What Terror Looks Like

More than one year after the post electoral crisis, the terror created by the murders of protestors is still palpable here. Many readers of this blog will be familiar with these killings because you participated last year in an open letter to the families of the victims.

A few days ago Karen Spring wrote this excellent essay on the continued impunity for the killings.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the events of December 2017 & January 2018 are hardly in the past for many Hondurans. These killings were mentioned to me without prompting at some of our site visits, and my general impression both from these weeks on the ground and following social media is of a people where terror has genuinely taken root. I keep thinking of the many histories I’ve read or watched about societies existing under terroristic regimes, and realizing that in this moment I’m visiting one of those societies. And knowing that my friends and others live in it every day.

Nor are these impressions and facts far removed from the United States. Impunity for murdering protestors and the terror it spreads is creating an exodus of people arriving everyday at our border. To say nothing of the direct and indirect support for this terror provided by the US government itself. One example: the US provides funding, training, and “vetting” for various police and military forces implicated in human rights abuses including murder. We are funding terror.

The Songs of the Grandmothers

On Saturday I had the honor of hearing the songs of the grandmothers of COFAMIPRO, the Committee of Families of Disappeared Migrants of El Progreso. These women told us the stories of looking for their lost daughters and sons, who have been lost along the dangerous migrant trail between the US and Honduras or who lost contact with their families once arriving in the US. Rosa Nelly Santos told us about the heartbreaking work of repatriating remains, and how since 2000 she has walked with other mothers along the path wearing pictures of their children and asking around, hoping to find clues of where they were last seen. About the caravans, Rosa Nelly told us that they do not celebrate or agree with the migrant exodus because they would prefer to have people be able to stay in Honduras, but the most important thing is that no one disappears on an exodus. They may still die; but they will not disappear .

The women sang two songs they have written themselves: one for standing outside public offices demanding rights and recognition, and the second for when a person is found. It said “we don’t get tired of waiting.”

Together in a small circle, our Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective delegation cried with these women. We saw their pain, and held it with them for a few moments . We left them reluctantly in a flurry of hugs and smiles, always promising to share their stories.

Do Not Bow to the King: I will not wish George HW Bush or any other powerful leader the peace in death they denied to others

Hopefully people have already seen some of the pushback on the sainting of George Herbert Walker Bush because of his legacy of human rights abuses in Panama, pardoning Iran-Contra conspirators, allowing people to die needlessly of AIDS, lying to the U.S. public about the invasion of Iraq, his involvement in Plan Condor, and his racist Willie Horton ad, to name some. But regardless of the specific person or their place in history, invariably it seems to go like this: some major political figure dies and the social media RIPs start rolling in. “I didn’t agree with you on everything but you were an honorable person and I respected you. Rest in Peace.” If we consider ourselves political at all, and if want to be capable of resisting injustice, then we need to stop automatically paying our respects to politicians when they die.

First of all, the fact that someone had grace, or carried themselves with honor or manners, is not a good reason on its own to show them respect. In fact it usually just means they are rich and powerful (or “patrician”).  Have y’all never seen Gone with the Wind? Those white people of old carried on in high fashion and extremely mannerly ways! Their white supremacy was extremely high fallutin’! I do not however respect it, or the people who perpetrated and participated in it, just because it demands respect. It was something extremely ugly dressing itself up in nice clothes and an elaborately coded system of manners and interactions. Do not fall for this.

Second of all, in the case of a deceased head of state or politician, when we say we disagree with their “policies,” we are actually talking about human lives, and often their deaths. I refuse to reduce human to policies. And while the politician may no longer be in power, the effects of their policies are usually still with us. In the case of George HW Bush, I saw several of the same people express sadness about his death who are also angry about Trump’s handling of the “migrant caravan” from Central America. The thing is that by and large it isn’t Trump’s policies that have created the migrant exodus (because he hasn’t had enough time to do that kind of structural damage), but those of previous administrations. The migrant exodus actually has a lot to do with George HW Bush. As president he escalated the devastating War on Drugs, which continues to devastate people throughout Latin America, in addition to the devastating “anti-communist” violence and coup d’etats he perpetrated as vice president and Director of the CIA. The legacy of this violence, in addition to actions by other leaders including Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama who facilitated the 2009 coup in Honduras, has created the structural instability leading to the mass exodus of refugees from Central America today. So, how can we say that we respect Bush but be in solidarity with the migrant exodus or people in Central America today? You can’t.

Finally, and perhaps most simply and importantly: if we aspire to resist the policies of our government when they are wrong and unjust, we have to stop our habit of automatically bowing to the King! We are not obligated to express sadness when a former head of state dies. We are not obligated to say they had good qualities or were a good person or look on the bright side. Ask yourself why you are doing this. Is it possible it’s because you’ve been conditioned to respect authority? Or to respect those who seem “patrician”? If it makes you uncomfortable to speak ill of the dead, then try practicing just not saying anything. After all, a public political figure is different from a neighbor down the street or another person that you know. They and their family will never know what you said. Their legacy is a matter of making the historical record, not simple politeness. But most importantly, if you practice bowing to the king over and over, even when you think it doesn’t mean anything, you will never be able to disobey his orders when given, no matter how unjust they are. And that is supremely dangerous.

The Refusal to Die Quietly

Many of us in the US may have seen and been shocked by images or stories of the migrant caravan’s march to the border on Sunday and the repression they faced. It can be hard to understand what’s going on, particularly because historically we haven’t received good information here in the US about Latin America. For example, although the United States has a military base in Honduras, none of the major news outlets has a reporter based there. If we are very honest though, it is also true that part of not knowing what is going on with other people in places “like Honduras” is part of not wanting to know what is going on. Sometimes as human beings we don’t know the details about the rest of the world because we don’t connect the dots that we can see.

I want to share in full the quickly and powerfully written testimony of my friend Amelia Frank-Vitale who witnessed Sunday’s experience on the border between Mexico and the US. Amelia lives in San Pedro Sula, studying the effects of deportation there, and has accompanied the caravan on part of its journey. Amelia witnessed Sunday’s teargassing:

“today was heartbreaking. my country, the one with the most powerful military in the world, used that power to overwhelm a group of people in search of safety and a better future for themselves and their children. I know, I know. the US is in no way the promised land. But, people deeply believe that their lives would be a touch easier, they could breathe a bit calmer, if they could just make it to the other side of that damn ‘fence.’

there was no getting there today. first, mexican police blocked off street after street, dividing the group and confusing what had been planned as a straightforward, peaceful protest near the pedestrian crossing point. instead, after trying to dialogue with the police, people split off, using side streets, no one totally sure where they were headed, but all hoping to be able to get near (or through) the check point.

when one group neared the ‘fence,’ the US border patrol and armed police fired tear gas and rubber bullets. that group dispersed. on the other side of the canal, well into Mexican territory, the US once again fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd. this time, they hit people. there are at least five people wounded from impacts from rubber bullets and spray-paint can-sized gas canisters. this includes a foreign journalist and [my friend].

when I saw my friend bleeding profusely from the back of his head, all I could think was – fuck. my country did this. i took him to the hospital, he got some stitches, and he will be fine. thankfully. but seriously, this is the response to a few thousand people in flip-flops, many of them pushing baby carriages, trying to get in to the US?

my eyes still burn and I have that rough cough that comes from inhaling tear gas. but mostly, i feel heart broken and angry. at one point we traipsed across the canal that is (was?) the Tijuana river. There’s a small stream of waste water and a good part of the canal bed is kind of sticky muddy with sewage sludge. after walking across Mexico, people literally walked through shit today for a peek into the United States. That they were met force and cruelty by my country makes me so very ashamed.

I’ve heard reports that the march, and the actions of the caravaneros, wasn’t peaceful. that’s bullshit. peaceful is not a synonym for submissive. peaceful doesn’t mean you have to put your head down, accept shit, and thank the people stepping on your neck. people changed routes, jumped over fences, climbed up hills, and scrambled onto a parked freight train. a few people threw a few stones. some of them tried, desperately, to climb the wall. the only group of people using real force today, the only people really threatening violence, were the border patrol and police.”

Throughout the months the caravan has been traveling, I have found myself increasingly anxious about what will happen to these refugees/caraveneros once they arrive here in the US and the potentially deadly violence they will face on the border. I suspect it’s easy for a lot of us, from our variously privileged vantage points within the US, to worry about the possibility that people will be killed in a large standoff like this one. We know that permission to shoot has been granted. Although we might admire their bravery, we might then be tempted to take our worry and to be concerned at the risks the folks in the caravan are taking by approaching the border en masse like they did on Sunday.  It’s certainly true that there are people who are blaming the migrants for the use of force, although none of them might be reading this blog.  But would we feel better if these folks died en masse quietly in a shelter in Tijuana? What about if they died back in San Pedro Sula, as Amelia has also written about? What about if they died silently, individually on the migrant trail?

As they have been asserting all along, the migrant caravan/exodus is once again banding together for safety and visibility. Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Salvadorans are dying regularly as a result of US policies whether we see them being attacked on the news over Thanksgiving weekend or not. What is powerful about the migrant caravan is that we are being forced to see it.