Lights for Liberty give heart to detainees in downtown Los Angeles
Participants in the L.A. Lights for Liberty demonstration. | Eric Gordon / PW

LOS ANGELES—All over America, and in cities abroad, people revolted by the images of small children locked up in cages by the Donald Trump administration gathered Friday, July 12, to lift high their “Lights for Liberty.” Perhaps never before in our nation’s history has the Lady of the Lamp in New York’s harbor needed so much extra wattage to help her shine democracy’s light over the world.

From blocks away I could see people streaming toward the demonstration site in downtown L.A., the Metropolitan Detention Center on N. Alameda Street, a couple of blocks south of Union Station. A woman in a wheelchair stopped with her family at the corner waiting to cross, and I asked why she was going to the protest. “We believe the Bible is really clear about how to treat refugees,” Lisa Barlow told me. Her daughter Eva was wearing a necklace made of mylar—we would see lots of mylar that night. “That’s what the kids have to keep them warm in their cages—mylar blankets,” Lisa explained.

The program featured a number of speakers from Latin American countries giving testimony of their experiences trying to reach safety in the United States. For all the travails Veronica went through, crossing the border as a 17-year-old mother of a two-year-old, the greatest was her fear of being separated from her daughter. Still, she said, working their way northward through Mexico, “we were safer than we were in Honduras.”

A speaker from the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA) led the crowd in a chant, “Not one dollar more for DHS!” Congress had just voted additional funding for Homeland Security. “Every extra dollar,” she said, “is one more death of one of our people.”

Other speakers related emotional stories as well. Brothers Anderson and Jason Lemos, also from Honduras, spoke of their family’s detention in cold cages. His case is still pending, but when it all settles down, Anderson said, he aims to be either a lawyer or a pilot.

Ana Cortez, a mother, came from El Salvador to live the American dream. She arrived with a 42-person group, including 25 children from ages one to five. “We walked and walked, day and night, over mountains and rivers, sometimes with nothing to eat for days. We traveled in boxcars that were a sauna by day and a freezer by night. I have a message for Mr. Trump: We are not animals. We are people. What you are doing to those children is not okay. We ask that you treat them as a humanitarian.” Cortez now has a union job in a hotel, and has been able to buy a house for herself and her children.

Though the focus was on immigrants bearing witness, others spoke as well. California State Sen. Maria Elena Durazo began her remarks in Spanish: “Somos un pueblo sin fronteras!”—We are one people with no borders. “No one can put up a border that turns us one against another.” She urged Californians not to just talk a good line but to act to be sure our children and families will be all right. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has been investigating detention centers in the state. In response to his determination that no one is being held responsible for the people who die in centers under ICE custody, Sen. Durazo has introduced SB 622 to address that problem. “Close them down!” she chanted.

Marcela Cortez, legislative representative for U.S. Rep. Jimmy Gomez, read a ringing denunciation of the detention system from the congressman in his absence. He specifically called on the media to do more to expose the crimes being committed in the name of the American nation.

A speaker from an organization dedicated to Black immigrant rights addressed the issue from the point of view of Haitians and other immigrants from the Caribbean, as well as from African nations. He spoke of “an atrocity at the border, a crime against humanity.”

Someone from CHIRLA announced from the stage that the crowd had reached 4000 in attendance. A great cheer arose from the street.

The centerpiece of the demonstration was the lighting of ljghts, coupled with the Friday sundown that signaled the start of the Jewish Sabbath. Rabbi Susan Goldberg of Nefesh led the ceremony. “As Jews,” she began, “we know what happens when xenophobia, hatred, and fear conspire—detention centers and death.” She asked us to take this opportunity to acknowledge the pain immigrants are suffering right now, assuring us that “more horribleness is coming. This is madness, and it’s not going to stop until we join with more and more family members, friends and neighbors.”

There are two kinds of guilt, Goldberg explained. “There’s the kind that makes us feel and do nothing because we are trapped by it, and there’s the kind that urges us forward to take the first step toward a solution. So think of an action you are going to take in the next three days. Post bail for a family? Provide space in your home for a family? Talk with your religious leaders about what your congregation could be doing?” (I was recommitting myself to writing this article.)

Sara El Koto, from a Syrian refugee family, read the names of those who died either in the detention camps or trying to reach the United States. There were dozens of names, and after each one the crowd spoke “Presente!”—present! And she recognized the many unnamed and unidentified others. “No one puts their child in a boat unless the water is safer than the land,” she commented. The situations in the countries from which refugees are fleeing are that dire.

Amy Cohen, a child psychiatrist who has interviewed children at the detention centers, offered up quotes from the kids, saying that the effects of the trauma these children are living through now will kill them one day. The authorities call them “unaccompanied minors,” and thereby erase all their relatives from whom they were snatched, terrified and crying. “They call them unaccompanied alien children—UACs—as if they’d dropped from Mars. Second to slavery, this may be the ugliest stain on America’s moral character. The U.S. is torturing immigrant children. This is torture is by design.” There is now a Migrant Children’s Act being considered in Congress to help protect the “UACs.”

Blinking lights from upper stories of the Metropolitan Detention Center. | Eric Gordon / PW

The sky was begging to darken now. If you turned around to face the eight-story-high Detention Center, you could see in one narrow vertical slit of a window on the top floor, an overhead light flicking on and off. At first I thought it was the last shimmer of the sun’s rays filtering through the tree tops and causing a moving reflection in the window. But it was too dramatically off then on, off then on, and then it seemed deliberate. Some detainee was trying to communicate to those below on the street that our presence had been felt—maybe heard, maybe seen, we couldn’t tell.

And then on the other floors we saw lights, too. These looked like the flashlights from iPhones, rhythmically beating out solidarity. “No están solos!” the chant rose up from the crowd toward the thick detention walls as people lifted their little candles high. You are not alone! They knew we had come for them! I teared up, and I saw others wiping their eyes too.

I thought of those little notes from the outside world that Amnesty International smuggles into prisons to give hope, to reassure them they’d not been forgotten. I thought of the underground and partisan fighters who acted in the cities and the forests to free Jews from the ghettos and camps and destroy the Nazis. I thought of Pastor Martin Niemöller, “First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out….” I thought of Eugene Victor Debs: “While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

I thought of the martyrs for freedom, all those who died to make real that timeless motto that was supposed to define America—“E pluribus unum,” out of many, one. Does anyone in the very White House remember that any more? Don’t they know it’s that diversity that made America great?

The Vocal Collective, an ad hoc choir of volunteers from choruses all over town, both opened and closed out Lights for Liberty, with songs such as, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “Oh, Freedom,” “Woke Up This Morning with My Mind on Freedom,” “Down by the Riverside,” “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us ’Round,” “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “We Shall Overcome.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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