Which Side Are You On?
A powerful song written by the wife of a union organizer in 1931, popularized by the radical folk singer Pete Seeger and later adapted by the civil rights movement, perfectly expresses the moral question of our particular political moment: “Which Side Are You On?” I hear the refrain of that song in my mind each time I read about a fresh new horror in the ongoing crisis of forced separation of undocumented immigrant families by President Donald Trump’s administration. The crisis has been building for months, but its hideous extent only recently has come to light. Trump’s executive order calling for indefinite detention of whole families as a panacea for his choice to separate children from their parents is more of the same cruelty.
So many figures in the Trump administration have in recent days exposed their stone-faced callousness even as heartbreaking photos of crying children and the stories behind them have gripped the nation. Among them is Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who gave a disastrous press conference on Monday. Unable to address valid questions from the press about why children were being mentally tortured en masse through separation from their parents, she resorted to technicalities, obfuscations and feigned ignorance.
When a reporter played the gut-wrenching audio ProPublica said was of Central American kids aged 4 to 10 wailing for their parents at a detention center in Texas, Nielsen ignored the tape and eventually said, “I think that they reflect the focus of those who post such pictures and narratives.” In other words, Nielsen made it eminently clear which side she was on: the opposite of those who call out the torture of innocent children.
The Root rightly distinguished Nielsen as having beaten out press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders for the title of “Most Hated Person in Trump’s White House” with her coldblooded performance, writing, “Must be nice to insert robotic, formulaic answers to human questions about humanity.”
Right up there with Nielsen is the man who in May first formally announced the U.S. policy of family separation: Attorney General Jeff Sessions. I wrote in an earlier column about his deliberately contradictory accusations that people were trafficking their own children. Asked whether the conditions in which undocumented children were being held was reminiscent of Nazi Germany, Sessions, instead of vehemently denouncing the comparison, decided to pick up on a nuanced difference between the two, saying that, “In Nazi Germany, they were keeping the Jews from leaving the country.” As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp wrote,“Whether the policy is literally identical to what the Nazis did is almost beside the point. If you need to explain why you aren’t like Hitler, you’ve already lost.” Sessions has effectively failed to assert that he is not on the side of Nazis.
In a speech to law enforcement officers last week, Sessions quoted from the Bible, Romans 13, saying it was important “to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” He added, “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent and fair application of the law is in itself a good and moral thing, and that protects the weak and protects the lawful.” Except that Sessions invoked a part of the Bible that had been used to justify slavery in the South. In doing so, he made it clear which side he was on: that of the slave owners rather than the enslaved.
Sessions’ own church has put him on notice. Hundreds of clergy from the United Methodist Church, of which he is a member, wrote a strongly worded letter in which they called him out for his “harmful actions” and “the damage he is currently causing to immigrants, particularly children and families.” The signatories issued a set of serious “church charges” against him that include child abuse, immorality and racial discrimination. In doing so these Methodist church members and clergy made it very clear that they were on the side of vulnerable undocumented children.
If there was any doubt that the Trump administration is creating its own unique standards of morality, recent revelations about the so-called White House Bible Study group eviscerate them. The group’s weekly meetings are apparently attended by Nielsen, Sessions, Vice President Mike Pence and others, and are administered by a man named Ralph Drollinger, of Capitol Ministries. Documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests reveal that Drollinger’s interpretation of the Bible includes justifying corporal punishment of children and is virulently anti-immigrant. One of his tenets apparently is, “God’s Word says He frowns on illegal immigrants—just like He says He frowns on children ruling the roost!”
If Drollinger has influenced top Trump officials using the garbage logic of fundamentalist Christianity, it is presidential adviser Stephen Miller who has pushed the policy-level idea that using undocumented children as political pawns is a useful deterrent against immigration. “It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry, period,” said Miller.”The message is that no one is exempt from immigration law.” Perhaps knowing that a recording of Miller saying these words would be used to further excoriate him and his president, the White House protested against The New York Times publishing the audio of Miller’s interview, and the paper complied. After all, Miller was the force behind the Muslim ban, and once famously minimized the Statue of Liberty’s pro-immigrant etchings. There is good reason why the 32-year-old has been labeled “the White House’s resident troll.” Like Nielsen and Sessions, Miller has made it eminently clear, even from behind the scenes, that he is on the side of child abusers.
As for Trump himself, it is not relevant any more to ask which side the president is on. Trump is a side unto himself. Just as we may have asked whether one is on the side of Nazis or the anti-fascists, the slave-owning South or the abolitionist North, the KKK or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, we ought to ask today whether one is on the side of Trump or the resistance to Trumpism. In one of his latest tweets dehumanizing immigrants, the president said, “Democrats … want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13.” The word “infest” deliberately invokes insects, pests and disease, and echoes what he said in his weekly address just days earlier that “MS-13 gang members are truly, and you’ve heard me say it, animals.” Last month, the White House even used the term “animals” in a written press release after Trump said it during a meeting. It matters little that the children and parents being separated from one another today have nothing to do with the MS-13 gang. It only matters to Trump that in the minds of his fanatical supporters the two disparate communities are conflated.
So which side are Americans on? On the side of Trump and his child abusers or on the other side?
So far, many Democrats and some Republicans are locating their humanity and balking at the images and sounds of children suffering. But not nearly enough lawmakers are signing on to the Keep Families Together Act to legislatively end the practice of family separation. Even if Trump would most likely veto any such bill were it to pass Congress, it is critical for all members to articulate which side they are on, and it is incumbent on us as their constituents to demand they pick a side—and pick the right one.
It is not acceptable to let the administration set the agenda and, as Trump’s new executive order stipulates, normalize the locking up of whole families together, indefinitely, as a solution to locking up parents separately from their children.
Americans involved in the machinery of government child abuse also ought to ask themselves which side they are on. The nonprofit group Southwest Key, which houses children separated from their parents in several detention centers for the government, is reportedly facing an internal “dilemma” about being part of a system that tortures children. Sadly, the organization appears to have chosen nearly a half-billion dollars in government contracts over a principled stand against family separation. One of the organization’s employees, Antar Davidson, chose the side of children when he resigned, saying, “I can no longer in good conscience work with Southwest Key programs,” adding, “I am feeling uneasy about the morality of some of the practices.”
As we’ve seen before in U.S. history, this is a make-or-break moment for the nation. Just as Germans were forced to choose sides during World War II—the side of anti-fascists, Jews, progressives and others, or the side of the Nazis—so, too, Americans have had to choose in our own past between slave owners or the enslaved and abolitionists. We have had to choose between the lynch mobs and those fighting for equality. So, too, now we have to choose between the side of the children or the side of their kidnappers and torturers. Anti-fascist and anti-Trump Americans could demonstrate their choice by attending any of the countless protests that are being organized in front of ICE offices and elsewhere.
In the matter of the lives of tens of thousands of children, there should be absolute clarity. There are no gray areas, no nuances when children’s lives are at stake. Those having trouble choosing the side of the children have catastrophically failed a basic test of humanity. They will find themselves on the wrong side of history—the same side that Nazis, slave owners and lynch mobs were on.