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I am a high school English teacher in an urban high school in Oklahoma City. I am a member of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 2309. I am a Democrat, a union activist and a worker for social justice. I also am a Christian (Congregationalist). I play chess and coach our school chess team.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

History Rhymes

Some have called this the Best Book of 2016

Some weeks ago, I read the above novel, which uses a conceit by making the historical Underground Railroad an actual railroad line with various stations that transport runaway slaves to the North. Whitehead's alternative history novel is at times heartbreaking, at times inspiring, and even at time horrific. I highly recommend it.

I feel very strongly that this book has lessons for our own situation as we face the Trump presidency. 

In our present time, I feel there are parallels between the 19th Century Fugitive Slave Laws and the "seize and deport" actions by federal immigration officials.In both cases, American citizens have been asked to act as some sort of posse comitatus to inform on neighbors and co-workers whom they believe are wanted by the law. In both cases, we are told that these people are not, well, fully people; they are property, or they are illegal.

Now the knee-jerk reactions to that statement will run thusly:
They ARE illegal! What part of "illegal" do you not understand? 
Answer: The slaves were "illegal" once they tried escape their bondage. The law called them property. Their attempt to escape was theft for which the property owner could administer any punishment he saw fit including torture and death.  The law makes the undocumented "illegal." Perhaps the above response begs the question. The question should be, is the law just? Does it do good or harm? My answer is the law is harmfully unjust.

Illegal immigrants are NOT slaves! They came here on their own and can, and must, leave either on their own or by force if needed.
Answer: True, in so far as that goes; in fact, the two examples are nearly mirror opposite images. Slaves were forced here against their will and tried to escape their forced labor. Undocumented workers came here by their own free will and wish to remain so they can labor for a better life for themselves and their families. 

However, what unites these two groups is the question of justice and human dignity. Slaves tried to regain their dignity by fleeing the owners' attempt to degrade them to the level of animals. Undocumented workers try to regain their dignity by escaping poverty, oppression, violence, and the real possibility of forced slavery at the hands of dictators or gangs. 

This brings me to the historic Underground Railroad and the present day Sanctuary Movement about which I wrote in yesterday's post. 
In both cases, citizens have taken upon themselves the burden of protecting vulnerable people from unjust laws.

In both cases, law enforcement officials and some politicians wish to punish those operating the sanctuaries for aiding and abetting "law breakers," slaves and undocumented workers.

In both cases, the officials have no qualms about breaking up families, subjecting citizens to arbitrary search, seizures and arrests.

In both cases, these "hunters and catchers" do not care that those they arrest may be subject to abject poverty, assault (often including rape), danger and death.

Again, there are differences, but enough similarities that those of us calling for sanctuaries in cities, churches and now colleges should feel that we have precedents that show that we are fighting on the side of justice. 

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