Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A universal struggle

"Probably nowhere in the world do two countries as different as Mexico and the United States live side by side," and "probably nowhere in the world do two neighbors understand each other so little." That's what Alan Riding wrote in his book "Distant Neighbors".

I thought of that book as the Caravan for Peace started in Tijuana and concluded in Washington, D.C.  The Caravan was launched by Mexico's Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity, and a number of U.S. organizations joined in, Global Exchange foremost among them.  The month-long journey led by poet Javier Sicilia skirted along the only border where the First World meets the Third World.  Upon reaching the Gulf of Mexico the Caravan turned northeast to Houston, on to Atlanta, and from there it went north to Chicago, east to New York and south to Baltimore and Washington.  

The Caravan had five themes: stop arms trafficking from the U.S. to Mexico, stop the drug war initiated forty years ago by President Nixon, stop the laundering of drug money, refocus U.S. foreign aid to social programs, and make U.S. immigration policy more humane. 

Two busses with the Caravan name and emblem on their sides, one in English the other in Spanish, led the procession of cars, vans, and campers on the 6,000 mile journey through twenty-six cities.  Most of the riders were people who had lost family members to the war on drugs.  Others joined in support.  Some people made the whole trip, others joined along the way for as long as they had time available.

Meetings were held in churches, in university auditoriums, on the steps of government buildings, and in public parks.  Members of the Caravan gave their testimonies. The hosts gave theirs. The effects of the war on drugs on both sides of the border were searing and evident.  Marches linked symbolic and historic places. 

I joined the Caravan at Riverside Church in uptown Manhattan across the street from Ulysses Grant's Tomb.  Javier Sicilia, a leader of the Justice and Peace Caravan, referred to Grant as a president with a strong Mexican connection. As a young U.S. Army officer he had fought in the Mexican-American War.  Yet in his memoirs Grant wrote of that war as a massive land grab.  “For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”  In Mexico school children learn that Mexico lost half its territory in the "North American Invasion".  Interestingly, over the entrance of Grant's Tomb are inscribed the words "Let Us Have Peace."  

At the conclusion of the presentations, speeches, and remarks I heard at Riverside Church, hundreds of participants gathered outside for a candlelight march to St. Cecilia's Church in the heart of Harlem.  We walked past the Apollo Theater along streets with names of people who had also demanded changes: Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, Malcom X Boulevard. 

At the City University of New York, documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki presented parts of his film "The House I Live In", this year's Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.  With all of it set in the United States, the film's theme is to treat drug addiction as a public health issue, not a criminal issue. 

Another U.S. president stuck in my mind on the Caravan. President Dwight D. Eisenhower is credited with establishing the Interstate and Defense Highway System -- known as today's Interstates -- that the Caravan's busses drove on.  He promoted a highway network paid with Defense Department funds that would further defense and at the same time serve the people right at home.  How much commerce travels over those highways today? 

It was heartening that in Washington members of the caravan met with members of both houses of Congress, with Maria Otero, the Undersecretary of State for Human Rights, and with leaders of various churches.  Memorable to me is that at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial we met with the Council of Elders of the 20th Century Civil Rights Movement.  Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder and vocalist of the music group Sweet Honey on the Rock told us "your struggle is our struggle, your victory is our victory" and she added, "wherever you go you must sing, and you must say your name so the air will know you are there." At that event she sung for us, and then shouted, "I am Bernice!" and the Elders shouted "Yeah!"  Around the big circle we went, each shouting our name and everyone responding with "Yeah!"  To all at the rally we were no longer anonymous -- we had names -- symbolic of the Caravan on which Mexicans and USns had been embracing and sharing their stories for a month.  I think people on both sides of the border got to know each other a bit better through the Caravan. I wish Alan Riding had been there to see it.

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