The Oppression We Condone

Imagine a young, college student loading a bong and taking a hit. Then, imagine somewhere else, another person bites into a salad and swallows a small tomato. Neither person thinks they are hurting anyone by their actions. Neither thinks for a moment their action is connected to other people.

But both are wrong.

Two tragic articles bring this home. The first is a piece on the drug war in Mexico, featured in the latest issue of Foreign Policy.

“Mexico’s hillbilly drug smugglers have morphed into a raging insurgency. Violence claimed more lives there last year alone than all the Americans killed in the war in Iraq. And there’s no end in sight.”

It is a sad reminder of the brutal human cost that comes with the criminalization of drugs and drug use, yes, but it is also damning of U.S. consumption.  Even if marijuana and other drugs were legal in the U.S., the scale of our consumption would still create and nurture many of the power dynamics currently at play in the hemisphere.

If you doubt that, read this article on the production of tomatoes in South Florida. Featured in Gourmet magazine, it details the presence of modern slavery in the U.S.

“If you have eaten a tomato this winter, chances are very good that it was picked by a person who lives in virtual slavery. “

This perfectly legal food is  produced in ways which view their Latino laborers as nothing more than an ingredient to production, like dirt, water, or seed.  While this situation is both simple and complicated, the suffering is undeniable.

Halting our consumption of items which produce human suffering is a small change anybody can make.  Consumption feeds the continuation of the systems in question, both of which exact immeasurable human costs.  But that won’t do much to change the real problem.

James Baldwin once wrote of the indifference of whites to black suffering saying “It is their innocence that constitutes the crime.” What he meant is that “not knowing” isn’t a sign of innocence. Not when we live in a world where suffering is so easily evident.  Instead, it’s a sign of our guilt because it is the product of effort–effort to not know, effort to not associate yourself as linked to another you know is in pain, effort to preserve your need (for whatever) at the cost of others’ needs for human dignity and life.

When we open our eyes and see that the suffering of others is our suffering, then we are prepared to begin the hard work of creating the kinds of change called for in these situations.  What would you do to stop the abuse of your brother?  What would you do to save the life of your sister?

The article in Gourmet came to my attenton via Harvesting Justice, the wonderful blog of the non-profit advocacy group Farmworker Justice.

Modern Slavery and Latino Migrants

This shocking story comes from today’s Fort Meyer’s (Florida) News Press.  It is a sad reminder of the continued existence of global slavery, even within the borders of the United States.

September 3, 2008

Five plead guilty in Immokalee slavery case

Immokalee residents brutalized farmworkers

By AMY BENNETT WILLIAMS

Five Immokalee residents pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday to charges of enslaving Mexican and Guatemalan workers, brutalizing them and forcing them to work in farm fields.

The 17-count indictment in the case – one of the largest slavery prosecutions Southwest Florida has ever seen – was originally released in January. It alleged that, for two years, Cesar Navarrete and Geovanni Navarrete held more than a dozen people in boxes, trucks and shacks on the family property, chaining and beating them, forcing them to work in farm fields in Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina while keeping them in ever-increasing debt.

Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy called it “slavery, plain and simple.”

One of the six original defendants, Jose Navarrete, pleaded guilty in May to five charges.

The two ringleaders, Cesar and Geovanni Navarrete will likely serve 12 years and face fines between $750,000 and $1 million each. Sentencing is set for December.

Although the case was set to go to trial Tuesday, the defense and the government reached plea agreements at the last minute.

“In federal court, if you go to trial and lose, the sentences are extremely severe,” said Geovanni Navarrete’s attorney, Joseph Viacava of Fort Myers. “We were happy to negotiate a resolution that caps our client’s liability and puts him in a favorable position come sentencing.”

Molloy is happy too.

“This is an excellent resolution,”

he said. “The bad guys go to jail and the many victims get to go on with their lives.”

Plus, he said, every time there’s a slavery conviction, “We get two or three more reports of similar cases. So getting the word out about these prosecutions is extremely important,” Molloy said.

Members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has helped prosecute six slavery cases (including this) that freed more than 1,000 workers, also were pleased with the outcome.

“The facts that have been reported in this case are beyond outrageous – workers being beaten, tied to posts, and chained and locked into trucks to prevent them from leaving their boss,” said coalition member Gerardo Reyes.

“How many more workers have to be held against their will before the food industry steps up to the plate and demands that this never – ever – occur again in the produce that ends up on America’s tables?”