March 18, 2011
Looking back from Baja California, to Salt Lake City, Utah Feb 24-March 4, 2011
From the previous post, so as to segue into our next moment:
…the plan is to tie in our lessons and incredible learning experience in Salt Lake City to what we are doing here. I will bookmark the Baja trajectory, and take us back two weeks to Salt Lake City, because there are dots to connect, or rather, stars to connect into constellations.
Borderlands. Traveling down the Baja California peninsula I read aloud from Luis Alberto Urrea’s Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border. Urrea was born in Tijuana and raised in San Diego, the son of a Mexican father and American mother. He grew up “utterly bilingual and bicultural.” As a young man he was recruited as a translator for a bold, straight-talking Protestant missionary who worked tirelessly to help the garbage pickers who live in the dump outside of Tijuana; as Urrea describes them, “the untouchables of the untouchables.” Urrea’s book Across the Wire is a story-by-story account of his years spent on the border. He writes in the prologue, “When I was younger, I went to war. The Mexican border was the battlefield….We were armed with water, medicine, shampoo, food, clothes, milk, and doughnuts. At the end of a day, like returning veterans from other battles, we carried secrets in our hearts that kept some of us awake at night……Our faith sustained us – if not in God or “good,” then in our work.” The stories in Across the Wire are not, as you can surely guess, pretty or happy stories. They are hard and gritty and dark. And that is the line that all storytellers must walk. Sure, we are “finding the good” and that is what we look for; that is what we aim to bring back, to share. But one must also rub elbows with what is not-good, with what is difficult, hard, and grim; not to indulge in it, or glorify it or make it into some sort of Fight Club badge of honor, but to see it without turning away or denying its reality. Only when we can truly see what is before us, can we do anything to change it. If we deny the actuality and see only what we wish to see, or can tolerate, then what we see is not so bad, right? And why change something that is not so bad? So in order to “find good” one must be willing to face whatever comes one’s way, see it for what it is, and then do something.
This is a land of many contrasts – the bright, inviting blue of the Gulf waters and the dark, formidable islands rising from them. The easy smiles of friendship on the faces of our new amigos – Angel, Martine, Elise, and Juan — and the unspoken presence of a fence guarded by US Marshalls with machine guns that would arrest them as “illegals” should they dare to try to cross into the US. To tell a story without contrasts – without the uneasy juxtaposition of goodness with the harsh reality of life as it so often is, means to tell half a story, and half a story is simply a fiction.
The Borderlands. Luis Alberto Urrea writes of the Mexican border unflinchingly. We, too, are constantly exploring boundaries and crossing borders. What are our personal borderlands? What of the borderlands of justice? In Salt Lake City, we began to confront them both.
“I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”
Every time a witness or defendant is brought to the stand, this oath is taken, one hand on the Bible and one held in the “oath taking” position, as if the oath-giver and oath-taker are about to give one another a high five. But what if one isn’t allowed to tell “the whole truth?” What if one, even after taking that oath, is prevented from speaking the wholeness of the truth? What then? Is justice served? Is truth served?
The FtG crew went to Salt Lake City as witnesses. We went to observe and report on the trial of Tim DeChristopher. We sat in the courtroom for four days and watched the proceedings in their entirety. In the end, Tim was found guilty on both counts.
Our courts are charged with upholding “the rule of law”. But what happens when a citizen breaks an unjust or immoral law and is then tried by the very system that is charged with upholding the “rule of law?” How could such a court rule other than “guilty” in such a case? History is filled with stories of those who risked life and limb by breaking “the law” – the “rule of law” – while upholding a higher law, a moral law.
Abolitionists who stood between slavery and the law were charged, tried and executed for treason.
Tim was found guilty of breaking the “rule of law”. However, there are higher laws that rule the hearts of men and women and if we are beholden to those higher laws, who stands in judgment then?
There is a deep sense of knowing in one’s heart when truth is upheld. Even though the ruling in Tim’s case was not in keeping with the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, we were on the side of truth and we knew it. And all the young people in the courtroom knew it, too. They knew who spoke truth and who didn’t. They knew who upheld truth and who didn’t. They knew who had the (political) power to allow the whole truth to be presented, and yet didn’t. They were fooled by no one.
And they possess knowledge of legal authority and legal standing that few of my generation had at their age, thanks to a small group of perceptive and courageous people (see www.celdf.org). They can now, in numbers, ask questions fully prepared with real answers instead of useless rhetoric. Questions like, “Are we really a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people?”; “Which ‘people’?”; “Who stands in defense of Nature?”; and “Who is the real authority of the Land?”
They sat silent and attentive in the courtroom as justice was meted out piecemeal. Knowing most of the story already, they watched the courtroom proceedings in disbelief and disillusionment, as testimony after testimony was denied. As Tyler later said, “If I had heard only what the jury was allowed to hear, I probably would have found him guilty, too.” How can a system of justice be so unjust? What kind of system can we create that truly upholds justice for all? These two questions have been burning in us for weeks now, and I think they are very good questions to ask of ourselves and of our elders.
Since the verdict was announced, many people have written or called us to express their dismay, sadness, and outrage. To be sure, the stigma of a felony conviction, not to mention the reality of a probable prison sentence is a sobering prospect for anyone – and Tim is only 29 years old. In many ways his life is just beginning. So it is with full understanding and empathy that I write these next words:
everything is all right.
It is very hard to make a fair assessment – as it was for the jurors at Tim’s trial – unless one is present in a given situation, and even then, if you are removed a degree or two it is impossible to know the whole story. When the fate of a fellow human is in your hands, piecing together a picture complete enough on which to base your decision is dicey at best. Leave out a few key facts and a whole new reality is formed, one that may resemble the truth, but isn’t. So for those who have written to tell us how outraged (sad, disappointed, frustrated) they are, take heart! Watch the video of Tim on the courthouse steps just after the verdict was read. Listen to the statement by Attorney Pat Shea, of Tim’s legal team. Tim may have been convicted, but he by no means “lost”.
When Judge Benson announced the verdict, tears were shed. But from the beginning, the support for Tim and the call for justice surrounding his trial have been infused with unrelenting resolve, and indeed, the mantra was “joy and resolve”. We not only heard it over and over again in Salt Lake City in the days leading up to and during the trial, we saw it, felt it, and participated in it.
Chaos theory posits that a butterfly flapping its wings in Mongolia can put forces into motion that may become a hurricane in the Caribbean. Tim’s action on December 19, 2008 at the BLM auction in Salt Lake City was a butterfly’s wings flapping. The storm that has gathered and sustained since that day may or may not be a hurricane (yet), but it is certainly a gale. It has gained momentum and won allies throughout the world. Tim’s trial was postponed eight times only to finally take place in the midst of unprecedented national and international populace uprisings; a confluence of individuals standing side by side and hand in hand in solidarity – for the cause of justice everywhere, and out of sheer love of humanity, and the blue-green planet that is our home. A hurricane? A groundswell? A new day? Time will tell.
One of Tim’s attorney’s, Ron Yengich, in his closing argument to the jury, countered a statement by the prosecution that, given the evidence, the choice to convict should be “easy” for the jury. Mr. Yengich said, “It isn’t easy. It shouldn’t be easy to convict a human being of a crime simply because your government tells you to.” He went on to say, “Mr. DeChristopher wanted to give some hope to people. That was his purpose. You must decide if a spur of the moment desire for hope is a federal crime.” Five young people traveled from California to bear witness on our government, but what they actually witnessed was far more profound. I wonder if even Mr. Yengich has any idea of what, in the end, Tim inspired. Because it is far more than mere hope. An awakening is taking place in youth around the globe. Whether overturning an oppressive regime, or voicing their outrage on behalf of Nature ravaged by greed, there is a new activism arising, fueled by compassion and a longing for justice. The impact of this on the FtG students and interns is impossible to assess and deeply heartening to watch.
While having lunch with Terry Tempest Williams on day two of the trial, she went around our circle and asked each of one us why we were there. She listened intently to every answer. And then she told the students and interns that it is up to them — their generation — to make the changes that must be made. She told them that the time for them to take their rightful place as leaders is now, and it is that fact that sustains her and maintains her optimism for the future.
Perhaps what is most encouraging is that this is just the beginning. Peaceful Uprising is already planning their next step. The FtG students are starting to solidify their media and writing projects. The youth are proving, right now, that they are ready to lead, and ready to join with others of their generation to speak out, stop the madness, dig in and start creating a livable future. Tim wouldn’t want it any other way.
Campo Archelon, Bahia de Los Angeles, Baja California, Mexico
Photos by Annabelle