So familiar have we become with stories like that of Michael Brown that even the response begins to feel repetitive. Protesters demand justice, details of the incident are slowly made public, new hashtags are created. We most certainly can expect the public defamation of this young man’s character, as if that in any way justifies his fate. If a trial happens, we’ll approach it with cautious hope tempered by our past disappointments.
We know the drill, because Michael Brown is not the first. But are we fed up enough to fight like we really want him to be the last?
Several Latino and immigrant rights organizations issued statements of solidarity last week, and supported the call for justice. My organization was one of them. This is an important step, but Latino and immigrant communities can and should go beyond hollowed statements of solidarity, and towards a genuine compañerismo, we must be concrete in our contributions and actively battle the narratives that make excuses for this crisis.
Within Latino and immigrant communities, we have been fighting a monster. With record-breaking deportations and a dramatic expansion of the detention system from the border to our backyards, the immigration enforcement system has grown out of control. Couple that development with regressive rhetoric of hate that dehumanizes both those who speak it and who hear it.
The federal government now spends more on immigration enforcement than all other federal enforcement agencies combined. The merging of local law enforcement with immigration enforcement has damaged the already tenuous relationship between the community and police.
We have said no more poli-migra, we have demanded not one more deportation.
So when Latino and immigrant constituencies see the case of Michael Brown, we should recognize this problem well. The criminalization of the black community is thorough in its cruelty. Politicians have created an extensive set of laws in their crusade to be tough on crime and wage a war on drugs, often times enforced disproportionately on black people. The massive incarceration rate and subsequent disenfranchisement shackles millions from pursuing a life with dignity. To boot, we have the militarization of police and the unchecked use of violence we have seen manifest in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri virtually since Brown was killed nearly two weeks ago.
These issues are distinct. However they leave in their wake destruction that is woven from the same cloth. And they are justified by a politic of fear. Fear is literally killing us. We cannot afford to continue to look the other way, put our head down, present differently, be silent, or put our hands up because we are finding in the most painful of ways, it doesn’t always work.
So, my people, mi gente in the Latino and immigrant community, I suggest the following as some first steps in coming correct:
- Recognize that black lives matter. Let’s enter the ring on this one, not simply because the devaluation of life also happens within and outside of our communities, but because we are responding to the direct threat this presents to our black sisters and brothers. It is a given, it is assumed that all lives matter, the political point in saying, “black lives matter,” is to directly challenge the established pattern where black lives are disregarded.
- Redirect the “We are Not Criminals” message. For years, this message has made the rounds in the immigrant rights movement. It is often the rally cry of undocumented workers. It misses the reality of people who are the targets of criminalization. We must redirect the conversation from one of stereotypes about criminal behavior to how the deportation system, police and prisons are criminal.
- Drop the “college-bound” clause. Many have latched on, for better or worse, to the fact that Brown was college-bound after the weekend during which he was killed. It is a tragic coincidence, but someone’s criminal or educational record does not factor into whether something like this can happen. After seeing how limiting the ‘Harvard valedictorian’ paradigm was in the Dream Act movement, immigrant rights organizations should recognize this and steer clear.
- Unity = some talking, more doing. So much lip service is given to the idea of the ‘black-brown’ unity. This is an opportunity to go beyond theory and rhetoric. We learn infinitely more by doing, and we can build and deepen unity between our communities through joint struggle. A good ally shows up, and pushes what’s moving and plugs in where help is needed. Let’s listen carefully on how we can show up and contribute.
The question remains of how to fight like we want this to be the last time. It is a lofty idea, but what is our job if not to dream for what seems impossible and fight like we know we can win? In our experience of the #Not1More deportation campaign, there came a point where we simply had to make a decision that our families and community was worth too much to accept the status quo. So we experimented. We can offer some of those lessons in service of campaigns that address this issue.
A trial may follow in Ferguson, but a trial can’t fully fix this. It will be key to create platforms to benefit from the wisdom of survivors of police violence, to hear from Black women and mothers who have been crafting strategies to keep their children alive and from the tireless grassroots organizers who have been on the front lines of this battle. We must also demand more from our leaders and allies. What we’ve seen in the immigrant rights context is the confusing of access as power and the prioritization of position over solving problems.
Too often politicians and leaders get by with an ‘E’ for effort. It’s not only our adversaries we must engage – we must push our allies to risk everything we risk. If there’s anything we can offer the families who have lost their loved ones, perhaps it is the prevention of more tragedy. The people of Ferguson are showing up every night to say, enough. Let’s heed their call.