MEXICAN PEACE CARAVAN OCCUPIES WALL STREET
Opposing the "Drug War" on Both Sides of the Border
by David L. Wilson, New York Indymedia
The well-known Mexican poet and author Javier Sicilia stood on the steps of New York's Federal Hall a few feet from George Washington's statue on a hot, humid Friday afternoon and pointed across Wall Street to the Stock Exchange. "That building," he called out in Spanish, "is a symbol of the finance capital that launders money."
Surprised tourists, office workers returning from lunch, and a contingent of police on motor scooters watched from the street below. "That building," Sicilia went on, in the low-key style of someone more accustomed to poetry readings than to political speeches, "is a symbol of the finance capital that profits off narco-trafficking."
The 100 or more protesters who had just marched with Sicilia along the Financial District's crowded, narrow sidewalks answered him with a loud chant of "No more drug war!" Then the poet and the protesters moved on to Zuccotti Park, the birthplace of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The poet’s brief confrontation with Wall Street came near the end of a Sept. 6-7 New York visit by the Caravan for Peace With Justice and Dignity, a month-long tour of 27 US cities inspired by victims of the militarized fight against drug trafficking in Mexico, where some 60,000 people have died in drug-related violence over the last six years. About 20 of the caravan's 120 members have lost children, siblings or other relatives to the drug war, which Sicilia denounces as "false," "ignoble," and, above all, "lost."
Sicilia himself turned from poetry to activism when his 24-year-old son Juan Francisco was murdered by a drug gang in Morelos state in March 2011.
The Effects of a Lost War
The caravan's tour started in San Diego on Aug. 12 and is scheduled to end in Washington, DC on Sept. 12. Its New York events included a welcoming ceremony the evening of Sept. 6, followed by a march through Harlem; a press conference at City Hall the morning of Sept. 7; a protest at an HSBC branch that afternoon, followed by the march through the financial district to Zuccotti Park; and a film showing and discussion in the evening.
"The main goal, strategically, is to bring awareness of how the drug war has impacted both Mexico and the United States," Marco Castillo, one of the caravan's organizers, explained shortly before the Sept. 7 City Hall press conference.
Castillo, who is president of the Popular Assembly of Migrant Families (APOFAM) in Mexico, said that in his country the impact has come both from the violence of the U.S.-backed fight against the drug cartels and from the violent struggles that the drug war has set off between the cartels. In the United States the main impact has been what Castillo called "the criminalization of communities of color"—the massive imprisonment of African Americans and Latinos for drug offenses, often minor ones.
Throughout their New York visit the caravaneros stressed the suffering on both sides of the border. They offered painful testimony from Mexican victims like Araceli Rodríguez, whose son, Luis Angel León Rodríguez, was one of seven federal police agents "disappeared" by drug traffickers one day in November 2009 in the state of Michoacán. Their bodies were never recovered. New York's victims were represented by activists like Carole Eady, co-chair of Women on the Rise Telling HerStory (WORTH), an organization of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, largely African-American women like Eady who were charged with nonviolent drug offenses.
The theme of shared suffering was reflected in the groups that backed the New York tour—ranging from the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation, to the Mexican student group #YoSoy132 NY, the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, and Occupy Wall Street—and also in the choice of locations for events. For the opening ceremony the caravan’s organizers picked Riverside Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the church where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his historic denunciation of the Vietnam war on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination. From there at least 400 caravan supporters began a candlelit march that took them more than two miles across Harlem's 125th Street and down Madison Avenue to the St. Cecilia Catholic Church in East Harlem, historically a Latino neighborhood.
Easy Guns and Dirty Money
But the caravan has another theme as well: the caravaneros have tried to bring home the responsibility of powerful US forces for Mexico's drug violence.
While in Texas two weeks earlier, caravan supporters demonstrated how easily gun smugglers can obtain weapons in the southwestern border states. Two caravan supporters bought a .357 Magnum pistol and an AK-47 assault rifle in a matter of minutes at a Pasadena gun show, with minimal background checks. Noting that the majority of firearms found at crimes scenes in Mexico come from the United States, caravan participants destroyed the two guns in a ceremony at Houston's Guadalupe Plaza Park on Aug. 27.
In New York, the country’s financial center, the focus shifted to the role of money laundering by US and European banks. After reading a statement and answering a few questions at the City Hall press conference, Sicilia walked over to a nearby branch of the British bank HSBC and tried to open an account using dollar bills marked with red splotches. In July HSBC executives had admitted to transferring billions of dollars between Mexico and the United States without the required monitoring for possible links to organized crime. Much of the money is thought to have come from drug trafficking.
The teller refused the dollar bills with their symbolic bloodstains, and a guard escorted the poet from the bank. Outside on the sidewalk Sicilia tossed the bills in the air, with his characteristic, slightly ironic smile, and then started off on the march that led to the scene at Wall Street.
The Media’s Non-Reaction
Caravan organizer Castillo admitted that it hasn’t been easy to get the caravan’s message through in the US media. The coverage has been good in Spanish-language outlets, he said, but despite dramatic and photogenic events like the arms destruction in Houston, English-language attention has been limited to a few favorable articles—in the Chicago Tribune, for example, and the New York Daily News.
In Mexico the Movement for Peace With Justice and Dignity, which Sicilia founded after his son's murder, became a major political force last year, and President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa felt compelled to meet with the poet and other victims. This sort of movement has yet to form in the United States. New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg didn't bother even to answer a meeting request from Sicilia.
Still, the response was largely positive when caravaneros come into direct contact with New Yorkers.
It wasn’t surprising that many evening shoppers on 125th Street got the message of the Sept. 6 march, given the drug war's effects on African-American communities. But there were also positive responses downtown. A well-dressed white woman paused among the protesters outside the HSBC branch near City Hall and asked what the demonstration was about. An activist explained the bank's record of money laundering and the likelihood that HSBC's punishment would be limited to a fine—as happened with Wachovia in 2010—while people of color caught with small quantities of cocaine end up with years in prison.
The woman understood immediately. "These people get off with a slap on the wrist," she said, nodding at the bank. She was planning to vote for President Obama this fall, she added, but she was terribly disappointed with his administration's failure to punish war crimes and corporate crimes.
Breaking Out of the Bubble
The caravan has also won some unlikely allies. One of the supporters waiting to get into the City Hall press conference the morning of Sept. 7 was a retired deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, Stephen Downing. Some 3,000 criminal justice professionals like Downing have joined Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an organization opposing the drug war as a failed strategy, one that Downing says actually increases the profitability of the drug trade and "turns the whole [drug] marketplace over to criminal organizations."
Downing was optimistic about the caravan’s impact in the United States. People here "live in a bubble of comfort" and see the violence in Mexico as statistics that have nothing to do with their own lives, he said. But the caravan "is bringing the statistics across the border. The pain is seen by greater numbers of people."
The marchers that gathered on the sidewalk in front of St. Cecilia's the first night of the visit were clearly worn out by their long march, but they seemed determined. After a short prayer, marchers began calling out the names of people who had died or disappeared in Mexico, like the members of the Reyes Salazar family in Ciudad Juárez. The crowd would answer each time with a loud: “!Presente!”
A speaker expressed his optimism. "We're going to end the drug war," he announced from the church steps. The marchers, some still holding their burning candles, cheered enthusiastically. But then there was a brief silence while people thought about how much work remained to be done and how many more victims would be mourned before the "ignoble war" is over.
This story first ran Sept. 8 on New York Indymedia.
David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review Press, 2007). He also co-edits Weekly News Update on the Americas, a summary of news from Latin America and the Caribbean.
Photo courtesy of Caravan for Peace With Justice and Dignity
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