Almost every American would like to think that, had they lived during the Third Reich, they would’ve resisted the persecution of Jews under Hitler.
From afar, we scratch our heads at history, wondering what so preoccupied the German citizens of Dachau and other internment cities that they failed to revolt en masse against the deportation of Jews, and others, to concentration camps in the years leading up to the Holocaust. We like to think we would have seen the signs that genocide was coming.
But we no longer have to wonder what we would’ve done because we’re doing it now, in however we respond to the U.S. detention of asylum seekers from Central America.
Many Americans reject comparisons between Nazi Germany and current events. But history doesn’t change to suit our feelings.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently arrested 680 people from several Mississippi worksites on the second day of this school year. Some children whose parents were swept up in these mass raids returned home to empty houses, a scene that could be just as easily described using Anne Frank’s words from 1943:
But hangups about invoking World War II analogies are not what’s most important here. The cruel and unnecessary treatment inflicted on migrant families is.
Whatever language you choose to speak of how we’re treating migrants, make sure to convey the abuses reported from week to week: the unsanitary conditions and sexual assaults in detention centers, the deaths at the border camps, the trauma inflicted on separated children, and the anxiety induced by living under the ongoing threat of deportation.
“What are the American people prepared to do about this?” That is the most important question we need to ask now.
The Power We Don’t Realize We Have
If you were able to have one-on-one conversations with movement leaders that have toppled dictators, instigated international uprisings, and triggered policy changes at global corporations, if you read the histories and research on people’s uprisings from Gandhi to the present, then you’d be persuaded that we are not powerless to stop what currently looks like a prelude to genocide in this country.
As an activist and student of nonviolent struggle, I’ve been fortunate to do those things mentioned above, and I’m convinced that we can do more than watch the “terrible things happening outside” in horror. We can stand up to the systematic abuse of migrants and win.
At the heart of the practice of nonviolent struggle is the belief that rulers depend on the cooperation of the people they rule.
To paraphrase that iconic movement scholar Gene Sharp: Donald Trump can’t gather all of the asylum seekers, process them for detention, oversee daily operations at each center, destroy water bottles left by activists in the desert, write and broadcast anti-immigrant propaganda for the media, try and sentence migrant advocates, write zero-tolerance policies, assemble tent cities, serve food at each facility, make plastic handcuffs for arrests, maintain and service ICE vehicles, and the myriad of other tasks that constitute the dreaded “Border Situation” all by himself. The American people perform these tasks for him.
Those who aren’t involved directly give our consent to these activities by staying out of the way of those carrying them out. Therefore, if the government can only pull this off through our mass cooperation, this situation can be changed through our active, massively organized noncooperation.
We’ve Done it before, we can do it again.
In the winter of 1943, a crowd of ordinary German women stood outside a Nazi detention center in Berlin to protest the arrests of their Jewish husbands and relatives. They braved the cold, stood their ground and refused to accept the deportation of their loved ones for weeks. Nazi soldiers were left with a dilemma: let the prisoners go or open fire on the crowd. They chose the to comply with the will of the people, in what, tragically, was the only instance of German mass civil resistance to the Third Reich.
In our time, we are also witnessing the power of the people’s noncooperation as nonviolent, people’s revolutions bend the will of regimes in Algeria, Sudan, Hong Kong, and Puerto Rico. The fact that these victories abound in different times and states shows how consistent the laws that govern nonviolent struggle have proven. What happened in those places and times can happen here and now.
All of these stories testify that we are not helpless. There is something we can do: resist.
Too much is at stake for us to continue abdicating our political imaginations, our social responsibility, to a slothful, compromised political machine by living as though the vote is our only tool for change. It isn’t. Civil resistance is the way citizens fully participate in a democracy.
We’ll have to take our cues from the black Americans who fought segregation, and women who won the right to vote, and workers who struggled for fair wages and better working conditions. We are our only hope.
If we want to be different from the bystanders to the great atrocities of history—those who did little or nothing to resist Jim Crow, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide—we’d better start immediately. Otherwise, later generations may very well look back at us and scratch their heads, wondering how we allowed the abuse, possibly the mass murder, of thousands.