On Humanity and the Rule of Law

On Tuesday, twenty three faith leaders were arrested on Spring St. in Downtown Los Angeles. They were sitting in a line in the street stretching from the former federal court house where the Attorney General has an office, to the Hall of Justice which houses the District Attorney and the Sheriff of the County of Los Angeles. As the sun rose high over the Hall of Justice and began baking the streets, officers with the Los Angeles Police Department began the process of putting zip ties on the hands of the faithful and transporting them to Parker Center. I was among those faith leaders.

We were disrupting morning traffic during rush hour because Jeff Sessions was disrupting, or rather, destroying the lives of thousands of refugee families seeking asylum in our country—families who fled violence and oppression in their own countries and ended up in a nightmare in ours. Children taken from their parents. Parents not knowing where their children were anymore. The Attorney General had come to Los Angeles to go to court to reinforce the separation and incarceration (by having the court overturn the Flores decision) and we had had enough. Twenty three clergy sat down to say, at a time when Jeff Sessions claims that it is lawful to incarcerate children, we too should be incarcerated.

But this is not a story about one demonstration and the civil disobedience that followed it.

Last week Thursday, there was a demonstration outside of the headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Shocked and appalled by the stories that were being reported about children at the border being forcibly removed from their parents, some literally being torn from their mothers’ breasts, more than one hundred Christians, Jews, and Muslims gathered to pray and decry this inhuman treatment of other humans. A chalice was lit, a shofar was blown, the Qur’an was cited, a Psalm was recited, priests, pastors, rabbis, and imams spoke of the horrors that characterize this age and the hopes that we have for this country. Tears were shed and anger was expressed. I was one of the angry and the hopeful.

But this is not a story about a multifaith action in protest of the separation of families.

A week ago Tuesday I put an order in to our printer for signs that said “All Immigrants Welcome Here,” black letters for the first two words, then white, on a blue background, thirteen inches by nineteen inches double-sided on #24 stock paper. We, at Bend the Arc, had run out of the signs. That is to say, that at the many previous rallies and demonstrations demand by the urgency of this moment we had given out the all signs we had. So I ordered two hundred more. I was hoping that they might be ready for the Thursday prayer demonstration, however, since that action was called for 9am, I was not counting on it.

In the event, the posters were ready Thursday afternoon. I picked them up Friday morning at the shop in East Los Angeles. Mitchell Publishing is a print shop that is well known in liberal and progressive circles, and the poster examples on the wall, and the printed bags in neat piles, bear this out. When I walked into the shop I was presented not only with the two hundred posters, but with a large banner of the same design as the poster, thrown in for free.

Jullian Velasco who owns the business told me that he had found out about the rally the day before and had wanted to attend. He came downtown but could not find parking. (He was not the only one. One of the organizers despaired of finding parking and drove away.) However, Jullian drove past the rally and was impressed by the size of the gathering, and in true Los Angeles fashion beeped his horn in support—and also printed a banner for us to use, to amplify the message.

Jullian is Salvadoran. He told me that his family had come to the States to escape the civil war in the eighties. He had become succesful and tries to support the struggles of his community. (Among other projects, he installed an antenna tower on the roof of his shop to provide free internet access to the neighborhood.) He would rather stay behind the scenes, helping out this campaign or that, throwing in a banner, making sure there were enough bags to convey an organization’s message. Others would stand in front. Jullian was gratified that the Jewish community was taking up the cause of refugees seeking asylum.

This is not the story, however, of a really nice guy who is a really good printer.

Jullian told me the story of José Castellanos Contreras, a person I had never heard of. Contreras was a Salvadoran army colonel and a diplomat. According to the Yad Vashem database of the “Righteous Among the Nations,”

in 1941 Castellanos became Salvadoran consul in Geneva. During this time Castellanos decided to deviate from his [government’s] instructions and [the Salvadoran] consulate provided citizenship certificates to thousands of Jews in occupied Europe in an effort to protect them from deportation. The citizenship papers were given to Jews who had no connection whatsoever to El Salvador and who didn’t even speak a word of Spanish. Such documents, issued by neutral countries, provided a certain protection and were therefore life-saving. This rescue operation was a joint effort of Castellanos and George Mandel, a Hungarian Jewish businessman, who had assumed a Spanish-sounding version of his last name, “Mantello”. Mandel-Mantello had met José Arturo Castellanos in the years leading up to World War II, and after Castellanos was named El Salvador’s Consul-General in Geneva, he appointed Mantello, to serve as the Consulate’s first secretary. With the consent of Castellanos, George Mantello issued documents identifying thousands of European Jews as citizens of El Salvador. The papers were sent to Jews in France and other occupied countries, and starting in 1944 to Jews in Hungary. In May 1944 El Salvador’s government changed and the new president aligned himself with other western countries that were active in rescuing the Jews in Hungary. From that point on Castellanos received his country’s support for his rescue activity.

This is a story about a Salvadoran diplomat who had no reason to care about the fate of the Jews of Europe except for the fact that they were fellow human beings. That connection led to the rescue of over 10,000 Jewish souls. This is also a story about the connections that are made between humans in this amazingly diverse city, and the caring that can come from paying attention to those connections.

We distributed the signs at the demonstration on Tuesday where we disobeyed an order to disperse and were arrested as people sang “and before this movement fails, we’ll all go down to jail….” José Castellanos knew that when injustice was done under cover of law, just people must oppose those laws. He also knew that all people had a right to live. I’d like to think that we were honoring his memory.