Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Today, I Speak

by Sarah H. Paoletti, Practice Professor of Law, University of Pennsylvania Law School

Compassion, vigilance and diligence.  Those were the three action words I shared with my students when confronted with our collective and individual anxiety about the 2016 election cycle that resulted in Donald Trump assuming the role of President of the United States of America.  We must show compassion to each other, I told them: compassion to our clients, to all of those around us feeling a heightened sense of vulnerability as a result of an election cycle where discrimination and all notions of human decency and rule of law were thrown to the wolves; and compassion to ourselves.  We must be diligent in ensuring the truth and accuracy of all that we do and say, particularly in counseling our immigration clients who live in communities where rumors become reality, and for whom the consequences of even the smallest misstep could mean detention, deportation, separation from children and other loved ones, and possible death.  And we must be vigilant in monitoring and seeking accountability for an Administration that has shown total disregard for the rule of law, democratic processes and justice for all.  Today, I add a fourth word – speak.  We must – I must – speak out against hate, against racism, religious intolerance, xenophobia and all forms of bigotry, and we must – I must – speak out in support of those individuals and communities who have endured the injustices that result.  Today, I belatedly add my voice to the chorus of those who have spoken out and who have been speaking out against hate, and in solidarity with those in our country’s Black and Brown communities, LGBTQ communities, Muslim communities, immigrant communities, and persons with disabilities, who have disproportionately carried the burden of speaking out.

Since the inauguration, and even prior to that, my outrage, dismay and heartache about the events taking place in this country, and their ripple effect around the globe, have been confined primarily to private rants within the safe liberal bubble I occupy.  I have cursed in the privacy of my office and home and within the safety net of friends while I search for more constructive words to communicate my thoughts.  I have joined with other human rights law clinicians across the country in drafting a commitment statement calling for the preservation and promotion of human rights at home and abroad.  But my sparse Facebook postings have remained entirely a-political and are limited almost exclusively to wishing friends far and near happy birthday and happy anniversary, celebrating achievements, sending messages of condolences on the death of a loved one, with the occasional post on behalf of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, a migrant worker rights organization on whose board I proudly serve.  When Michael Brown was gunned down in Ferguson, I reacted to other people’s posts, but did not post myself.  When Sandra Bland was found dead in police custody, I reacted to other people’s posts, but did not post myself.  As the justice system has consistently failed to deliver justice, and our leaders have failed to lead us, I have reacted to other people’s posts, but have not posted myself.  When Trump declared a ban on the admission of refugees and Muslims, followed up by Ban 2.0, I reacted to other people’s posts, but did not post myself.

After witnessing the tragic and troubling racist and anti-Semitic protests in Charlottesville this past weekend, followed by news that plain-clothes ICE agents are arresting immigrants in the lobby of the federal building on their way to a hearing in immigration court before being given the opportunity for their case to be heard before an immigration judge, I just wanted to snuggle up with my innocent children and pretend the outside world didn’t exist.  Denial and snuggles have gotten me through many moments, many days.  But after Trump’s initial equivocation on racism, anti-Semitism, and home-grown terrorism, followed by odious remarks that equate those standing up against hate, with white supremacists and neo-Nazis who espouse hate, I can no longer numb my dismay with the cycle of denial, followed by private rants in safe and comfortable spaces.  As a group of UN human rights experts stated in a press statement today in which they expressed grave concerns for the rise of racism in the United States, “Acts of hatred and racist hate speech must be unequivocally condemned.”

I try to teach my students that every word matters.  I try to teach my students to engage in critical reflection and learn from their experiences and the experiences of others.  And now I struggle with how to teach my students that law and lawyers can make a difference in advancing human rights in a country in which black men and women are routinely stopped and searched by police based solely on the color of their skin and informed by years of learned racism; a country where black men and women are killed by police because their race is seen as a threat; in a country that forcibly, and sometimes violently, interferes with the rights of asylum seekers and young kids seeking refuge in the United States.  If I truly believe words matter, if I want to learn from my own experiences and the experiences of others, if I want to share compassion – I must speak.  I must disavow racism, while owning my own white privilege. I must disavow misogyny and bigotry, while recognizing my own heterosexual privilege.  I must disavow the criminalization of poverty and scapegoating of communities of color, while leveraging my own upper-middle class privilege for good.  I must speak for justice and meaningful equality.  And I must remain committed to a more compassionate world where recognition of and respect for the dignity of all persons is more than just an aspiration.  Today, I speak.  Tomorrow, I act.  And tonight, I hold my kids just a little bit tighter for a little bit longer and breathe in their innocence and infinite capacity for love.

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Well spoken!

Posted by: Dennis Guilliams | Aug 17, 2017 7:43:47 AM

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