Thinking Outside the Wall: Conscientious Objection in the Age of Trump

In a new low, the US recently achieved a “flawed state status” in the world, down from a full democracy. This is according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.[1] We now share tenuous democratic space along with Poland, Mongolia, and Italy because of a further erosion of trust in government and elected officials. One wonders which of the heinous acts of the current President or the Justice Department finally put us over the edge.[2]As if this administration has not already corrupted our democracy enough, the recent incarceration of migrant children would have put us over the wall. Trump’s reversal on separation of children from parents looks dubious, as Attorney General Sessions vows to continue zero tolerance.

Due to the acceleratingly noxious actions (and inactions) of President Trump and the Republican-dominated Congress, pressure is mounting across a red to blue political spectrum of the American public concerning the treatment of children who have been incarcerated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other government agencies. Even conservative Republican Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox of Utah seems to have had enough. Cox said he “couldn’t sleep because he was angry over the feds’ actions on the border.” [3]While his tweets are appreciated, where has his anger been over other Trump decisions and revelations since the election?

The US has a larger budget for conducting war and violently protecting our borders than the combined domestic budgets of at least the next seven world governments combined.[4] The obscene war materiel overflow (surplus military hard and software) from our military is being sifted down to our local police forces for good measure. Those congress people who have defense contracts and military bases in their districts, however, think this is good for business in their districts and seem to get elected for continuing the vicious game of defense bloating in the name of jobs. 

While our media continue to have “breaking news” several times per day describing the gradual downward drip of government as we know it, they are also having a bumper financial year by playing on the existential fears that Trump trumps up. Rachel Maddow famously (and rightfully) cried at the end of her broadcast on June 19, 2018, over news she was delivering about the treatment of toddlers and young children at detention centers. Maddow showed a human side to the tragedy that has been lacking in our media that needs to be greatly amplified if the tragic lives of immigrants and their children are to be reversed and treated humanely by the state. As I watched her struggling to get out the words describing the latest horrors surrounding our emerging concentration camps for children, I knew her momentary breakdown would become the story for the next news cycle. There is certainty, however, that her ratings went up because of her meltdown that will be good for MSNBC’s bottom line.

Finally, on June 20, 2018, a story emerged about a shelter worker in Arizona who was charged with the task of telling three Brazilian siblings who had just been forcibly taken to a children’s shelter that they could not touch each other. The three had just been torn from their mother, who was placed in detention elsewhere. The children were huddled, confused and scared, in each other’s arms. Authorities at the shelter told the worker to tell the siblings, in Portuguese, that they could not touch each other while in shelter. This, apparently, was the breaking point for Antar Davidson, the shelter worker. He resigned from his job the following day, stating that  he could no longer look away from the tragedies being perpetrated by this and other shelters that the Trump administration has ordered to take place on immigrants. He used, in his resignation letter to the shelter agency, the term “conscientious objector” as his rationale for resigning. While this term has traditionally been reserved for those objecting to certain duties in the military, such as bearing arms, or carrying out atrocities in the Civil War, or World Wars I and II, or Vietnam, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, it is now time for a resurrection and re-interpretation of this concept toward our immigration detention centers and our immigration policies. Some of these workers are beginning to leak video and audio clips describing the conditions in what are becoming concentration camps located inside our borders and individual states are now beginning to protest the location of these centers in their borders. 

Davidson’s bravery is a departure from the “bystander problem,” which is the psychological term for behavior when large numbers of people look away when violence occurs (think muggings, rapes, killings), preferring not to get involved.[5] Davidson could be the unexpected leader of a new surge of civil disobedience from the very people – shelter workers, guards at detention centers, ICE agents – who are no longer willing to look away as the very values upon which the US was founded are being eroded.  

Hannah Arendt describes, in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), that Adolph Eichmann and other Nazis who participated in genocide declared rather flippantly during their trials after World War II that they were “only following orders.” We all fervently hope that the crimes being perpetrated by Trump through his Justice Department will not result in war crimes tribunals when this nightmare ends, but those border guards, HHS officials, ICE agents DHS officials and others who have participated in the separation of men and women from their children must be put on notice that they may be held accountable when this nightmare is over.

In the interim, those very officials, guards, and agents would do well to follow their own values (or to find them again) and declare, in solidarity with Davidson, that they are “conscientious objectors” in the war on children and immigrants and injustice. ICE agents, border guards, judges and shelter workers must be put on notice that they are not above the law as we still know it, and they will be judged in the not-too-distant future as the Trump Lie crumbles.

Our immigration issues are not new. Congress has failed to act on numerous occasions over several decades over several presidential administrations. Not one Congressional delegate wants to look bad in the public eye while they are still trying to “stay in the game” that is re-election to their offices. They must also be put on notice that they are participating in structural violence when they allow any human to be de-humanized, which is exactly what has been taking place. If you are not familiar with this term, please see the following link  for a brief introduction to this concept. Structural violence refers to a form of violence wherein some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.

There is another nefarious plot brewing in the background of these detention camps for children and for their parents. Some journalists who are continuing the real tradition of journalistic inquiry are publishing news accounts of who is getting payed to incarcerate immigrants. It turns out, as one might expect of the Trump years, that the owners of for-profit prisons are making out like the bandits they pretend to protect us from by charging exorbitant rates per individual per day for substandard and inhumane jails. Non-profit  shelters are also implicated in this corruption in areas throughout the US as they are paid exorbitant rates for incarcerating children while their CEOs are getting richer.

The UN, no bastion of values in its own right, has sanctioned the US for its behavior in locking up immigrants, but the owners of for-profit prisons, and possibly some not-for-profits who have lucrative contracts, are becoming wealthier by the day by keeping people longer than is needed for processing thereby gouging the public for their sub-rate and inhumane services.[6] We must not lose sight that Congress actually mandates the minimal number of immigrants who must be locked up at any given time. Where are your letters of irate anger to your congressional delegation concerning these issues?

Rather than thinking outside the box on these issues, we must think outside the walls of injustice and racism that have been constructed by Trump and the white Christian nationalists who support him. We must think outside the shaky walls of pseudo-safety that Trump says he will construct if Congress will just give him the $25 billion it will take to construct it the wall. His recent treatment of the children of immigrants is reminiscent of what has happened in the Middle East when we conduct deadly drone attacks on innocent people. That action has resulted in the militarism (what Trump and his cronies call terrorists) of many of the survivors who had previously taken no action against US and UN invaders. Part of Trump’s fear mongering is that his wall will protect us from this “criminal” element. Let us hope that those children who have been and are currently being held in detention will not take the same path of resistance against the US when they are old enough to take action.

Trump and his ilk, however, could not really care less about all this. He is merely fomenting violence in the name of safety, while playing on the idle fears of white supremacists, and manipulating their anger for the benefit of his and his friend’s financial gain. Civil disobedience in the form of marches, the offer of sanctuary to those threatened by deportation, phone calls to Congress and state governors and mayors, and letters to the your local editor may seem like too little, but it builds momentum toward a future when the US is not walled in, and Trump and the hatred he spews are walled out through conscientious objection.


[2] See also: Failed States – Global Policy Forum the next steps in our slide. The definition of a failed state is that it can no longer perform basic functions such as education, security, or governance, usually due to fractious violence or extreme poverty.

[3]see Cox’s Twitter feeds from June 21, 2018, or go to