the working class urbanites just like the earlier pioneers viewed the native peoples before them as ignorant and powerless roadblocks to progress. They also expand and try to move into urban territories, because like Bush and Obama they have the power to do so. The displacement of so many working class and poor people from
their homes and urban territories after they have sustained these geographical areas when urban centers were at one time considered undesirable is simply as immoral as what was done to the indigenous peoples.
My only hope is in the power of the powerless, in their ability to cross borders with or without permission. Can they be stopped? I doubt it. Can they be harassed? Yes! Can we ever suggest a moral equivalency between crossing a border for the safety and well being of your family with that of crossing of borders for oil and economic development profits? Only if we have become as immoral as a society that we can no longer distinguish evil from good. I think we need to reframe the whole discussion on immigration reform by admitting that border crossings are happening on all sides and that some crossings have greater moral standing than others. Urban dwellers might need to build a wall to keep all the greedy developers from trespassing into our territories.
On March 20, 2010 Tavis Smiley held a roundtable discussion with leading activists, intellectuals and clergy of the African American community. I was looking forward to watching the program and thus being inspired by the likes of Jesse Jackson, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson and others. However, not long into the event, activist Dorothy Wright Tillman began to proffer inaccurate and inflammatory assessments of the Latina/o community. Despite the fact that she is a left-leaning civil rights activist, her rhetoric was as damaging and ill informed as some of the speeches I have recently heard coming from the mouth of Sarah Palin. Allow me to share one of the similarities between Dorothy’s speech and that of Sarah Palin:
When you look at our community, our communities are being gentrified. People are being spread out all over the place to keep moving, but you be quiet.”
She single handedly placed all the problems of gentrification at the feet of Latina/os. I was struck by her apparent lack of knowledge about the problem of gentrification being faced in urban areas by all marginalized communities. Are not Latinos/as, Asians and poor Whites being displaced at the same rate as blacks? With Cornel West cheering her on and the silent complicity of Micheal Eric Dyson and Jesse Jackson, she continued her inflammatory rhetoric by lambasting educational opportunities for Latinas/os. She states,
The President of the United States has a Department of Education for Hispanics. We need a Department of Education for Black people too. I am not knocking them.”
When she stated “I am not knocking them” my assumption was that this statement was not genuine, and I was left feeling that she knew full well how the average listener would react to such a comment. This is comparable to Sarah Palin suggesting that her use of the term “reloading” was not intended to connect and fuel the violent reactions of many gun carrying conservatives. Do Dorothy Wright Tillman and the other members of the panel truly believe that this sort of rhetoric does not cause anti-Latina/o sentiments within the African American community? When referring to (but refusing to name) the Puerto Rican Adolfo Carrion Jr., White House Director of Urban Policy, Tillman states:
And he has someone over there, when he talks about urban affairs where most of your urban cities, Detroit, Gary, Chicago, Ohio, Philadelphia, are Black people, he puts a Latino, Hispanic, over there, never even put a Black to balance that out. Are we not supposed to talk about that?”
If we continue to operate under the amoral politics of numbers/majorities, then we are definitely in trouble. True justice will never occur. If a justice based on numbers is what she is advocating for with the apparent consent of West, Dyson, Smiley, Farrakhan, Jackson and others then Latinas/os would be more deserving being an overwhelming majority among minorities! Her rationale for this diatribe seems to have been that only African Americans came to this country involuntarily and are the only group that have experienced enslavement. She either lacks basic knowledge of the histories of immigration or has intentionally dismissed the facts in an effort to fuel the fires of her ethnocentrism. Does she really believe that blacks from all over the Caribbean and Latin America arrived to the shores of the Americas on Cruise Liners or via Jet Blue? Did Puerto Ricans choose to come to the United States or did the United States first invade the Island in 1898? Did Mexicans choose to come to United States or did the U.S. locate itself in what historically had been huge Mexican territories? As stated by Angelo Falcon, Director of NLIP: “Later in the discussion, Tillman discussed how President Obama ignores the Congressional Black Caucus but listens to Hispanic politicians like Congressman Luis Gutierrez. Throughout her remarks she referred to no other racial-ethnic group to describe how Blacks are being marginalized today. No one at the roundtable challenged the divisive nature of these comparisons.”
We need to begin sincere and loving conversations about coalition building rather than attacking other oppressed communities who are simply trying to survive. This requires informed, nuanced conversations rather than hateful rhetoric.
On Wednesday, March 24th, communities all around the world commemorated the 30 year anniversary of the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero. Instead of spending time talking about who Romero was and why his life was significant (if you are wondering, at the bottom of this post there are a number of links to give you an idea), I want to share some of his words that that feel particularly relevant in light of an event I attended this Tuesday on the Union campus entitled “People with a Mission, People with a Vision: Pentecostalism in the Borderlands.”
One of the signs of the present time is the idea of participation, the right that all persons have to participate in the construction of their own common good. For this reason, one of the most dangerous abuses of the present time is repression, the attitude that says, “Only we can govern, no one else, get rid of them.”
Everyone can contribute much that is good, and in that way trust is achieved. The common good will not be attained by excluding people. We can’t enrich the common good of our country by driving out those we don’t care for. We have to try to bring all that is good in each person and try to develop an atmosphere of trust, not with physical force, as though dealing with irrational beings, but with a moral force that draws out the good that is in everyone especially in concerned young people.
Thus, with all contributing their own interior life, their own responsibility, their own way of being, all can build the beautiful structure of the common good, the good that we construct together and that creates conditions of kindness, of trust, of freedom, of peace.
Then we can, all of us together, build the republic – the res publica, the public concern – what belongs to all of us and what we all have the duty of building.”
Óscar Romero, July 10, 1977
This “driving out” of people that Monseñor Romero speaks of happens here in the United States on a number of different levels. It happens when we detain and deport people who don’t have the documentation we deem necessary to be here. But it also happens when we decided who gets included in conversation, particularly a conversation about the common good.
Another focus on Romero’s ministry revolved around the idea of church. It is abundantly clear that for Romero, the church was a body of faithful who are committed to live out the gospel, not a building or denominational structure. This is particularly important given that who we consider the church has significant implications for how we live out our faith.
It has been my experience that often in the liberal protestant world, our noble intentions often blind us to who we see or include, or make space for, to participate as we seek to work for the common good. We miss out on seeing other communities that must be part of the conversation, and become uncomfortable with the possibility that this presence may actually change the way we have the conversation. The reality is that if we don’t work collectively towards the common good, the conversations happen separately and we are denied the opportunity to truly be the church that Romero speaks of and Jesus calls us to. Latino protestants, or rather evangelicos/as, are among those that are not engaged when we have these conversations. Because of a lack of understanding the history of evangelicos/as in the United States and internationally, as well as assumptions about their theology and culture, have deemed them to be non-participants by the predominantly white liberal protestant church.
Participating in the Borderlands Pentecostalism lecture series was an opportunity for me to engage in conversation about the common good with people of faith and religious leaders whom I too seldom engage. I am encouraged by events such as this at Union and thankful to be stretched and pushed in my understanding of the evangelico and Latino pentecostal community.
Links for further information about Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero:
What has happened over the past year with all of the critical issues that motivated me to campaign and vote for President Obama. One such issue is Comprehensive Immigration Reform. During the campaign I had the opportunity to meet President Barrack Obama. As I sat beside him in the conference room at BMCC in NYC, the only question I posed to him that day was “What will you do about immigration reform? “ He answered, “I am in favor of Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” I must say I felt his answer was rehearsed and that it was not a priority issue for him. I guess my intuition was correct. Since becoming president the Obama administration has deported more immigrants in a 12 month period than the Bush administration did within the same time frame. In this first year of his presidency 387,000 immigrants were deported and, sadly, on any given day there are 32,000 immigrants being held within inhumane detention centers throughout our country. If immigrants are not a priority in his administration, certainly, one would hope that the civil liberties of US citizens would be. I would have imagined that The Patriot Act, one of the worse remnants of the Bush administration and one of the greatest challenges to civil liberties that our citizens have ever faced, would certainly be dealt with swiftly by this new administration. To the extreme disappointment of many, that has not been the case. Several weeks ago, President Obama signed a one year extension of the Patriot Act. It seems that the Obama administration is also caving in to pressure to continue the legacy of the Bush administration which has held military tribunals, rather than providing civilian trials for suspected “Enemy Combatants.” I do not understand how the most egregious aspects of the Bush administration continue to haunt our society.
“Predicando en Calzoncillos” is a phrase my grandmother used which, literally translated, means “Preaching in Underwear.” My grandmother used this phrase to refer to the hypocrisy of preachers who did not practice what they preached. Our country, that I love, unfortunately falls into this category of hypocrisy. Although I believe that for the cause of freedom and morality, it was correct for President Obama to have met with His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, neither the Chinese nor any other government should dictate to the President of the United States who he can or should meet with, particularly when the meeting in question would be with such an esteemed, inspirational human being as The Dali Lama. The position taken by the Chinese government is one of questionable moral standing since it involves the liberation of the Tibetan people from the colonial/imperial subjugation of the Chinese government, a cause for which most U.S. citizens sympathize. Whether imaginary or real, our history as a nation to a large extent traces its beginnings to liberation movements that sought to free itself from the crushing feet of the British Empire. Unfortunately, President Obama participated in this meeting with the Dali Lama on very shaky moral ground, since the United States of America has in its possession one of the longest held colonies in modern history: The Island Nation of Puerto Rico.
How can we as a country advocate for the democracy and self-determination of others, and even castigate other nations that obstruct the right to the self-determination of sovereign nations, when we are currently guilty of the same behavior? Furthermore, how can we, with a clear conscious, keep imprisoned those who have fought for the liberation of their country? The United States had been holding Carlos Alberto Torres in jail for 30 years, making him one of the longest held political prisoners because he struggled for the right to self-determination for the Puerto Rican people. I believe that we must move forward in this arena and begin to lead by example. I sincerely hope and pray that the Obama administration is able to lead us onto that path so that we may begin to preach fully clothed.
I wholeheartedly believe that issues of Justice, fairness and equity especially as they relate to ecological, gender, sexual, racial/cultural and economic realities should occupy the forefront of our theologies. In my experiential opinion, justice should take precedence over any other theological concerns. I say this not only as a theologian, but as a black Latino male. Any theologizing about God and her being and very existence, is really irrelevant for all important purposes if issues of equity for all human being are not addressed.
This leads me to discuss my experiences within some of the mainline historical denominations in the US. I have come to accept that perhaps the most unabashedly racist institutions in our society are churches and their denominational organizations. This may be due in part to some prominent teachings that are remnants of 16th century reformation theology such as “justification by faith and grace alone,” constructs of “saint and sinner” and notions that God is able to forgive us even for sins perpetrated against others. Intentionally or not, these teachings facilitate the ability for individuals to continue hating, because, in accordance with the teachings of Luther and Calvin, the depth of human deprivation is so deep and encompassing that evil/racism is not in the sphere of human agency/volition to be confronted. Therefore thanks be to God for her grace that is freely bestowed upon the sinner exonerating him or her from all consequences of their sins.
I ask myself: Does God really have the right to forgive someone who trespasses against me, without asking for my permission? Does God have the right to forgive those who, due to ignorance or evil have caused the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi children, women and men? Does God have the authority to forgive those Christians who continue to break and destroy the self-esteem of others and dehumanize their fellow human beings simply because of the color of their skin or culture? I will leave these questions to be answered by the theologians. It seems to me that God has a perpetual public relations nightmare to address!