Learning From History.

Over the past few weeks, people have been comparing current events and politics to ones from history. The collection of rosaries from immigrants crossing the US/Mexico border has reminded people of the collection of wedding rings from Jewish folks in concentration camps. People have reminded folks that both the Holocaust and slavery were legal and that legality isn’t always equal to morality, as bad policies have been in place for quite some time.

In the first episode of the NPR/WABE podcast ‘Buried Truths’, host Hank Klibanoff talks about the importance of the show by saying that “… when we understand who we were, we can better understand who we are.” Learning about history and who we were can bring new meaning and context to current issues. And by looking at history and the full context, we can also better understand how these issues work, the ways in which we can combat injustice and inequality, and find role models.

Detention Centers and the Japanese Internment Camps

Camps like the ones we’re seeing near the border aren’t new in the United States. Detention centers for undocumented immigrants have been around for decades and were initially privatized in the early 1980s. So for about 30 years, corporations like the Corrections Corporation of America have been making money off the detention of immigrants, which has in turn influenced immigration detention policies.

Additionally, this isn’t the first time that a group of people have been targeted and imprisoned on US soil. During World War II, roughly 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes on the west coast and relocated to ten different camps in the midwest. Two-thirds of that population were American citizens and many spent years in the camps without due process. The podcast ‘Order 9066’ from APM Reports takes a look at these camps, what life was like before, during, and after camp, and the racial tensions that influenced the policies and actions from the government and white people around the country.

Family Separation

One of the main news stories over the past few weeks (for good reason) has been the policy of separating parents and children at the border. This policy got people rightly outraged, in part because the trauma of making it all the way to the US border only to be separated from your parents will have immense effects on these children. And while the policy of separating families has ended, history has suggested that the US won’t find a good solution for these migrant children.

But this isn’t the first time that families have been separated in the US. In both United States and Canada, families have been forcibly separated for numerous generations in many different contexts. The African American Research Collaborative tweeted at the end of May that there has been historical precedence for ripping families apart: African American children were regularly ripped from their parents until 1865 and until the 1970s, native/indigenous children were also ripped from their families and communities.

The CBC podcast ‘Missing and Murdered’ has two seasons looking into different stories of missing and/or murdered indigenous women in Canada. The second  season follows host Connie Walker and Christine Semaganis as they try to find Christine’s missing sister, Cleo, who had been adopted out of Canada to an American family in New Jersey.

Throughout the season, the show talks about the experiences of the Semaganis children and trying to find what happened to their missing sister while also putting their experiences into the context of what is now called ‘the Sixties Scoop’. This dark chapter of Canadian history involved indigenous/aboriginal children being taken from parents and adopted into non-aboriginal families across the United States and Canada. Many have said that this history was an act of cultural genocide, as numerous indigenous children grew up without their native language, families, culture, and traditions.

Civil Disobedience and Breaking the Law

There has been a large congregation of people outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in Portland, OR this past week to protest the policies of indefinite detention and family separation. When fliers saying that the encampment was illegal were distributed by the Department of Homeland Security a few days ago, We the Dreamers PDX shared a statement on Instagram that, among other things, said:

We are aware that these laws are being broken. In the face of extreme injustice, history tells us that some laws must be broken to fight for an equitable world in which the safety of all people is guaranteed. … We recognize that ethical conduct and the law are not synonymous and we must insist that the laws we follows are laws which are ethical, and which respect civil rights for all people,

There have been many times today and throughout history in which bad policies/laws have been broken in the fight for justice. During the Holocaust, it was illegal to aid any Jewish people in parts of Europe and yet, many people did. People like Willem Arondeus and Jan and Antonina Zabinski helped forge papers and helped Jewish people escape the ghettos and camps. Others hid their neighbors and friends. In the face of imprisonment and even death, people all over Europe worked in many different ways to try and help as many Jewish people as they could.

On June 28th, 2018, several hundred protesters showed up on Capital Hill to join the Women’s March for an act of civil disobedience against current immigration policies, with many of those same protesters arrested. The New Poor People’s Campaign has done several mass actions of civil disobedience that has resulted in arrests. Faith leaders were recently arrested in Los Angeles for protesting a visit from US Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

All of these acts of disobedience follows in the spirit of other historical acts, like the many African Americans who were arrested for refusing to give up their seats on the bus for white people and the others who faced social pressures and other consequences after participating in sit ins at restaurants to protest racial discrimination. Groups like the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (often known as ACT UP) were known for their radical protests during the 1980s to bring attention and resources to the HIV/AIDS epidemic hitting the gay community.

Similarly, numerous groups have used ‘die ins’ as a tactic to bring attention to their cause over the last few decades. ‘Die ins’ are when a group of people show up at a public space, typically a very busy space and lie on the ground (and play dead) for a predetermined amount of time. ACT UP, for example, staged a die in at a New York Public Library HIV/AIDS exhibition just a few years ago to remind folks that HIV/AIDS are not just historical events and should not be treated as such.

Why People are Migrating to the United States

The reasons why many people are immigrating to the United States is often lost in the current conversation but it is an important part of this issue. There are so many reasons why people are trying to move to the United States but for some, fleeing their home and crossing the border is an act of survival, as their homes are full of violence and warfare. As Warsan Shire said: ‘no one leaves home unless home is in the mouth of a shark’.

Countries like the United States have a long legacy of violent conquest and actions taken by our government over the last few decades has helped to destabilize countries and encourage widespread violence. Plus, the US has some responsibility in the rise in gang violence in countries like Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador and some experts say that the crackdown on migrants in the US could make things worse in Central America.

There are so many stories of people fleeing violence in their countries. Kevin, for example, is just one undocumented immigrant running from gang violence in El Salvador and recently told his story to CBC News. Kevin is only 22 years old but fears that he will be killed by a gang if he’s sent back home. And there’s Abdi, a Somali refuge who had been living in Kenya when he won a visa lottery, which could have fast track his chances to live in the United States. His story was on a recent episode of This American Life and highlights the difficulties of being a refugee and trying to make it to the United States.

All of this is to say that there’s so much to know about issues currently playing out today. It can be overwhelming and frustrating to try to keep track of everything but knowing a little context and a belief in justice can sometimes make a difference. And in addition to better understanding these issues, supporting local and national organizations can help. Some will need money or supplies while others will need people to show up to events.

Calling out bigotry, calling in friends, and learning about all the ways in which you can grow can also make a huge difference. Small acts of resistance (refusing to serve someone like the Press Secretary for example) repeated by thousands can make a difference. Independent news will always need support if you’re able to donate, especially in the wake of the administration’s misguided attack on “fake news” and after the mass shooting on a Maryland newsroom.

Looking to history can mean we get a better sense of where we are now because past actions and policies influence who we are now. But looking into history can also mean better understanding how to take on fascist and oppressive systems.

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