The Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity arrived in New York today and hit the ground running. In the early evening, hundreds of caravan members and New York supporters met each other in Riverside Church to hear the testimonies of the drug war’s devastation on both sides of the border. A mammoth, neogothic structure built by the Rockefellers, the church has a long history of housing causes for social justice. It was here on April 4, 1967 that Martin Luther King made one of his last speeches before he was assassinated–a glaring indictment of the Viet Nam war.
In his speech, called “A Time to Break Silence”, King cited his reasons to oppose the Viet Nam war. His words apply almost uncannily to the drug war today. Despite the difference in historical contexts and the differences between the two wars, their similarities and the truth of the words stand not only the test of time but the test of conscience as well.
Both wars were, and are, deadly; both unconventional for their time; both fought for motivations distinct from those professed to the people.
The first reason King listed to oppose the war was “the war as an enemy of the poor”. He had watched as advances in fighting poverty and inequality were dismantled to feed the war machine. The trade-off was starkly obvious:
I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.
We also know that today. With a budget in crisis, social programs have been stripped in historic rollbacks of rights and living standards as the defense budget not only maintains its girth but grows. With the Middle East conflicts waning in attention, it’s the drug war that has moved in to justify militarism’s insatiable appetite.
In Mexico, where the financial crisis, free trade and governmental indifference have created some 12 million more poor people in just a few years, the drug war has absorbed an enormous part of the budget. The war economy in both countries has powerful backers, and the the drug war has the added advantage for them of not only keeping the poor poor, but eliminating a large number of them–behind bars or in mass graves.
That’s, of course, King’s second reason.
[The war] was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population.We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.
Today’s drug war doesn’t even have to send young men and women thousands of miles away. It puts them away right here at home. By the millions and with the same discriminatory criteria that sent the poor and African American to fight and die in Viet Nam.
The peace caravan from Mexico marched in a candlelight vigil through the heart of Harlem, Manhattan’s poorest areas. A place where every day youth are plucked to fill the cells and coffers of a private prison system. Where drug laws do the dirty work of justifying criminalization based on race and poverty and treating victims as villains.
Carol Eady of Woman on the Rise Telling Her Story (WORTH), a former prisoner on drug charges who has kicked drugs and become an educator and community activist, explained at the church,
Many women in New York, and probably all over the world, are usually incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses. Most of the time, they started using drugs due to past abuse, abandonment by parents, victimization and sexual assaults. Instead of treating these occurrences as health hazards or diseases, when we turn to drugs to medicate our pain they lock us up.
More than 400 people marched chanting ‘No More Drug War’ and calling for justice in the streets of Harlem. The “cruel manipulation of the poor” that King spoke of is the modus operandi of the drug war and the prisons are the new battlefields where young lives are lost.
King’s third reason stemmed from his deep commitment to non-violence.
I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.
Likewise, if we do not oppose the drug war, we cannot claim to be non-violent and credibly stand up against more conventional wars or invasions. The U.S. government’s Merida Initiative promotes violence and militarization as a solution to drug trafficking. We either condone that and abandon all pretenses of non-violence or we oppose it, despite its political popularity and remain consistent in our beliefs.
By keeping silent since Bush launched the Merida Initiative in 2007, we have allowed the militarized drug war model to spread. Now both political parties have elevated counter-narcotics efforts to national security, as if a white powder used to get high could blow up the world or a corner dealer were tantamount to a terrorist. This is a blatant lie. We are supporting a prohibition model where Mexican communities suffer the presence of violent and corrupt security forces and drug gangs, both funded and armed, whether directly or indirectly, by our country.
Violence becomes the norm and moral outrage dulls through endless repetition.
Another reason is the “vocation of sonship and brotherhood”, a religious calling that–when women are added into the language–demands making common cause and understanding the suffering of others. The peace caravan has over this past month forged those bonds and sought out that common cause. The victims, with their photos of murdered or missing loved ones and their stories of pain, have challenged the U.S. public to consider the devastation wrought by support of a drug war without end.
The stories at Riverside–45 years later after MLK spoke out on Viet Nam–again broke the silence about the war. Not a war on a foreign continent, but a crossborder war that rages within our communities from Harlem to Jalisco. As the U.S. government extends the failed drug war from Colombia and Mexico, to Central America, the Caribbean and Africa, King’s closing words fit as well now as then:
We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam [or in the drug war] and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors.
This model of annihilation drags us all into more violence. We have alternatives. As hundreds of marchers moved through New York City with the pictures of the victims, calling for an end to the war–again–they carried us closer to what King called “a creative psalm of peace”.
And this time, the silence was broken in two languages.
Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program.