Two recent local events deserve praise for confronting the racism and injustice the Trump administration and its supporters are inflicting on people of color, immigrants and their families and on “the body politic,” which includes Native Americans, American-born descendants of immigrants, immigrants from around the world and the DACA Dreamers whose skills, intelligence and vision are contributing so much to our collective future.
The August 15 post-Charlottesville “No Hate Rally” organized by the Rev. David Lima and the Inter-Church Council was the first event. The second event, which was held at the Mattapoisett Congregational Church, featured presentations by Helena DaSilva Hughes of the Immigrants’ Assistance Center and Corinn Williams of the Community Economic Development Center. (I was unable to attend and hope it will be repeated in other towns.)
Two hundred or more people gathered peacefully at City Hall Plaza while New Bedford police officers quietly stood by. Mayor Jon Mitchell welcomed us, and Candida Rose inspired us with her soulful and powerful singing. Next, community leaders stepped up to affirm the power of compassion, love and justice to conquer bigotry, hatred and violence: Dr. Bruce Rose, NAACP president; Martin Bentz, outreach coordinator for the Islamic Society; Rabbi Raphael Kanter of the Tifereth Israel Synagogue; the Rev. Christopher Morck of Grace Episcopal Church; Rev. Milna I. Johnson of Bethel AME Church; Rev. Paul Wheeler of Trinity Lutheran Church; and the Rev. Pam Cole, president of Church Women United.
Rabbi Kanter evoked the horrors of the Holocaust to denounce the racist white supremacists and neo-Nazis and who are terrorizing people and threatening our precious and fragile democracy. In closing, he quoted American philosopher George Santayana, who warned: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
As I reflected on those wise words, it occurred to me that the eminent Dr. Santayana is never referred to as an immigrant before “immigrant” became a loaded word. The third child of his mother, Josefina Borrás and her second husband, he was born in Madrid in 1863 and christened Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás. In 1869, with their marriage on the rocks, Josefina and her two older children returned to Boston, where she had lived with her first husband, the late George Sturgis.
In 1872, Jorge’s father brought him to Boston, where he became “George.” He attended Boston Latin School, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University, did post-graduate study in Germany and became a doctor of philosophy and professor at Harvard in 1889. After a distinguished career as a writer and teacher, Santayana returned to Europe in 1912, carrying with him his still-valid Spanish passport, and for the next 40 years, he traveled around Europe lecturing and writing. Although he was an atheist, he remained emotionally drawn to Roman Catholicism, so when he died in 1952, he was buried in Rome’s Campo Verano Cemetery.
Santayana’s native language was Castilian Spanish, and unlike most Spanish-speaking immigrants today, he was not a Mexican refugee, or one of the many traumatized survivors of the “dirty wars” of the 1980s, when the Reagan administration and U. S. corporations colluded with right-wing dictators and drug lords to exploit the human and natural resources of Central American nations such as Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Most immigrants in New Bedford work hard to support themselves and their families by doing menial, low-wage jobs, not by dealing drugs or joining gangs. They pay income tax and struggle to pay bills, as many Americans do in this era of stagnant wages and sickening income inequality. They value family and want their children to realize the American Dream but find it difficult to save enough money to send their children to college. They are our neighbors, and their dreams are part of the “American Dream.”
The “No Hate” rally brought out people whose different ages, skin tones, voices, languages and eclectic hair and clothing styles make New Bedford attractive to those of us who don’t want to live in a monochromatic, monocultural world. With all due respect to Mayor John Mitchell’s well-intended invocation of the old “melting pot” metaphor in his opening remarks, neither America nor New Bedford is a “melting pot,” nor should they be. That metaphor was replaced by “salad bowl” a while ago, but under the Trump régime, it will take more than soup and salad to sustain us as we fight to restore our endangered democracy. Perhaps Sweden will allow us to borrow the anglicized word “smorgasbord” to reflect today’s America.
In the 19th century, New Bedford was known as both “the whaling capital of the world” and “the fugitive’s Gibraltar” because black people and white people cooperated to make their seaport town a safe community where Frederick Douglass and other freedom-seekers could settle and be paid for their work. Even after Congress passed the federal Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, New Bedford abolitionists continued to protect their formerly enslaved neighbors from rapacious slave catchers and helped them find housing, education and paid employment.
New Bedford is officially the “City that Lit the World” (with whale-oil lamps), so it seems appropriate for this shining city on the sea to protect its people against injustice. Fortunately, Chief Joseph Cordeiro has vowed to strengthen community policing, which means New Bedford police will initiate friendly face-to-face conversations with residents as they patrol their neighborhoods. Officers will not question them about their immigration status or ask to see their papers, and they will not detain, question, report or turn immigrants over to ICE to be deported unless they are known criminals for whom warrants have been issued. Community policing builds trust and ensures that if residents become victims of crimes such as theft or domestic abuse, they won’t be afraid to report the crimes to the police.
In an “Open Letter” to his constituents, Somerville’s Mayor Joe Curtatone declared: “Our diversity is our strength. Since we became a Sanctuary City, our crime rate has dropped more than 50 percent. In fact, our crime rate for every type of violent crime is below the state and national averages …. Research shows that not only do new immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans but that neighborhoods with higher immigrant populations tend to have less crime overall …. We're going to keep bringing people together, making sure we remain a sanctuary for all. We are one community…. We know what makes America great.”
Given its abolitionist history and the needs of today’s multi-cultural community, New Bedford must protect its most vulnerable inhabitants and not be intimidated y the administration’s threats to withdraw federal funds. Various courts have ruled Trump’s threats and extra-legal orders unconstitutional, and many communities have sued. With so many people in grave danger, all communities must reject the bigotry that Trump and some of his supporters have fanned into flames of hatred that ignite deadly violence.
Mayor Mitchell and the City Council have the power to keep New Bedford safe for all of its law-abiding residents and visitors by granting Sanctuary status to local churches, hospitals, schools and other public organizations who shelter those who need protection. Next, they could set an example by passing the Safe Communities Act and declaring New Bedford an official ACLU Freedom City in what I hope will soon become the Freedom Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Dr. Laurie Robertson-Lorant lives in a South Dartmouth neighborhood that is steadily becoming more diverse.