From the January-February 2016 issue of News & Letters
by Htun Lin
Under the banner of free trade, commodities and capital are given the right to cross the same borders which are meant as barriers to people. Politicians are out to maintain boundaries, dividing people, and then gin up wars to change boundaries. We rank-and-file workers often feel compelled to ignore borders to solidarize with our fellow humans struggling to survive. Like Doctors Without Borders, which tackles the urgent healthcare needs of those in crisis everywhere, we feel an immediate need to act when so many are facing death, starvation and terror.
President Obama quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s formulation, “‘we have to feel the fierce urgency of now,’ because people are dying. There is no longer any excuse for inaction.” Over 30,000 Americans die every year due to gun violence. In the eyes of healthcare providers, gun violence has become a public health crisis.
My son’s classmate was senselessly shot a month ago while working under the freeway on a mural, which was part of a campaign to end violence in Oakland. The Black Lives Matter movement has put American civilization on trial, revealing the toll institutional racism has taken on Black Americans.
The U.S. is one of the top nations, along with China, Russia, South Africa and Brazil, in the thriving global arms trade, which each year exports billions of dollars worth of weapons.
In Syria, where a persistent non-violent, multi-ethnic movement demanded a democratic opening and was repeatedly met by President Assad’s state terror, over 250,000 people have now died in five years of civil war that has displaced several million Syrians, many of whom have risked death to seek refuge in Europe.
Many more millions are internally displaced by the constant bombing from the Assad regime and from Iran, the Saudis, Turkey, Russia, France, and the U.S., each with their own global agenda.
The “urgency of now” is felt in the Syrian cities of Madaya, Zabadani, Douma and Idlib presently under siege, where war correspondents report emaciated residents “looking like walking corpses,” reminiscent of Srebrenica. They are resorting to crossing minefields in search of food, and eating leaves.
The “urgency of now” to show human solidarity has even shaken up a conservative evangelical Christian school, Wheaton College, in Illinois, where an African American, Larycia Hawkins, expressed her solidarity with Muslims under attack here and abroad. This is a labor issue, because the price for speaking out is the loss of her job, despite her tenure as an Associate Professor at Wheaton.
Hawkins was charged with “apostasy” when she publicly declared, as Pope Francis had, that “We [Christians and Muslims] worship the same God.” She delivered public statements challenging “the racist xenophobism of political candidates, senators, and real-estate moguls…towards Muslim refugees” and her declaration of “solidarity with Muslim brothers and sisters.”
For Hawkins this was “intended to be a way of walking a mile in my Muslim sisters’ shoes. I think that’s Sermon on the Mount Christianity.” Hawkins questioned whether tenure means anything if it doesn’t protect the intellectual and religious freedom of educators like herself.
FREE SPEECH ON THE JOB?
The lack of freedom to speak is a form of alienation in her job. We rank-and-file workers know there is no freedom of speech or democracy in the workplace. While our speech is muzzled, we speak among ourselves about the extreme tension we are under, feeling the “urgency of now” to provide care for our patients.
Dr. King, in his 1967 Riverside speech in solidarity with the Vietnamese people and the young U.S. soldiers who were made to participate in militarized violence in a foreign land, spoke of the “three evils in society: militarism, racism and poverty.” King never separated his opposition to militarism from his campaign to eradicate racism and poverty. He declared, “I’ve fought too long and too hard to make that separation now.” For that refusal and steadfast embrace of humanity and principle, King was criticized and made a pariah by some participants in the Civil Rights Movement.
Today we, too, do not want to separate expressions of solidarity with the suffering around the world from the struggle to be human beings in our everyday lives.