A Veteran Peace Activist on the Road with Javier Sicilia and the Peace Caravan
At this moment, one of the most significant peace movements in Mexico’s history is winding its way through the American South in a caravan of buses and cars. The movement, which has a long name, “The Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity,” is led by Mexican poet Javier Sicilia and his fellow countrymen who have lost their loved ones in a drug war that has killed at least 120,000 since 2006. Since the movement began last year, its “peace caravans” have crisscrossed the Mexican countryside drawing thousands to their rallies and making international headlines. Sicilia and his movement have been called everything from heroic to sell-outs for opening a dialogue with President Felipe Calderon about changing the country’s drug war policy. And Sicilia’s political alliances have been called into question as he’s struggled to keep his movement apolitical.
Now Sicilia has plunged even deeper into controversy by bringing his movement for peace across the border to the United States. Since arriving at the beginning of August he and at least 40 other peace activists from Mexico have met with divisive figures like Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona to challenge his racist policies. Yesterday, they protested in front of a gun store in Houston, where they melted down an AK-47 and re-sculpted it into a peace symbol. At every stop, hundreds have turned out and the participants have given heartbreaking testimony about their loved ones who have been killed or disappeared in the drug war. On Saturday, the caravan rolled into Austin for a rally on the steps of the Texas Capitol. Sicilia called for U.S. and Mexican citizens to join together to demand an end to the drug war violence and the incarceration of millions in the United States. “We can stop the war by forcing our states and our governments to change drug policy into a public health policy. To control the trafficking of arms of destruction…and to lead a war against money laundering. The money made from the legalization of drugs should be given to the victims destroyed by the drug war.”
What Sicilia and the movement have to say is important, but will government leaders in the United States listen? As I was pondering this question, I noticed a gray-haired man sitting on the steps of the Capitol typing away on a laptop. He was entirely focused on Sicilia’s words. Next to him sat a worn leather briefcase decorated with a glittering Mexican flag sticker. It suddenly dawned on me that it was Tom Hayden, a founding father of the influential New Left student movement of the ‘60s. Now 72, Hayden’s life has been devoted to organizing and civil protest and “participatory democracy” — the notion that “each person has a voice in the decisions affecting his or her life,” which he helped define in the Port Huron Statement more than 50 years ago. When it comes to organizing a social movement, Hayden, also a former California state senator, has pretty much done it all. So I was curious about what this veteran peace activist had to say about Mexico’s burgeoning peace movement, and how Sicilia might find common cause in the United States with other groups trying to end the war on drugs. Hayden told me he has been closely following the movement in Mexico and had just recently wrote a piece about Sicilia for The Nation. Here’s what Hayden had to say about the movement.
TO: What do you think about Javier Sicilia and the Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity?
Hayden: You mean this civic milagro. It truly is a milagro. These social movements that appear suddenly are very difficult for academics and journalists to understand because they don’t have any causation. That means you can’t predict what they will achieve or why they will go away. All you know is that you are in the middle of something and from a moral standpoint it’s a blessing to be there. It only happens a few times in your life and it’s outside of your control. So that’s what it is. But if I were to analyze it, I’d say it’s a very important step toward making the militarized drug war untenable.
TO: Sicilia has been criticized for meeting with President Calderon. Some say he’s sold out. What do you think about this criticism?
Hayden: I never heard this except for people from the left in Mexico and journalists from the left. I met with Ronald Reagan. What does that make me? Who cares? This is not a left movement. But it is a movement the left should support.
TO: Do you think the message of the caravan will sink in with Americans? Will they pay attention?
Hayden: It certainly will with the immigrants, with Mexicans and Central Americans in particular. Along the way, the route of the march, generally speaking, is not the territory of white liberalism. It’s an area where great civil rights movements have been based historically. That’s part of what interests me about the route. It’s not in tea party country. It’s not in right wing country. It’s in brown and black communities that are enclaves inside the old Confederacy. I think it’s very important for a couple of reasons: the movement in the United States has largely been a white movement of my beloved potheads who want to legalize what they smoke. They have a historic grievance because millions of them have been unnecessarily incarcerated, marginalized and looked down upon. Their movement has been very successful around medical marijuana, which shows that there is a majority of voters in certain states like California and Arizona that are in favor of it. The backlash has also been severe because the drug warriors know that it’s a foot in the door. But there’s a real limit to a white movement because the victims of drug war are people of color more than white people. So, I think this movement can create some new dimensions and some new muscle for the movement here that is morally in favor of legalization.
Also, whatever happens in Mexico, the voter mandate was against the drug war. The mandate of the people in Central America is against the drug war. The presidents of Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala and El Salvador have already told President Obama and Biden that they would not meet with the United States in another Organization of American States meeting unless there was a change in the drug policy. I’m a big supporter of President Obama. He knows the drug war is crazy. He said so when he was a state senator like me. One thing you have to do when you run for the presidency of the superpower, if you are a Democrat and you’re black and have no experience, is you have to be tough on crime and tough on defense. And you also have to be sort of beyond morality, which a lot of people on the left don’t understand. Politics is only a little about morality. Obama has done something that might seem immoral on the surface that he continues the drug war, which he already said in Illinois he didn’t believe in, and that he thought was ineffective. He’s waiting for the anti-drug war movement to show that it can make a difference before he steps forward. But now it’s become very serious because the movement has gained the support of actual governments that the United States has to do business with.
TO: What do you think about the role that social media has had on civic movements in Mexico?
Hayden: I recently covered the Mexican presidential election. The #YoSoy132 movement is a very impressive student movement and it obviously has a future. It’s also somewhat different from previous left movements. Typical of this generation, the enemy is television and the monopoly of TV media. The means of producing images is the new generation’s target. How to change the war is a very difficult issue. I believe this movement is very smart to frame itself as anti-violence, and I think the peace movement in the United States, if they are looking for any war to oppose, it should be this war. I think they need to focus on the war in the Americas and the front of that war is in Mexico and Central America. I don’t know why there can’t be another solidarity movement of the kind there was around the Central American wars in the ‘80s. I think it’s a problem of perception. In Central America, white people saw U.S. supported dictators with death squads chasing people to Los Angeles or over the Texas border. There was a massive underground movement and people took these refugees in and gave them food, shelter and medicine. The drug war narrative is a false narrative that makes it seem that 60,000 people have died in Mexico because they were all drug addicts. This is racism combined with false information and this march or caravan can dispute this false information because people don’t want to be racists. But I think they have a racist interpretation that the victims of the drug war sort of deserved it because they were dealing for the cartels or they were thugs. It reminds me of the civil rights movement which got stopped because of the false narrative that what was wrong in America’s cities had to do with drugs and gangs. And now we have 2 million people arrested and communities are devastated. The right wing argues that it’s the fault of these communities. Democrats argue that we have to stop people with police and jails first then rehabilitate them later with training and jobs. But what if it’s the other way around? The whole thing is because of neo-liberalism which started in places like Los Angeles, Philadelphia and in New York when corporations and banks disinvested from inner cities and invested instead in Mexico and Central America. Isn’t that the story? There’s a role for journalists. The story is false. It’s not simple but it’s a false story that needs to be corrected. It’s very smart what the caravan is doing—by just saying “stop the drug war,” it brings attention to something that is wrong, and a failure and expensive. But it doesn’t preach a specific answer which is good. Because here is the way it goes: If I tell you to stop doing something or else…you will naturally think of something else to do. This way we can have a debate. It’s truly historic what this movement is doing. I don’t think in my lifetime I can think of a peace movement from another country coming over to America to march.