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Reflections from TMC Director: Confronting Systemic Justice in 2018

 by Gabriel McMorland

(Photo Caption: Krystle Knight, community organizer for the Thomas Merton Center, at left, gathers with others on November 8th in front of the Pittsburgh City Council meeting room. The group was there to advocate for a publicly-owned water system in Pittsburgh and to monitor the report of consultants from Infrastructure Management Group to a mayor-appointed ‘Blue Ribbon Panel’ seeking to reform the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. Photo Credit: Neil Cosgrove)

At the Thomas Merton Center, we’re taking time to reflect on this past year and plan for 2018. I’m grateful to everyone we worked with in 2017 and proud of what we accomplished together. In looking ahead, I am struck by the need to discern the root causes of issues we work on. Economic, environmental, human rights, and peace issues remain tightly intertwined as symptoms of deep, systemic injustice.

TMC worked on three major campaigns in 2017; Bring Martin Home, Don’t Criminalize Transit Riders (DCTR), and Our Water. In this work, we joined with Casa San Jose, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, and many others. Bring Martin Home supported the Esquivel family as they resisted the attempts of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the US Attorney to deport their father and husband. DCTR continues to oppose using armed police and criminal charges to collect fares on public transit, and the Our Water campaign still fights for safe, affordable, public water in Pittsburgh.

We partnered with Casa San Jose to confront various state representatives supporting anti-immigrant legislation and forced Rep. Dom Costa to publicly change his position on a bill requiring local police to assist with detentions and deportations. We joined workers confronting multiple employers about wage theft. We pushed through a pounding rainstorm during the May Day march for immigrant and worker rights, and the July heat for the largest anti-war march Pittsburgh has seen in years. We approached all this work in a spirit of solidarity.
With hope and honesty, let’s recognize that we have never lived in a just and peaceful world. The strongest forces shaping the last 500 years of history are explicitly racist colonialism and the subsequent concentration of global wealth during the rise of capitalism. Our own constitution was written by men who supported violent expansion into native American lands, imagined no place for women in public life, and either owned slaves or profited from commerce closely related to the slave economy. Today’s billionaires and big corporations transcend the power of individual nations, while the longstanding hierarchies of white supremacy, patriarchy, and colonialism remain firmly in place. Our work must build towards something better.

Inequality fuels injustice. People of color and other marginalized groups are the most intensely impacted by every issue, from nuclear weapons and climate change, to healthcare and living wages. At the same time, overlapping systems of oppression help concentrate power among the small number of people who consistently make decisions that harm the rest of society. Imagine what climate policy might look like if the global south had not endured centuries of violent exploitation, or if US companies had not spent decades polluting native lands and communities of color with little consequence.

Support for endless wars abroad relies on a longstanding culture of racist xenophobia, myths that center white Christians as “real Americans,” and the same law and order ideology that justifies militarized policing and mass incarceration. The issues we work on are driven by the marginalization of people by our most powerful institutions and in our everyday personal interactions.

Visions of peace and justice cannot fully separate issues. Do we want solar-powered tanks and battleships with a low-carbon footprint? We want to cut military spending, but would we accept the US government reinvesting that money in expanded policing and for-profit prisons at home? Will we allow the silencing of marginalized voices in the name of “unity for the movement”?

At this year’s 45th annual Thomas Merton Award dinner honoring the Center for Constitutional Rights, many of us drew inspiration from the words of its executive director Vincent Warren. After discussing the shared history of TMC and CCR, he reminded us to work in a spirit of solidarity, to connect our long legacy with the foresight of young leaders, and to take bold risks for justice. As always, I invite responses to this column and inquiries of any kind at gabriel@thomasmertoncenter.org.

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