Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Get Up And Sing

March 22, 2006

"Why are you preaching to the choir?" the man from the radio station asked me. "Everyone here in San Francisco agrees with you."

That's the question of the hour. Our website,, got a bunch of comments to that effect after our awesome street theater action on Monday, dramatizing the illegal detentions and torture of foreign prisoners by our government to morning commuters. "Why don't you protest in Wichita?" one of them asked. Of course, if we did protest in Wichita, we'd be called carpetbaggers, or outside agitators. We wouldn't just be called that, we would be that.

It was only last night that I thought of the answer I wish I had given: We're not preaching to the choir, we're telling the choir to stand up and sing.

If all of San Francisco is really against the war, against torture, against indefinite detentions (concentration camps), then let's see it. I hate to keep coming back to the same analogy, but there's just not a better one: if you asked an 85-year-old German what they did during World War II, and they said, "Oh, well everyone in my town was already opposed to the Nazis, so I didn't do anything. We all voted for another candidate when we had the chance," you would not be impressed. So how can we get San Francisco to demonstrate its opposition, if its opposition is so deep?

What people were upset about was that we blocked traffic on a busy street for nearly an hour while everyone was hurrying to get to work on time. Actually, we didn't block it for an hour. We blocked it for about 15 minutes, and the police blocked it for the rest of the hour.

But that's not the point. What is the point, is that there have been quite a few days in recent years when business in San Francisco has completely shut down. 9/11 and the day after. The couple days after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. The day after the Rodney King riots began in Los Angeles. Yeah, that's right. The day after Black L.A exploded in justified rage, I got a call from my supervisor at work telling me not to come in. Fearful of demonstrations in downtown, the firm had decided to close for a couple days, making it possible for me to go participate in a demonstration that was shut down before it began by a police chief who declared martial law. Honest, he used those words.

Yet the day that our bombs started raining on Bagdad, and every day thereafter, unless it was some dead president's birthday or something, business in San Francisco rolled on as usual. Those of us who felt the need to diverge from our routine took sick time, personal time, sick of war time, Paid Time Off, Leave Without Pay (which I just realized has the same acronym - LWOP - as Life Without Parole - hmmm). What none of us can understand, even those of us who care deeply about the war and human rights and every other good thing, is that for the Iraqis, every day since March 19, 2003 has been 9/11. Or maybe I should say since January 17, 1991.

We don't even have to look so far away for a massive earthquake most of us good San Francisco liberals and radicals are pretty oblivious of. Yesterday, I got a bunch of emails announcing a week of actions in support of a hunger strike protesting SB 4437, the Sensenbrenner/King anti-immigrant bill. The latest in the proposed draconian measures to punish people who dare to come here to pick tomatoes or clean toilets for subminimum wage, this bill if it passes will imprison not only undocumented workers and their kids, but people who provide them health care or help them find a place to live. Tell me, who is helped by that? We know it costs more to keep someone in prison for a year than to send them to Harvard. So why do we want to spend our money that way?

The government tries to say it is to protect us against terrorists, but then, isn't everything? I must have missed something, because I don't recall that Mohammed Ata or any of his 9/11 coconspirators, or any of their predecessors, came from Mexico. If this really had anything to do with national security, the government would be much better advised to mine the Canadian border. But of course, in their minds, Canada is the nice snow-covered home of law-abiding white people, and the South is where all those dangerous brown people who all look alike come from. They can't tell a Latino from an Arab from a Turk, but it doesn't matter since we're going to lock all of them up anyway.

So I went to this demo, which was very powerful and spirited, with lots of drumming, and in the crowd of 300 people, I saw three people I knew. The week of actions has been organized by Deporten La Migra, which more or less speaks for itself - I was one of three or four people who were not Latino. The Asian immigrant communities, which actually make up an even larger part of San Francisco than the Latino immigrant communities, were also noticeably absent (although looking at a blog account of the events, I see that today, the Progressive Chinese Alliance and the May 1st Alliance, the Chinese Progressive Association and the May 1st Alliance [grassroots alliance of low wage worker organizations] organized a noon rally to support the hunger strike). Our demo on Monday also had about 300 people, of which maybe 3 were Latino.

I'm not criticizing anyone. I mean, I only heard about yesterday's action about three hours before it started and it happened I didn't have plans after work; if it had been any other day this week, I wouldn't have been there either. And I know that there is an action on Monday, also at Dianne Feinstein's office, just like ours was, that is connecting the war on Iraq to the war on immigrants I'm just thinking about what it means that there was almost no crossover between those of us who were protesting the current incarceration of brown-skinned Muslims, and the group protesting the threatened (and current) incarceration of brown-skinned Catholics.

On one hand, it doesn't really matter. We are all out there, that's what really matters, and we are ultimately part of the same movement, whether we know it or not. We all work in our own communities, and maybe that makes us stronger. I guess we're churches with different choirs. But if we all put our voices together, could we make better harmony?

For news and photos from the hunger strike for immigration justice, and to find out about this weekend's actions, see

For tons of photos and widespread news coverage of our action against torture, and to get involved, see (but don't send us any nasty emails about preaching to the choir).

To listen to my interview with Jamila al-Shanty, recently elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council on Hamas ticket, see

Or better yet, see you in the streets.