Monday, January 18, 2016

It’s Martin Luther King Day

So take courage!

Friends here in Northeast Oregon are upset with the goings on in neighboring Burns. One group “occupied” a local Oregon Wildlife Refuge one evening with binoculars and beer. Most of “my” friends would like to see the government stand up and oust the anti-government gaggle; they’d like the Paiutes to have the biggest say in their ancestral lands. But I understand that some of my neighbors are sending food to the occupiers as well.

In America today, divisiveness is everywhere and hate sells. I needn’t list the shootings and the rancor over guns, the suspicion and hate over color, language and faith; the police conflicts, border walls, the hate speeches of Donald Trump, and the hatred of government that brings wronged ranchers, anti-Semites, anti-Islamists, and other antis swaggering with guns to a bird refuge in Oregon to state their cases and causes.

Many things are discouraging today. In the Middle East, where I lived and worked 50 years ago, I watch cities and places I love fall into chaos—Aleppo, Syria, one of the world’s oldest and grandest cities, is in shambles; Diyarbakir, Turkey, where I went to market and walked the city’s ancient walls, is a place of “urban warfare,” with the Turkish Army fighting Kurdish factions and civilians dying in the middle.

The Kurds, Turks, Arabs; Sunnis, Shiites, believers of one strain and another of Islam, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism, people who lived side by side when I was there, are now killing each other in Iraq and Syria. And millions are fleeing war, trying to find asylum in Germany and Sweden. So Europe swells with immigrants, and fear follows them and divides societies as good people seek to help.

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And then—and then, Iran makes nice, releases US troops whose boats have strayed and releases prisoners they’ve held for years, destroys nuclear centrifuges and asks to join the world again. Cuba too is off the bad list, and someone is cleaning up Old Man and the Sea writer Ernest Hemingway’s house for visitors.

It’s Martin Luther King Day,

And I am reminded that I was in Washington D.C. in 1967 and 68, when thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese were being killed and maimed in a faraway land and our country was in turmoil. I marched on the Pentagon as helicopters flew over protesters and men with guns and binoculars walked atop high buildings keeping track. I was there when King was murdered in Memphis and D.C. exploded in riots and fire. And when Bobbie Kennedy, running for the Presidency that saw his brother killed, was murdered too.

In 1969, American Indians, emboldened by the Civil Rights Movement, seized Alcatraz, and they would soon occupy the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters, and face off with the FBI at Pine Ridge. Alvin Josephy documented these events and stood by the Indians in a wonderful NYT piece in 1973, in the heat of it all (and before I knew him and his Indian mission).

America is not a calm place now, nor was it a calm place in 1967 and 1968 and 1973. It wasn’t calm in 1929, when the Depression robbed peoples’ savings and sent them off to join the Communists and the anarchists, the fascists and the religious fanatics. Not calm when Roosevelt closed the banks and told the people the only thing they had to fear was fear itself.

So the bad water in Flint, Michigan and the tuberculosis in Alabama are real; some ranchers have real gripes with government agencies; some police forces are racist or running scared; and our country’s military misadventures, which didn’t start in Iraq—or even Vietnam—go on.

And almost a century of mistrust in Iran, going back to the 1953 CIA overthrow of Prime Minister Mosaddegh, the 1979 revolution and taking of American hostages, and its war with a US supported Iraq, will not go away in a day. There will be bumps in the Cuban road as well.

But on this Martin Luther King Day, it is important to remember that good people with strong will make differences. The New York Times sends its readers today to the contemporary obituaries of MLK, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, and many more who have done so.

And although I, like many, have been frustrated with our first Black President on several counts, I applaud him today for Iran, for Cuba, for coming close on health care, coming close on Guantanamo, for fighting against gun violence and for very quietly strengthening tribal courts, autonomy, and education, and thus being the best President for Indian country since Nixon!

And, on MLK Day, I remember Alvin too, one of the good guys who stood up with and for Indians when the country didn’t much care.

Remember friends, and take courage!

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