It takes a lot to be surprised in the Age of Trump. In reality, we shouldn’t be surprised by anything at this point. But Trump announcing the gradual end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was a real punch in the gut for many, including myself. While he ran an explicitly xenophobic campaign that included calls to immediately end the policy, his tone had seemed to change since the election. (Some reporting claims this is due to a long conversation with Obama before the inauguration.) But lacking any substantial political victories in his first year in the White House, his administration yearned for something that could reaffirm his base. (Not to mention the fact that his choice for Attorney General was unlikely to defend DACA once conservative state AGs brought the program to court.) The action brought swift denouncement, both from the right and left, and will likely continue through next Spring. Given congress’s track record of passing anything substantial these days, it appears 800,000 brave Dreamers are in jeopardy.
As expected, many universities immediately spoke out against Trump’s decision. (My own institution, however, though we enroll a large number of Dreamers, has yet to make any public statement, much to our disgrace.) I was moved to read of the thirty-one Harvard faculty who were arrested yesterday during a public demonstration. That included Walter Johnson, a noted historian of slavery, as well as Jonathan Walton, a religious studies scholar and minister for Harvard’s Memorial Church. Walton, draped in his ecclesiastical robes, spoke to the gathered assembly before they blocked Massachusetts Avenue in a display of protest. “We are here to say to the U.S. President, to his Attorney General, and to all the insecure leaders of this nation, that no human being is illegal,” he declared.
A few things stood out to me about this scene.
First, a word on region, nation, and moral tradition. Given the rhetoric displayed, principles involved, and geographic location, I couldn’t help but be taken back to the 1850s. It was during that decade that thousands in Massachusetts protested the Fugitive Slave Law that had allowed the federal government to supersede state laws concerning the kidnapping and forced removal of African Americans suspected of fleeing the South. Among those at the forefront of the fight were ministers, like Theodore Parker, who denounced the “sins” of the nation for allowing the plague of slavery to spread across the North through the fugitive policies. Like Walton, Parker emphasized that the laws trampled upon the natural rights of human beings.
The physical space of both protests, in the 1850s and 2010s, was significant. They were both within a stone’s throw of Boston’s revolutionary heritage. The spread of oppressive regimes as far north as New England symbolized the reach and power of evil regimes. It also highlighted what many argued to be a betrayal of a regional heritage. Boston was supposed to be a beacon of liberty. “There was a Boston once,” Parker mused in 1854, but “now there is a North suburb to the city of Alexandria.” This dilemma of small and progressive geographic pockets rebelling against a conservative government has led several historians to pointing to the connections between 2017’s debates over sanctuary cities and the 1850s’ debates over the fugitive slave law, but it also highlights the liminality of discourse over states’ rights and federal power. America’s democratic tradition is full of ironies.
Second, I’m curious if the religious rhetoric of natural rights will gain any capital in today’s political arena, particularly from the left. I’ve mused before on religion and the limits of the liberal imagination, but that dilemma seems all the more urgent after Trump’s election. There was something about seeing Walton wearing both handcuffs and ministerial garb that made me proud of America’s proud tradition of protest prophecy, and hopeful that we might see a resurgence. I’d love to see modern activists resurrect the religious rhetoric of higher laws from anti-slavery proponents like William Loyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. America’s religious identity could certainly use it, especially after the mud it’s been pulled through in recent years. There are tools, there, I believe, that can add fervency to our message and find common ground with more agitators.
And finally, it was impossible to see images from that moving scene near Harvard without thinking of another famous Massachusetts author, Henry David Thoreau, and his powerful essay, “Civil Disobedience.” (Of which I recently mused here.) The belief that, when civil laws trespassed upon moral laws, the conscious actor is forced to cast allegiance, seemed especially relevant. As thirty-one professors were taken away by the Cambridge police, jailed for protesting a law meant to punish the already oppressed, this line immediately came to mind: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” Amen.
National laws are meant to reflect the ideals, priorities, and values of its citizens. It was a modern development that governments are supposed to embody the character of the governed. Confronting this dissonance in an age of legalized xenophobia, rampant racism, and virulent oppression should also involve recognizing the historical periods that echo our own, as well as the cultural traditions that made this possible in the first place.