Protecting Our Rights – Speech given at #IAmAmerica unity event

By Kate Chance, Interfaith Coordinator.

This speech was delivered at a #IAmAmerica unity event held at San Jose City hall on November 20th, 2016.

You probably all know the statement attributed to Thomas Jefferson, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” While Jefferson apparently never made the statement in exactly that form, it does date from his time, and it expresses a concern written deeply into the hearts of most Americans: that we must be wary of any attempt to compromise our freedoms, whether from government or from any other source. And now is a time when that vigilance is especially called for. The organization I represent is not political, and this gathering is not political in any partisan sense. Nonetheless, there are events connected with the incoming Administration of President-elect Donald Trump that have raised great concern all across the political spectrum. In addition to the divisive and destructive rhetoric of the recent campaign, we see open racists and Islamophobes, who indulge in statements well outside the norms of mainstream American political discourse, closely associated with and advising the President-elect.

This reality has roused understandable fear in immigrants, Muslims, and other minorities and in their allies; for we all need to understand that a threat to the rights and liberty of any one group is a threat to us all. And the only way to meet such a threat is by standing together, by insisting as one that the rights guaranteed both by our Constitution and Bill of Rights and by our common humanity be respected. Moreover, beyond questions of mere legality, we must insist that all of us—citizen or non-citizen, documented or undocumented, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Sikh, Hindu, heterosexual, gay, transgender, or whatever faith we profess or identity we claim—we must insist that we all be treated with the respect and dignity that any human being deserves. And that means that we must put on notice all who advocate or disseminate or give quarter to any statements or actions that demean any human being on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, legal status, sexual orientation, or any other identity, that we stand united in opposing them and in demanding that those in power, whether in government or any other institution, stand firm against them also.

We must, however, do more than protest and push back against overt actions of racism, Islamophobia, and bigotry; we must go deeper, to the root of the problem: the racist and bigoted attitudes that many Americans (including ourselves if we look deep enough) hold, though often unconsciously. And the most effective way to do this is through education and face-to-face encounter. Nothing builds down prejudice as effectively as respectful, non-threatening face time with a member of the group against which one holds prejudice. That’s what my organization, ING, is all about; we train and send out Muslims and adherents of other world religions to educate people in schools, colleges, and the community, to replace stereotyping and fear with genuine knowledge and acquaintance. The present moment urgently demands this sort of intercultural and interreligious engagement.

The civil rights movement taught us that freedom is a constant struggle; but we need to remember it is a struggle that has been crowned with victory time and time again in our nation’s history. From the struggle for the Bill of Rights, through the abolitionist movement, the movement for women’s suffrage and women’s equality, the battle for workers’ right to organize, the civil rights movement, the movement for the rights of gay and transgender people, it’s a struggle that the people of our country have fought and won again and again. This time will be no different. However great the threat and however fierce the challenges, we will unite in defense of the rights of all, and we will prevail.