A New Human Rights Movement Stirs from Below

Photo by Fibonacci Blue | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Fibonacci Blue | CC BY 2.0

One of the unforeseen results of the 2016 U.S. election could be the emergence of a broad new coalition committed to anti-racism, immigrant rights and the tolerance of all faiths, creeds and liberties. In other words, a unified force dedicated to the principles enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights and other bedrocks of governance.

A glimpse of the incipient movement was evident at an Albuquerque rally, dubbed “A Gathering for Unity and Support,” held the evening of November 18 on the University of New Mexico (UNM) campus and organized by the Southwest Organizing Project, the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice, the local Muslim community, Justice for Jacquise Lewis (a young African American man who was murdered at an Albuquerque park in 2014, but whose identified white killer was never charged), and other organizations.

Illuminated by the glow of luminarias ringed by marigolds scattered on the ground, scores of people stood in the chilly air outside the UNM bookstore for a speak out on post-election racial and ethnic attacks and policies expected to gush forth from Washington next year.  Master of Ceremonies Shakir, a member of the Muslim faith, introduced Father Frank Quintana, who donned Muslim dress and headwear to the applause of a diverse crowd.  In a firm voice, Quintana explained the historical precedence for his new attire. “My Christian forefathers in Europe took to wearing stars of David in solidarity with Jews..,” the priest said.

A woman member of the UNM Muslim Student Association thanked the community for showing support after a Muslim student reportedly had a hijab torn from her head at the Albuquerque campus recently. Taking the cue, a male member of the Sikh community spoke about a conversation he had with his daughter about supporting Muslims. The little girl, he admitted was a bit confused by the issue.

“Are we Muslim?” she asked her dad.

“No, we aren’t but we are,” the man replied to his daughter.

“Whether it’s the Hispanic community or the Muslim community, we stand with you,” he said to the evening rally, eliciting a hearty round of more applause.

Like other places in the United States, Albuquerque has experienced reports of hate crimes since the November 8 election. In addition to the Muslim student who had her hijab snatched from her and a second student of the same faith who reportedly suffered an attack, swastikas were found spray painted on the UNM campus. Separately, FNS heard a story in which an African-American woman was verbally accosted with the N-word in a commercial parking lot in the Albuquerque suburb of Rio Rancho and told that people like herself would now have to leave.

Nationally, the non-profit Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reported 701 hate crimes between November 9 and November 16, mostly within two days of the November 8 election. The SPLC classified the incidents as follows: Anti-immigrant (206), anti-Black (151), anti-LGBT (80), swastika vandalism (60), anti-Muslim (51), and anti-woman (36). The scenes of aggression included: K-12 schools (149), businesses (129), universities and colleges (114), streets (82), private property (72), and driving (42).

“We are keeping track of anti-Trump incidents as well, which rose from our last report from 20 to 27,” the Alabama-based civil rights advocates stated.

A flash of the rancor that swept over the land was briefly captured at the November 18 Albuquerque speak out when a young man on a bicycle began yelling at rally goers and spit at a group. Outraged, several people in attendance chased the man away before the confrontation worsened. The local police, who were quick to stand down a November 9 anti-Trump demonstration with the deployment of a riot squad, were nowhere in sight. At UNM and in Albuquerque, mobilizations are mounting against racism and in defense of immigrants.

On November 16, hundreds of students organized by the Black Student Union, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan and other groups staged a walk-out against racism and hate crimes, in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and in support of declaring UNM a sanctuary for undocumented students, a demand that’s gathering momentum on more than 100 other U.S. college campuses nationwide, according to assorted media reports.

An estimated 200 high school students from Albuquerque Academy also staged a walk-out around similar issues, chanting “Not my president.” In his weekly message also posted November 16, UNM Provost Chaouki Abdallah addressed the charged events on campus and off, noting he is an immigrant who came to the U.S. 35 years ago from a polarized country where citizens “stopped talking to each other, and soon, discussions that used to take place in cafes, churches and mosques, were replaced by gun fights and bombings…”

In response to the on-campus surge of hate crimes, Abdallah said an attack on one was an attack against all. “They fly in the face of every American value that I was taught when I immigrated. We cannot become numb to the warning signs of closed-mindedness, and of mindless hatred,” he wrote.

The university official called on the campus community to display its better instincts, assuring that “No one should be made to feel unwelcome or unsafe because of who they are, what they think or how they vote…” Besides reminding readers of UNM counseling and departmental resources available to people feeling “threatened, despondent, angry and alone,” Abdallah said the university will sponsor a big teach-in in early December aimed at deciphering the implications and dimensions of the November 8 election.

On November 18, faculty members delivered a letter to UNM President Robert Frank signed by at least 995 people that condemned “discrimination, marginalization and, violence against any community member.” Posted by Albuquerque media outlet KOB, the letter called for protecting undocumented students who attend New Mexico’s largest institute of higher education.

On the same evening, a diverse crowd of Muslims and Christians, Sikhs and Jews, Asians and Native Americans, Blacks and Whites, Chicanos and Mexicans, young and old, and students and non-students, spoke out about the past, present and future. A man decked out in a spotless suit and wearing Anonymous’ trademark Guy Fawkes mask walked around passing out red roses while signs held above the crowd proclaimed, “Thank you for being part of our community” and “Resist Islamophobia.”  At one point, people hugged each other at the urging of MC Shakir. “We can’t let hate separate us anymore,” he intoned.

Cesar Gonzalez, Albuquerque South Valley youth worker, described the fearful and angry emotions of young people he works with in the wake of the election. “The majority of Albuquerque is full of barrios, where people speak Spanish, for many generations or they just came here,” Gonzalez said. He implored the public not to stereotype immigrants or residents of low-income, hardscrabble communities like the “Deep West Side.”

UNM student Isis Lopez said she turned 18 last year and just voted in her first election. Expressing a feeling of “loss” at the outcome, Lopez nevertheless said it’s important to make a difference at the local level because “change doesn’t come from the top.”

Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico read  a statement his group published in the Albuquerque Journal that called on the president-elect to reverse course on his pledges to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. and institute “aggressive surveillance programs targeting them,” deport undocumented residents, restrict a woman’s right to abortion services, reinstate waterboarding, change libel laws, and restrict freedom of expression. Pledging the “full firepower” of the ACLU, Simonson vowed, “We all stand ready to fight.”

Mariana Cena Mendez of Albuquerque’s El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos spoke about the post-election mood in the local immigrant community, which is busy developing strategies in defense of the undocumented.  “I’m so proud for New Mexico, because we didn’t vote for Trump (Hillary Clinton won New Mexico and the Democrats took back the State House)….this is truly what democracy looks like. I’m so proud of you all.”Cena said.

As the first real hints of winter descended on the Duke City, the nighttime rally proceeded in the pedestrian walkway outside the UNM bookstore, which is built on a section of old Yale Park, a popular hangout of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s youth counterculture. In recent weeks, the space has been reinvented as a free speech plaza of sorts, witnessing multiple demonstrations on issues ranging from the November election to Standing Rock, North Dakota, where the Indigenous Lakota people and their allies are attempting to halt an oil pipeline under construction by Energy Transfer Partners.

Following the November 9 election protest, demonstrators left placards across from the bookstore scrawled with messages like “Abolish the Electoral College” as well as quotes from historical figures and thinkers such as Frederick Douglass and Kahlil Gibran. Many a passerby paused to ponder the words.

Hope Alvarado, member of the UNM Kiva Club and the Red Nation, is a young Native American activist who’s been active in the pro-Standing Rock movement and other causes. Though the U.S. government recognizes a degree of Native American sovereignty,  Alvarado contended that colonialism still holds sway after 500 years, evidenced by “FBI handcuffs,” fracking, planned pipelines, and presidential power over the tribes. The UNM activist led the crowd assembled on November 18 in a chant that has become the anthem of the fight against the DAPL: “Water is life! Water is life! Water is life.”

Alvarado’s definition of the Standing Rock struggle as essentially one of “human rights” was dramatically played out the evening of November 20 as police moved against anti-DAPL water protectors attempting to remove a barricade put up by authorities that the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) said restricts access to residents. The police reportedly used water cannons, rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas, sound cannons, and concussion grenades.

In reports posted November 21 and 22 on Censored News, the Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council said 300 injuries were the “direct result of excessive force by police over the course of 10 hours.”  Twenty-six people were injured so seriously they had to be evacuated to area hospitals, the Council said. The unleashing of water cannons in sub-freezing temperature caused “hypothermia in the majority of patients,” the health workers added. A 21-year-old woman named Sophia Wilansky could lose an arm and hand after being hit by a concussion grenade, according to the latest report.

“The Morton County Sheriff’s Department, the North Dakota State Patrol and the Governor of North Dakota are committing crimes against humanity. They are accomplices with the Dakota Access Pipeline LLC and its parent company Energy Transfer Partners.., the IEN said in a statement… “If President Obama does nothing to stop this inhumane treatment of this country’s original inhabitants, he will become an accomplice. And there is no doubt that President Elect Donald Trump is already an accomplice as he is invested in DAPL.”

Along with immigration and border issues, Standing Rock looms as among the big contested arenas where the course of the nation-and world-will be defined in the coming year.

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Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, the border region and Mexico. He is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Americas Program. 

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