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Janet Thomas: Of Fireworks and Freedom

  • Written by Janet Thomas

I just returned home from a few days on the border between northern and southern California. It was hot, smoky and dry. At Hensley Lake, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers monitors a dam and manages a park, the sun beat down through the smoky haze at roughly 100 degrees. Driving there from Fresno was an immersion into both environmental and human despair. Drought has ravished the landscape. But in dramatic contrast, the miles of olive, walnut, pistachio and fig trees, all kept alive by irrigation, and immigration, were a reminder of the hard work that immigrants do day-in and day-out to keep the food supply thriving. They deserve appreciation and respect, not revulsion and aggression.

As immigrant families are separated and hated so spuriously by this administration, stopping to eat Mexican food from a truck stand was a formidable experience. The food was great. The people were great. And so was the grief of it all. Borders are about pride and profit not people and planet. I wanted to say something but all I could feel was the oppressiveness of my whiteness. The most respectful thing to do was to be respectful—and appreciative of the delicious quesadilla I was served.

As a survivor of systematic abuse throughout my childhood, my grief about the separation of young immigrant children from their parents and their subsequent vulnerability, renders me speechless with despair. And not just because of their cruel incarceration. The predatory networks of child exploitation—through child prostitution and pornography—are not an arena for the faint-hearted. But it is endemic. The internet feeds the voracious greed of these networks and their customers—and now, so does government policy. My own shattered childhood, long attended to through therapy in my adulthood, is crying out in despair. “How can this be happening to innocent children? How is it even possible? How can children be “disappeared” by policies that render children anonymous and set them up for exploitation?”

The actual possibility of it all is so utterly confounding that I am now facing my most difficult fear. You see, I, too, am an immigrant. For more than 50 years, my life has been saved by the freedoms in this country—including freedom of speech, which in my case took the shape of freedom to write. I was not allowed to speak as a kid—but nobody told me I could not write. And living in the United States of America, the freedom to write saved my life.

I was an army wife living at Fort Dix, New Jersey during the Vietnam War where I volunteered at Walton Army Hospital and met young soldiers of all colors coming back from Vietnam in pieces. I wrote a play about it. Later, back in Seattle, Vietnamese “boat people” (mostly children) were sent to safety in the U.S. by their parents. I wrote a play about it. I protested nuclear war and attended a Suquamish Tribal welcoming ceremony for anti-nuclear activist Japanese Buddhist monks who came to Kitsap County to protest the Trident nuclear submarine base. They were outsiders; they were arrested, tried accordingly, and their rights to protest were firmly upheld. I wrote a play about it. I also wrote plays about the prevention of sexual abuse of children that were produced for students of all ages. I was out on the activist streets of WTO Seattle and wrote a book about it. I also wrote a book about spiritual healing from my childhood trauma.

I did all my writing without a heartbeat of fear. Freedom of expression—in all its manifest forms—is at the heart of political freedom and nowhere in the world has it been so upheld as it has in the USA. Nowhere else could I have experienced the freedoms that saved my life—inside and out—as well as the freedom to witness the lack of freedom for others.

In 2004, I went to Columbus, Ohio as an Amnesty International voting monitor volunteer with Agi Vadas, my old friend and long-time San Juan Islander. Agi was a Holocaust survivor who escaped Hungary and spent years without a country until she was welcomed as an immigrant to the United States. Agi, who became a ferociously proud American citizen, was a brilliant violinist who was passionate about global justice and started a branch of Amnesty International in San Juan County. When we arrived at our assigned precinct in Columbus, three of the five voting machines were “out of order.” It was in an African American community and I watched as voters who had lined up at dawn to vote before work, had to leave before voting so they could get to their jobs on time.

While we were in Columbus, Agi went to the penitentiary and met her death-row inmate pen-pal, Richard Neilds whom she met through an Amnesty International program. Rich was on death-row because he’d killed his girlfriend in a drunken fight and then drove their car to a nearby bar and called the police and turned himself in. His attorney said he would be charged with manslaughter. He received the death sentence because their car was in his girlfriend’s name. Consequently, the prosecuting attorney added the charge of “theft” as a means of pursuing another death penalty notch in his belt. Rich was a musician and his correspondence with Agi is an anguished journey of heart, hope and music.

When Agi died, her one request was that we keep up her work to save Rich from execution. So, we did. And thanks in big part to our island community’s activism as well as the laws of the land and upstanding attorneys, Rich’s death sentence was commuted. He died in prison of natural causes. Their book of letters, “Truth Be Told—Life Lessons from Death Row,” is an eye-and-heart-opening exploration of soul and suffering.

I write this because nothing is at it used to be. And I write it because I am afraid to. The fascist edict I was trained in as a child was simple and effective—if I wanted something, it meant I couldn’t have it. Wanting to become an American citizen meant it would be impossible. I am a legal “permanent resident” brought here as a child by my legal immigrant parents. My life in the U.S. has been lived to the fullest of freedoms—yet that inner fear, terrorized into me as a child, continues to win out whenever wanting something critically important arises on my horizon.

So, I am driven by my deepest fear to finally apply for my citizenship. I want to fully embody the freedoms that have made my life possible—and life possible for so many others in this country.

The few days in California were a deep lesson in how things have been, as well as in how they are now. All the freedoms I am so profoundly grateful for must now be fought for. I’m not sure attaining my citizenship will happen by the November mid-term election but helping to get out the vote will be a priority no matter what. And if there are obstacles, the one thing I have learned from life in the U.S. is that I have a right to fight. And I will.

In the meantime, my own inner child, suspended in grief and isolation, cries out non-stop for the thousands of innocent immigrant children losing their families, and all-too possibly, their own innocence to brutal betrayal of everything this country stands for. Understanding how and why this cruelty has happened is as critical as stopping it. All children everywhere deserve protection from exploitation and abuse.

Let us find the way.

Here’s to Independence Day.

“I first saw the Constitution of the United States in a foreign country…. I read it with great satisfaction, as the result of good heads prompted by good hearts…. I have repeatedly laid myself under the most serious obligations to support the Constitution…. What other form of government, indeed, can so well deserve our esteem and love?” – John Adams 

Janet Thomas has lived on San Juan Island for 27 years. She is the San Juan Islands Coordinator for Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance and was the Superintendent of San Juan County Parks when Jet-ski-whale-watching was prevented from launching from San Juan County Park, a decision ultimately upheld by the Washington State Supreme Court. She is an author and playwright whose work has been produced in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Honolulu and Los Angeles. Her most recent books are: "The Battle in Seattle--The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations" and "Day Breaks Over Dharamsala--A Memoir of Life Lost and Found."

Last modified onMonday, 20 August 2018 14:46

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