Monday, August 20, 2007

This generation's Rosa Parks

Elvira Arellano. She and her son, Saul, were arrested yesterday. A write-up by mi amigo Nezua:
Of course. The government knew it was dangerous to let her become a Cause for Human Rights or anything like that. Better to chop her down before she got too far. It's not as if they weren't hearing all this "Rosa Parks" talk. And as a friend said on the phone just now "they learned from the Civil Rights era."
LOS ANGELES - An illegal Mexican immigrant who sought refuge inside a Chicago church for a year was arrested in Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon after taking her campaign on the road.

Elvira Arellano was arrested about 4:15 p.m. Chicago time by law enforcement officials after leaving Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in downtown Los Angeles, said Emma Lozano, an adviser who was there during the arrest.

--Immigration activist Arellano arrested, Antonio Olivo, Chicago Tribune

Elvira knew that she could not be free and remain in hiding. She had to walk proudly and stand up for her beliefs. Her example remains a beautiful one. And she represents the pains and the plight and the hopes of millions like her and her son. Right here, with you and me, in the land of the free.

Agents came out of all the cars screaming at the top of their lungs for her to get out, Lozano said. Her 8-year-old son, Saul, started to cry, and Arellano said to everyone in the car, 'Calm down. Don't have any fear. They can't hurt me.'

--Immigration activist Arellano arrested, Antonio Olivo, Chicago Tribune

We're with you, Elvira and you too, Saul. Hang in there mijo.

For those wondering how the Rosa Parks comparison is valid consider the following:

But there was MORE to her story than is generally told.

Now, as the fairy tale version goes, Rosa Parks was just a seamstress, tired from a long day at work, simply wanting to ride the bus home in peace. I’m sure that’s all true as far as it goes.

Paul Loeb in an article originally written for Znet, looks first at the myth:

In the prevailing myth, Parks decides to act almost on a whim, in isolation. She’s a virgin to politics, a holy innocent. The lesson seems to be that if any of us suddenly got the urge to do something equally heroic, that would be great. Of course most of us don’t, so we wait our entire lives to find the ideal moment.

In the immortal words of Ron Popeil, “But wait, there’s more!” Left out of the myth are some critical facts. Rosa Parks was secretary of the Montgomery NAACP, having been first elected to that position in 1943. (I notice that the first incident with the bus driver would also have been in 1943. Coincidence? You decide.) She was active in the Montgomery Voters League, an attempt to prepare black residents to take the voting “tests” which were one of the barriers erected to maintain Jim Crow. I have no doubt she was tired after work that December day, but she was well aware of the rising sentiment in the black community in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, and also that leaders of the black community in Montgomery had already been discussing a bus boycott. Rosa Parks was herself part of that rising tide of sentiment.


Before refusing to give up her bus seat, Parks had spent twelve years helping lead the local NAACP chapter, along with union activist E.D. Nixon, from the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, teachers from the local Negro college, and a variety of ordinary members of Montgomery’s African American community. The summer before, Parks had attended a ten - day training session at Tennessee’s labor and civil rights organizing school, the Highlander Center, where she’d met an older generation of civil rights activists and discussed the recent Supreme Court decision banning “separate - but - equal” schools. During this period of involvement and education, Parks had become familiar with previous challenges to segregation: Another Montgomery bus boycott, fifty years earlier, successfully eased some restrictions; a bus boycott in Baton Rouge won limited gains two years before Parks was arrested; and the previous spring, a young Montgomery woman had also refused to move to the back of the bus, causing the NAACP to consider a legal challenge until it turned out that she was unmarried and pregnant, and therefore a poor symbol for a campaign. In short, Parks didn’t make a spur - of - the - moment decision ... This in no way diminishes the power and historical importance of her refusal to give up her seat. But it does remind us that this tremendously consequential act might never have taken place without all the humble and frustrating work that she and others did earlier on. And that her initial step of getting involved was just as courageous and critical as her choice on the bus that all of us have heard about.

Rosa Parks was a prepared and experienced activist and leader. She had received the state-of-the-art organizer training of the time through Highlander, long since a place that had made its mark on American history. She was probably well aware that, unlike the young woman the previous spring, the black leadership of Montgomery would find her a very good symbol for a campaign.

Loeb concludes:

Parks’s real story conveys a far more empowering moral. She begins with seemingly modest steps. She goes to a meeting, and then another. Hesitant at first, she gains confidence as she speaks out. She keeps on despite a profoundly uncertain context, as she and others act as best they can to challenge deeply entrenched injustices, with little certainty of results. Had she and others given up after her tenth or eleventh year of commitment, we might never have heard of Montgomery.

Parks’s journey suggests that change is the product of deliberate, incremental action, whereby we join together to try to shape a better world. Sometimes our struggles will fail, as did many earlier efforts of Parks, her peers, and her predecessors. Other times they may bear modest fruits. And at times they will trigger a miraculous outpouring of courage and heart—as happened with her arrest and all that followed. For only when we act despite all our uncertainties and doubts do we have the chance to shape history.

MadmanintheMarketplace asked last week (to oversimplify) how do we make the little big, how do we connect our local activism to the large issues of the day. That’s always the toughest question advocates of the community organizing movement must confront. The story of Rosa Parks tells of how the involvement and perseverance of one ordinary citizen in organizing within her local community set her on a track to play a key role in changing our nation.

I'm sure the government's hope is that ICE does a sufficient job of making sure she and her son are disappeared. On that front ICE has one hell of a track record. Ms. Arellano has herself been taking those seemingly modest steps, in the process galvanizing her community (and really more broadly the community of those dedicated to promoting human rights) in a way that she might not have even dreamed of - in the process providing a name and a face to this phase of the civil rights movement. ­­¡Ya Basta! is resonating north of the border as well as in Chiapas.

Obviously my prayers are with her and her son, that they are able to find and to agitate for some measure of justice that has been denied them and others who've been compelled to journey to El Norte in order to subsist.

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