The Structures of White Supremacy Empowered Racist Violence in Charlottesville

UUSC decries both the white supremacist violence that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend and the everyday structures of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and homophobia in the United States that enable extremist violence.

The neo-fascist, neo-Nazi, and “alt-right” groups that converged on Charlottesville this weekend cannot be treated as simply fringe and isolated elements. They are a particularly extreme manifestation of the much deeper sickness of white supremacism in our society, where the legacy of slavery and discriminatory policies has led to extreme racial inequalities today in education, employment, incarceration, and wealth.

Likewise, as we celebrate the Unitarian Universalist (UU) values that call us to resist hatred and bigotry, we recognize the complicity and contradictions in our country, within UU history, and our own lives. Our partners at the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (ARC) remind us: “Until we acknowledge and understand the history of White Supremacy…we will not be able to dismantle effectively structural oppression or to address the root causes of hate and violence in this country.”

While controversy following the events in Charlottesville has centered on the President’s disturbing response to the violence, we must not forget the even more direct role he continues to play in empowering the forces of the extreme right. Leaders at all levels should unequivocally denounce these actions, and we must all work to reverse course on policies that criminalize and stigmatize communities of color. This includes the promotion of anti-immigration legislation that reads like a white nationalist wish list

We mourn the death and loss of life that occurred this past weekend. We also recognize that structures of supremacy are inherently violent, and they are killing and harming people every day in ways that don’t receive equal public attention. We are inspired by the example of people of faith and conscience, including many Unitarian Universalists, who went to Charlottesville this weekend to counter the violence of hate with a message of love. “They showed us that the light of hope and love burns brighter than hate. It is imperative that we keep this flame alive even in these dark times,” says UUSC President and CEO Tom Andrews.

As we process our personal and organizational response to the weekend events, we are creating space to meet with one another as a staff to share our grief, reflect on the systems of racism that exist, and plan our response. We continue to support the individuals and groups that are targeted by the neo-fascist, neo-Nazi, and “alt-right” movement. May our grief for the past and present move us to work harder for the future as it ought to be. As the great labor organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones once bid us: “pray for the dead—and fight like hell for the living.”

We Denounce the Suppression of Climate Science

Yesterday’s New York Times article about the leaked special section of the draft National Climate Assessment provides further scientific evidence of what our partners in the Pacific and Alaska already know and are experiencing. Global warming has melted glaciers, shrunk sea ice, and thawed permafrost in Alaska and in the greater Arctic region. Global warming has increased ocean temperatures and caused rising sea levels in the Pacific. These are not only findings from the draft report but the actual lived experiences of our partners, some of whom are already facing the real threat of losing their land and their homes.

These communities, like many others both here in the United States and around the world, do not need their experiences to be qualified by this scientific report, nor do we need this report to affirm our values and commitment to environmental justice. Our shared humanity demands this.

However, we do need facts – unbiased, unsolicited, bipartisan evidence – upon which we can create the policies that we need to protect our planet and to respond to the growing risks of climate change to ourselves and our communities, both here and afar. Moreover, we need public servants who respect the integrity and dedication of the scientists who collect this data and who are committed to enacting legislation based on their findings.

Through this article, these scientists have publicly expressed their fear that government will suppress this report. We share their concerns and believe that this administration’s continued disregard of science is unjustified and dangerous. UUSC and our partners are in solidarity with these scientists and we will be watching closely to see that the Climate Science Special Report is released later this fall.

Activating the Next Generation

What do you think of when you hear, “Florida? For many, the first words that come to mind are beaches, warm weather, vacation, and Disney World. For myself and the youth I led on a service learning trip to Immokalee, Fla., we do think of shared experiences, fun, and the outdoors. But above all else, we remember the inspiring farm and food justice organizers we met there, and the new framework for activism that they helped us build.

The Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice (UUCSJ), a collaboration between the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) and the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), promotes human rights through immersion learning programs. In April, I had the privilege of leading a youth group from Old Ship Church in Hingham, Mass. on the very first UUCSJ Activate Youth Justice Journey to Immokalee. During our trip, we learned first-hand about issues facing migrant farmworkers and grassroots efforts to improve conditions.

Like many low-wage workers across the United States, migrant farmworkers in Southwest Florida face wage theft, harassment, threats of deportation, and discrimination in their work environments. In the face of these injustices, the resilient Immokalee community works together to advocate for their rights, including through the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). CIW is a community-led grassroots organization that monitors workplace conditions and improves pay, conditions, and treatment for farmworkers through the Fair Food Program, a worker’s rights and corporate responsibility agreement. After learning from the CIW for two full days and leading a demonstration outside of a Wendy’s restaurant in Naples, Fla. (Wendy’s remains the only large fast food chain to not sign onto the Fair Food Program), the Old Ship Church youth group was eager to put their new knowledge and understanding of justice issues and grassroots organizing to work.

Learning about issues first-hand, and with peers, is a powerful way for youth to become engaged in new human rights and social justice issues. Through learning about one issue in depth, such as farmworker justice in Southwest Florida, youth become equipped with new activist tools and skills—and are inspired to action.

What do you think of when you hear the word, “youth”? When I think of the youth from Old Ship Church and the many others I have met through UUCSJ, I think of thoughtful, energetic activists who want to build a better, more just future.

UUCSJ, a joint initiative between UUSC and the UUA, organizes programs for all ages designed to help people cross boundaries, gain insight, and imagine new ways to make a difference in the world. To learn more, visit uucsj.org.

Encroaching Erosion a Looming Threat to Chevak Native Village

Communities who have contributed the least to the planet’s climate crisis are threatened by accelerating climate change impacts. Chevak Native Village is one of the many frontline villages in Alaska which needs urgent protection. Minimal government assistance has left villagers to cope with weather related changes and erosion caused by increasing temperatures and thawing permafrost by themselves. But like other villages in Alaska, this community does not have sufficient capacity nor resources to deal with the barrage of ongoing climate issues, and is in need of immediate assistance.

Chevak village is about 518 miles northwest of Anchorage and about eight miles inland from the Bering Sea. The village is home to 1,200 Cup’ik villagers, including 200 children who attend the local Chevak School. The village has over 200 stilt homes painted with bright colors that mask the wooden structures arranged neatly across the village.

In early June, UUSC joined our partner, the Alaska Institute for Justice (AIJ), on a visit to Chevak, one of the 16 villages that AIJ is working with to develop advocacy strategies to enhance their ability to adapt to a radically changing environment. Our shared vision is to ensure that the human rights of Alaska Native villages are advanced and protected in the face of climate risks.

The primary goal of the visit was to assist the State of Alaska’s Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys (DGGS) Coastal Hazards Program to install shoreline erosion monitoring equipment. Project Manager Jacquelyn Overbeck describes this work as part of the State’s effort to facilitate community-based monitoring of erosion in areas where minimal or no baseline erosion data exists in rural Alaska. The installation included a community teach-in to discuss the basis of the monitoring and to show villagers how to collect and read data. Chevak is one of the first villages where this work is taking place.

Land erosion is taking place along the bluffs that form the southwestern borders of the village causing land instability for homes and other community structures. Over the years, individual homeowners have placed sandbags and metals to stop the erosion, but this has not been enough. According to some villagers, erosion has been happening since the 1980s but is now happening at a more rapid pace. Without immediate assistance, Chevak could erode away and cause the community to relocate.

But relocation is not an option, nor is it new for Chevak. Chevak Mayor Richard Tuluk states that “This is our third home.” Chevak first moved a few miles inland from their original location along the Bering Sea sometime in the 1930s, where they lived for about ten years. In 1950, they moved to their current location, which is located behind the bluff of the Ninglikfak River. The land that Chevak currently sits on belongs to Hooper Bay. This history pays homage to the nomadic culture of Alaska Natives as natural voyagers.

AIJ’s work with Chevak focuses on implementing community-based monitoring, which is coordinated with state and federal government agencies that can provide information regarding rates of erosion and resources to respond and protect the community. Robin Bronen, the Executive Director of AIJ, states that “Part of what needs to happen, is that communities need to be given the information they need to predict when storms or natural hazards are going to happen, and at the same time monitor the impacts of these disasters in real time and report that back to national and state agencies so that they are aware of what communities are experiencing. With this data, communities will also be able to access financial resources that will help them reduce their hazards and risks.”

Erosion is not the only issue that Chevak is dealing with. Some villagers shared stories of how they were once able to travel across permafrost-laden marshland to access the surrounding volcanic mountains during winter to pick berries, but due to permafrost melting earlier and faster than before, those trips are now becoming impossible to make. Other villagers spoke of finding fewer fish stocks, increasing flood waters during storms and frequent warm weather periods.

Without a governance framework in place to address this multitude of problems, government assistance will be provided on an ad-hoc basis at best, and communities will continue to lack the resources they need. Alaska Native villages will not be the only communities in the nation or the world who must adapt to this accelerating climate crisis. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) reports that in 2016, about 24 million people were displaced by sudden onset hazards in over 118 countries. This figure does not include those that are displaced by slow onset climate impacts, which are difficult to determine. This data is staggering and reflects the enormity of climate induced forced displacement and the importance of a governance framework.

Responding government agencies must partner with communities at risk to determine effective adaptation strategies that ensure the protection of life and property. This also ensures that the processes that take place are transformational, and that they recognize and respect the agency and human dignities of those who are unjustly confronted by our climate crisis.

Xenophobic RAISE Act fails to address real concerns

UUSC denounces the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act and the xenophobic arguments being used to justify this legislation. Rather than focusing on genuine efforts to improve the economic situation for struggling people, this legislation scapegoats immigrant workers in order to avoid addressing the true causes of low wages and poverty in the United States, such as attacks on worker organizing, opposition to minimum wage increases, and rapid growth of executive pay despite stagnating wages for employees.

Through Love Resists, UUSC partners with worker centers across the country who advance the rights of low-wage workers. We know that the immigrant workers who are targeted under the RAISE Act contribute to the U.S. economy in significant ways and are not a threat to U.S. workers. Instead they often help to advocate for better working conditions and higher wages, which benefits all workers.

By reducing legal forms of entry, including slashing the number of refugees who can apply for permanent residency and the number of family-based and diversity visas, the legislation will only serve to weaken the U.S. economy by losing a vital component of our workforce, tearing families apart, and denying asylum for those fleeing violence. It is all too in line with this administration’s larger agenda to increase the criminalization of immigration.

Moreover, by prioritizing merit-based immigration, in which English language proficiency, education level, and job skills are prioritized, the RAISE Act devalues the critical contributions that immigrant populations of all backgrounds make to this country.

The RAISE Act, although cloaked in the language of jobs and the economy, is divisive and an affront to our values and shared humanity.

Attacks on Sanctuary Will Mean More San Antonios

We awoke last Monday to the horrifying news that ten people had died of dehydration and asphyxiation in a tractor-trailer in San Antonio, Tex., where they had been trapped without water or air conditioning for a 150-mile drive. Our partner in San Antonio, RAICES, organized a vigil the night of the tragedy to honor the victims. “We hope and pray for the survivors to recover quickly and find peace, safety, and justice,” RAICES wrote in a statement to their supporters. “This heartbreaking situation highlights the lengths that migrants will go to seek refuge in the United States. We value, honor, and respect migrant lives.”

These individuals were not the victims of the driver. They were the victims of an international economic system that pushes families into debt and hunger and criminalizes them for doing what is necessary to survive and provide for their loved ones. They suffered under a border enforcement regime that has grown so reckless and unaccountable that former agents are voicing opposition and migrants and asylum-seekers are forced to maneuver unimaginably dangerous crossings rather than risk an encounter with Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Far-right politicians moved quickly to exploit the tragedy in their continued campaigns against pro-immigrant local policies. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick released a statement declaring that “Sanctuary cities…enable human smugglers and cartels. Today, these people paid a terrible price and demonstrate why we need a secure border[.]” In Washington, D.C., Attorney General Jeff Sessions justified his continued attacks on sanctuary efforts stating, “So-called ‘sanctuary’ policies…encourage illegal immigration and even human trafficking…This can have tragic consequences, like the ten deaths we saw in San Antonio this weekend.”

Sessions and Patrick are attacking the very sanctuary policies that could have prevented the tragedy in San Antonio from ever occurring. By ensuring that undocumented members of our community can depend on the services they need, without fear of deportation or immigration consequences, sanctuary can save lives.

If this government truly cared about protecting migrants from dehydration and exposure, it would not have raided a humanitarian aid camp administered by UUSC’s partners No More Deaths, as it did earlier this summer, thereby cutting off a critical lifeline to migrants in the desert. It would not be trying to militarize further an enforcement system that has already forced thousands of migrants to their deaths in inaccessible regions of the borderlands. Likewise, if this administration were concerned about transnational criminal groups like MS-13, as it frequently claims, it would not be doing the dirty work of these gangs for them by returning their victims to danger.

By making it all but impossible to cross the border by safe means, Sessions and Patrick – and the administrations they represent – have virtually guaranteed that more people will have to trust their fate to smugglers. Even migrants with well-founded asylum claims who arrive at the ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border are returned to their persecutors without screening, leaving them with no choice but to cross by the most clandestine and dangerous routes. The narrowly averted tragedy in Mexico this weekend, involving 147 Central American migrants trapped in another tractor-trailer, reveals the potential for more tragedies like these if policies don’t change.

Reports out of Austin, Tex. indicate that many undocumented residents are afraid even to seek treatment for injuries or to attend school. The infiltration of federal immigration activities into an ever-wider array of local government activities – a threat that will be magnified by Texas’ Senate Bill 4, which bans sanctuary cities across the state – will only exacerbate this situation. The San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) seemed to justify these fears in the worst possible way by its actions on Sunday, calling federal immigration authorities to the scene of the tragedy. As RAICES wrote in its statement: “Instead of offering a humanitarian response, SAPD called an enforcement agency with a track record of causing migrant deaths and criminalizing, detaining, and deporting vulnerable populations.”

UUSC will continue to stand with our partners around the world in defense of migrant rights. The people who died on Sunday were not a statistic—they were families fleeing poverty and looking for a better life. Their deaths are an accusation against efforts that devalue people and criminalize poverty. Our hearts are with them and their loved ones in the long struggle for justice.