Looking Back to Move Ahead

by Simón Sedillo

I was asked to write a piece about people of color organizing to attend the 2009 SOA Watch vigil and about our plans for 2010. I believe everything happens for a reason.

I am writing this from Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas.

I find it serendipitous simply because when we talk about people of color organizing, I think it is always important to remind ourselves about painful pasts, in order to remove any blinders we are wearing in the present. Haskell University was originally a U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs Native American “Boarding School.” Secretary of War John C. Calhoun set up the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1824, which became the War Department’s main agency for dealing with Native Americans until 1849 when it was transferred to the Department of the Interior.

The Boarding School program was developed by a U.S. Army Captain by the name of Richard Henry Pratt In 1879. At the time, the Army was concluding that assimilation into white settler society by most Native Americans was impossible, because they simply would not “give up their traditions and ways of life.” So Richard Pratt developed a strategy he called “kill the Indian, save the man.” The idea was probably stolen from the various Christian boarding school programs developed during the Spanish occupation of the Americas. The main idea behind Pratt’s program was that Native families would be forced to send their children to live in these so-called “boarding schools.”

The ugly truth is that all over the United States, Native children were kidnapped by U.S. soldiers, loaded into freight train box cars and sent to concentration camps all over the country. Haskell still has the old “rail trail” distinctly marked at the edge of campus. As you can very well imagine, the boys were trained to be soldiers and the girls were trained to be domestic servants. On a national average eight out of ten girls and at least half the boys were sexually assaulted. Overwhelming evidence shows that less than half the children who originally attended Haskell as a boarding school, survived their experience at all.

Less than 30 miles away from Haskell, the U.S. Army base Fort Leavenworth serves as another continuous reminder of deep dark history, an official history of human devaluation through criminalization. Fort Leavenworth was the epicenter of U.S. Army expansion into native lands in the west. These institutions prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the U.S. government engaged in genocidal practices, and justified these practices by officially criminalizing the act of being indigenous.

The history of the U.S. government criminalizing poor young people begins here. Today inner city and impoverished youth throughout this country are experiencing a new incarnation of the same systematic human devaluation. Black, brown, yellow, immigrant, poor, and yes many Native American communities alive and well in the U.S. today have little access to basic needs and services. This implies a lack of access to the planes, boats, and trucks that fill their communities with weapons and drugs.

The strategy has been broadened to the criminalization of poverty, of youth, and of any form of dissent. The only difference is that instead of forcibly sending young people to “boarding schools” today, the official strategy is to criminalize them, and send them to prison.

The United States of America incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world. The U.S. disproportionately incarcerates people of color from poor communities. Everyday this country has more and more private prisons, prisons run for profit. How do you justify a system that incarcerates its citizens in order to make a profit? Today this updated version of the same strategy to criminalize and “change” young people of color has continued to reap violence in our communities.

This is the story of why we think it is important for young people of color from around the world to have an active role in shutting down the SOA and Fort Leavenworth and Fort Huachuca. From the perspective of young people of color on the front lines of a war against them, this list of places, institutions and industries that contribute to the criminalization and devaluation of their communities is endless.

This last November you may have noticed a lot more black and brown young people with crooked baseball caps, sagging pants and a whole lot of attitude. If you were paying attention, you may have seen some of the creative ways in which we are carrying a message that contributes to shutting down the SOA. Sometimes the TV and newspapers do a good job of making people that act and dress like us look like nothing more than a bunch of criminals. But we know that folks at SOA Watch know who the real criminals are. You will see more and more young people of color at the gates of Fort Benning, until we all shut down the SOA. Hopefully we won’t see each other there for too much longer, and we can start seeing each other on every other front where injustices are taking place.

Let us not forget our history, while keeping a squeegee clean third eye on the present. Young people of color have been and continue to be criminalized not because they are evil or born bad, but because they have always been beautiful, powerful, creative, and relentless when it comes to resisting oppression and meeting us on the front lines of these movements that we share. When you see us, even if we seem loud, or even abrasive, just smile because we all know that we can’t win this fight without one another.