When Mexican poet Javier Sicilia channeled the spirit of Martin Luther King to confront the failed drug war
“The numbers do not say anything,” said the Mexican poet Javier Sicilia last Thursday evening, speaking at a New York City vigil for the victims of the drug war in Mexico. “They are abstractions. No one can imagine 70,000 faces.”
Sicilia and the Caravan for Peace have traveled over 6,000 miles nationwide, through more than 25 cities — including Los Angeles, Santa Fe, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, and New York — to make Americans aware that behind every drug addict, behind every gun that is purchased by organized crime in the United States, and behind the U.S. and Mexican governments’ drug policies, is the pain and suffering of thousands of families.“That is why we have come here,” the poet said, referring to New York, “so that they [Americans] can look at us… and see each of our pains… so that they could see through our faces, and multiply them by 70,000, multiply them by all the families that this war has destroyed.”
Addressing a crowd of students, activists, drug war victims, and community leaders from the United States and Mexico, among other people, at Upper Manhattan’s Riverside Church—a place steeped with history in the fight for social justice and African American civil rights—Sicilia spoke slowly and deliberately, giving each word a profound meaning. His speech that evening recalled the powerful words of Martin Luther King, who, in the same storied location, also rallied likeminded listeners against the atrocities of war in 1967.
“I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice,” King said, calling for an end to the Vietnam War. Like Sicilia, the reverend challenged his audience to speak out against a foreign policy that victimized innocent people. “Silence is betrayal,” King quoted from a statement. Sicilia echoed that sentiment 45 years later by reminding listeners that when they fail to denounce unjust government policies that cause the suffering and death of thousands of people, they become complicit.
The victims of drug violence are rarely visible. And in the United States, drug-related crimes and associated health problems are often misrepresented as a foreign issue. But according to a fact sheet compiled by the Drug Policy Alliance, the war on drugs has created a national crisis. While the United States spends more than $51 billion annually on its drug war budget, 32,000 people are still infected every year with HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C by sharing contaminated syringes. In 2009, 37,485 people died from legal and illicit drug use.
The drug war also targets minority communities disproportionately. While blacks and Latinos use and sell drugs at similar rates as whites, they account for nearly 67 percent of all people incarcerated in state prisons. Government surveys of high school seniors show that even when blacks and Latinos use drugs like marijuana at lower rates than whites, they still face significantly higher incarceration. While whites, for instance, make up over 46 percent of the population in New York City, they only account for 12 percent of marijuana possession arrests. By comparison, blacks and Latinos together make up nearly 53 percent of the city’s population, but they account for 84 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession.
The vigil at Riverside Church compelled listeners to see and feel the consequences of the drug war in both Mexico and the United States through the testimonies of victims on both sides. Carol Eady, an African-American mother who was formerly incarcerated in New York for selling drugs, humanized the drug war crisis by describing it as a public health issue.
“Many women in New York, all over the United States, and probably all over the world, are usually incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses,” Eady said. “And instead of treating [these] occurrences as health hazards or diseases where we turn to drugs to medicate our pain, they [authorities] lock us up. As a result, I myself became separated from my children, my family, my home, because I turned to drugs to medicate my own pain.”
At other moments, the testimonies from drug war victims reminded the congregation that both Americans and Mexicans need to unite as “good neighbors” to overcome the walls of silence and indifference that alienate victims. When Melchor Flores Landa, a Mexican father who lost his son in the drug war, lamented how his voice is being drowned out by pain, the congregation chanted in support, “You are not alone.”
This solidarity between neighbors, Sicilia pointed out at the end of his speech, is the cornerstone for a new policy that could drive the United States and Mexico on a path towards peace. The poet and the caravan hoped to renew the community spirit that King praised in 1967 for pushing forward “new systems of justice and equality.”
“The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before,” said the reverend. “‘The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,’” he quoted from the Gospel of Matthew (4:16).
Following that light towards peace, the congregation marched out of Riverside Church at the end of the vigil with candles in hand. They filed into rows of four people each on the street, and set forward into the humid night to Saint Cecilia Church in East Harlem, a majority Latino neighborhood with a growing Mexican population. Along the way, they passed project housing and rent-controlled apartment buildings where black and Latino residents have been detained for nonviolent drug offenses in recent decades. And at that moment, when marchers chanted, “El pueblo callado jamás será escuchado” (“A silent community will never be heard”), New York could have been Mexico, Vietnam, or any other place ravaged by war, including 1941 Auschwitz in Sicilia’s 2012 novel “El fondo de la noche” (“The Depth of Night”).
The next morning, Sicilia and the caravan suffered a setback. While they attracted the attention of numerous media outlets during a press conference on the steps of City Hall, Mayor Bloomberg neither accepted nor declined to meet with them. And now, that the caravan has reached its final stop in Washington, D.C., they hope that they will have better luck with President Obama and other politicians, so that they can break through the indifference of government and rally support for more humane policies that benefit the people.