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First They Came for the Latinos

Mural in Pilsen neighborhood, Chicago. Photo from Indiana.edu

Heard rumors of civilians rounded up, locked up, and searched for papers, lately? Don't worry. That only happens in another America.

Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the panda who uses its thumb to hitch a ride to the beach.

I know it's poor etiquette to compare today's human rights abuses to those of the Nazis. The quaint practices of the National Socialists in Germany so many decades ago were far more regimented than those in operation today. The willy-nilly explosions and machete choppings and spastic "crowd control" during demonstrations, along with proudly displayed videos and photos of beheadings, sexually-oriented tortures, and hangings, make the Nazis seem a little priggish with their rigorous record-keeping and formality. But every once in a while something happens that is so evocative to a Jewish imagination such as mine that the prohibition against remarking on the resemblance to the archetypal bad guys of the previous century is an artistic straitjacket no rhetorical Houdini could resist escaping. And if you doubt I am a rhetorical Houdini, look again please, at the way I untangled myself from the previous sentence just before drowning.

About a mile or so west and a little south of my house on the south side of Chicago, there's a mall called the Discount Mall in Little Village. The mall is not just a place of business, but a gathering place for street vendors and meandering shoppers at the busy block between Albany and Kedzie on 26th Street. My wife used to teach at Madero Middle School on Kedzie and 28th Street, so I passed through that thronged thoroughfare many times on my way to pick her up from work. Nearly everyone who patronizes the mall is of Latino heritage. I guess that makes it a good place to look for illegal immigrants. You would also find a lot of legal ones, and many just plain US citizens.

However, you could just as easily find the same percentage of illegal immigrants to legal immigrants to just plain US citizens at lunchtime in what residents of Chicago call The Loop, the downtown business district. So, let's say you threw a Gestapo-style cordon of Federal Agents carrying high-powered rifles and wearing bullet-proof armor around a block of lunch places and storefront businesses on Wabash between Madison and Monroe and didn't let anybody in or out of that cordoned area while you checked everyone's "papers". If you wanted to round up illegal immigrants, or even, say, a ring of people making fake IDs, that would be a great idea, right?

Pilsen mural. Photo from The Protein Laboratory.ku.dk

What? Why not? Oh, I see – because totalitarian police state-style behavior tends to upset people who work for banks, law firms, city, county and state offices, foreign consulates, and stylish department stores. And let us not forget patrons of the arts, art students, and self-employed professionals. Yes, I see your point. Yes. It's a little out of place in an open society, a democratic republic such as the United States of America, to cordon off a section of the public thoroughfare as if it were a block of apartments in the Warsaw Ghetto.

And you certainly don't want people watching the news to see a white travel agent or a black psychotherapist or a secretary at the Indian consulate or an Asian museum curator complaining that US Federal agents with high-powered rifles and bullet-proof vests held them hostage while they stood their, helpless and terrorized, wondering what would happen next.

Anyway, you wouldn't have to do that – you could just cordon off all the kitchens of those lunch places, and a couple of photocopy shops. That's where the Latinos are, and those are the illegals you're looking for, right? But you might be accused of racial profiling, if you only harassed the Latinos in an area you'd cordoned off.

Much better just to cordon off an area where everyone's Latino. Take the Little Village Discount Mall, for example. You can't be accused of harassing only the Latinos in the mall, you'd be harassing everyone – it just so happens that everyone's Latino. And even better: if you do it during business hours, you can be pretty sure that almost no one you harass will be some easily-ruffled art patron, paralegal, or clerk of the Cook County Recorder of Deeds. No, almost everyone is low-income, and unconnected with anyone more powerful than the manager of a grocery store. All right, if you're really unlucky you might harass the relative of an alderman. But the alderman of Little Village is going to be Latino, too.

See, all you really want to do is make sure anyone who's going to complain is Latino. That way, anyone from the rest of the population watching TV who sees people complaining about Gestapo tactics will see only people who look like brown immigrants. And they'll say to themselves, "There go all those brown immigrants who come to take our jobs, complaining about America again. If they don't like it, why don't they go back where they came from? You know, to that other, not as good America."

The Nazis tried to avoid dramatic scenes where regular Germans could see them harassing Jews right in their midst, at least early on – they didn't throw cordons around high-society balls just because a couple of Jews were attending. It always worked out better for the Nazis when they harassed Jews in the Jewish neighborhoods. That's why they put them in ghettos, silly! Even European anti-Semites could be annoyed by being cordoned off in a block of cafes at tea time, even if it was in the name of ferreting out the dirty Jew, and don't get me started with your dozen or so less-than-rabidly-anti-Semitic Germans – they had no stomach for that stuff whatsoever.

On the other hand, it is nice to know that the quaint custom of treating immigrant populations as animals to be corralled hasn't completely died out in the West. You think Sarkozy's doing so well in France because voters think he's going to shorten the work week? Let alone make everyone equal under French law? Egalite? I don't think so. Maybe Fraternite, as long as mon frere is a frere by blood. Liberte? Well, the West always has that. It's the West! The West invented la Liberte.

Anti-immigrant Nationalism has never really gone out of style in the West – or anywhere. It's just that with the leader of the Free World pushing discourse so far to the right – if you can call monarchy "right" – all right, pushing discourse so many centuries back into the pre-republic past, back to the days before Italian Humanism, back before Machiavelli saw a market for his ideas – it's made scared, angry majorities nostalgic for the days when you could just round up the troublemaking outsiders and massacre them. It's like when white people in the USA start singing songs about watching the darkies picking cotton, or when a group of Germans start singing "Deutschland Uber Alles" or the "Horst Wessel" song, they get all misty-eyed and long for the good old days.

Pilsen mural. Photo from The Protein Laboratory.ku.dk

Hey, I don't want to single out W. Bush as the guy who first started singing the old nostalgic tunes – Ronald Reagan started demonizing poor people in the '80s, turning them back into subhumans proverbially speaking, whom one might be justified in enslaving, if only for their own good. But he was too busy attacking Latinos in their own countries to create a focused campaign of anti-immigrant propaganda at home. And he didn't have the terrorism excuse for harassing foreigners. So he bombed Libya. But he did have the War on Drugs crusade. His clandestine employees in the War against Central American Sovereignty, with their ready access to coca processing, funded themselves by selling crack to domestic black people in Los Angeles – whereupon the War on Drugs would be the pretext to sweep the ghettos and transfer black men from the street to the more easily controlled environment of prison. The War on South of the Border Communism/War on Drugs synergy was the closest thing to a recycling policy the Reagan Administration ever pursued. But the rhetoric against non-wealthy Latino immigrants was barely in its infancy back in the '80s. Look how far we've come.

Now you former colonies, don't get all smug – you Sudans and Rwandas and Gujurats and Israels and Turkeys and Syrias and Indonesias and Chinas – you haven't been setting a very good example for your former mentors, the West. It's like all that time the West spent civilizing you has gone right down the toilet.

When a government can't rule competently, it has to rule by fear, or risk being thrown out by the people. So, in all fairness to everyone on Earth, the internal enemy is the best friend an incompetent government can have. And since humanity has never been plagued by an epidemic of competent government, we should hardly be surprised to find so many enemies in our midst.

I guess citizens of the US are spoiled. They should stop deluding themselves that their Constitution can somehow prevent their government from abusing human rights. How is the US supposed to compete in the new competitive global marketplace if they're hamstrung by government regulations that protect their citizens from unreasonable search and seizure? China doesn't have to follow due process – that's how they got to be such an economic powerhouse.

And how is Dick Cheney supposed to win the war against terrorism if he can't terrorize anyone? You have to fight fire with fire! That's why firemen always spray fire on buildings that are on fire. If you know a better way to fight fire, I'd like to hear it!

Now it turns out, or rather the Feds would have us believe, that a couple of dozen people in that mall I mentioned, the Little Village Discount Mall, were making and selling fake Social Security cards. With a Social Security card you can get a United States passport, a driver's license, all the things an illegal alien looking for a job needs. And terrorists need them, too, so they can drive legally to pick up their bombs. All those Latino terrorists – like that Jose Padilla. Not "pa-DEE-ya." He rhymes it with "killa." He can't even pronounce his own last name right, he's a failure as a terrorist AND a Latino.

Anyway, the long and the short of it is: on Tuesday, 24 April 2007, Federal Immigration agents took my advice. They didn't throw a big Gestapo-style cordon around Orchestra Hall or a Club Med or a party at the Governor's Mansion. They went to a poor Latino neighborhood and threw their Nazi-style cordon around a mall. And they locked the gates of the mall – good thing the mall had gates! Talk about convenience! Usually you have to go to a wealthy community to find gates capable of quarantining an entire population when shut.

They locked the mall down – it was pretty exciting! Guarded by helmeted agents with high-powered rifles, bullet-proof vests, no one allowed in or out, a couple hundred or so terrified people, corralled in a huge pen, not knowing what was going on, wondered anxiously if their aunt or uncle or brother or they themselves would be thrown into a van and taken away.

Finally, the officers in charge of the operation addressed the crowd. All of those who had been herded together – men, women, children, and the elderly – were told to remove their clothes, to strip down completely. Then they were to proceed into the showers to be disinfected.

No, I'm sorry. That last part referred to something entirely different. Something that could never happen in my neighborhood.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!

Pilsen mural. Photo from Wibiti.com


For news stories on this incident, see:

"Little Village raid may fuel march", by Esther J. Cepeda, Chicago Sun-Times, 28 April 2007

And Chicago Tribune.com (requires registration)

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