The past couple weeks, two stories involving trapped children have dominated the headlines. The first group are the immigrant children detained along America’s southern border, herded into improvised camps, locked behind chain-link fences, and in myriad ways brutalized and traumatized.
The second group are the young boys trapped deep underground, in a waterlogged cave in Thailand.
Both stories are heartbreaking; both involve the unfathomable horror of separation, the terror of the unknown. And both, in very different ways, have called forth the best in our common humanity in response.
In Thailand, scores of volunteers, many traveling from countries thousands of miles distant, worked to locate the children and then, at great personal risk, get food and medicine and oxygen tanks into the flooded cave. Now, as I write, the world holds its breath as teams of engineers and divers try to work out a viable rescue plan for the trapped, and weakened, children.
In America, in very different circumstances, citizens by the millions have taken actions to demand the children held hostage by our own government be freed. On June 30, vast numbers took to the streets around the country, protesting the detention of young immigrant children.
I joined the marchers in New York City. The temperature was in the 90s, the humidity intense, the blazing sun scorching the protestors. We convened at 10 a.m. in Foley Square down by the federal buildings in southern Manhattan, a huge crowd of people, waving placards, wearing T-shirts and hats adorned with political slogans, chanting again and again “Shame” as the names of Trump’s henchmen and henchwomen were read out.
Then, slowly, the marchers moved down the urban canyon of Centre Street, away from the ICE building, and onto the Brooklyn Bridge. The first demonstrators reached the entry point well before 11 a.m.; the last of the tens of thousands of protestors didn’t get onto the bridge until 2 p.m.
For three hours, in the searing heat, those tens of thousands of men and women and children, from the superannuated to babies in strollers, black and brown and white, gay and straight, chanted their solidarity with the immigrants Trump’s regime has imprisoned, chanted their disbelief that America has gone into the business of whipping up hatred against the world’s huddled masses and putting thousands of immigrant children into cages.
Every square foot of the bridge’s pedestrian pathway was filled with protestors. At some point, people near me began chanting “immigrants built this bridge.” The noise of the car horns, honking again and again and again, not in typical New York frustration but in raucous support for the demonstrators, was extraordinary.
Halfway across the bridge, I saw an old man, who said that he had two cracked ribs, taking a short breather on a bench. Later, on the Brooklyn side, I saw an elderly lady, who had collapsed in the heat, and was being attended to, oxygen mask over her face, by paramedics. Despite the heat, neither had been willing to stop marching because they knew, in this most immigrant of cities, that they were marching for decency, for morality, for empathy with the weak and solidarity with the detained.
This was America. I felt, for the first time in many, many months, like I was seeing the poet Langston Hughes’ vision of what this wondrous country could be reasserting itself.
Let America be America again./ Let it be the dream it used to be./Let it be the pioneer on the plain/Seeking a home where he himself is free,
is how Hughes opened his magnificent poem.
Many stanzas later, after detailing all the ways in which America was failing when measured against its own ideals, he ended with these lines:
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,/The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,/We, the people, must redeem/The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers./The mountains and the endless plain – /All, all the stretch of these great green states – /And make America again!
I have read Hughes’ poem, penned 82 years ago, dozens of times recently.
In the eruption of protests this past month, outside federal buildings in cities large and small around the country, along the border, at detention facilities, there are at last the stirrings of redemption. There is a moral outrage percolating now throughout this great land, a sense that, with the taking of the children, with the stealing of the Supreme Court, with the destruction of environmental regulations and the rolling back of 60 years of civil rights advances, everything is on the line.
The greatest experiment in democracy in human history is now being run like a gangster-state. And so we protest, not because we want to spend our days this way, but because now we have to spend our days this way. We protest in the same way the brave rescue teams in Thailand have repeatedly dived into the dangerous waters of the flooded cave, not because they relish danger but because to do otherwise would be a moral failing.
In ever-increasing numbers, and with ever-increasing urgency, as our own political flood waters rise, so we will keep protesting, keep fighting, keep pushing back, until bit by bit we redeem this wondrous democracy from rule by thugs.
Sasha Abramsky is a Sacramento writer who teaches at UC Davis. His latest book is “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.