In a guest column, Calvin Runnels, a native of Baton Rouge, explains why he protested and why more Americans ought to join him. (He and another activist were charged with disorderly conduct under a city ordinance during Monday’s protest, which drew more than 100 people.)
Runnels graduated Tech last year with a bachelor's degree in biochemistry. One of 32 Rhodes Scholars in 2018, he is pursuing postgraduate studies at the University of Oxford. He is the sixth student in Tech history to be named a Rhodes Scholar, which is one of the most prestigious student honors in the world. (Among well known Americans who were Rhodes Scholars are Susan Rice, Pete Buttigieg, Ronan Farrow, Bill Clinton, Bill Bradley, Bobby Jindal, Cory Booker, Kris Kristofferson, Rachel Maddow, Myron Rolle and George Stephanopoulos.)
Runnels, 22, was a Beckman Coulter Petit Undergraduate Research Scholar, Stamps President’s Scholar and a member of the Honors Program, Diversity and Inclusion Fellow. He is a transgender male and served as the student co-chair of the campus LGBTQIA Action Team.
In her Rhodes recommendation letter on behalf of Runnels, Stephanie Ray, Georgia Tech associate dean of students and director of Student Diversity Programs, wrote, “Calvin has spent a great deal of time at Tech learning about himself and learning about others. As a result, Calvin is very committed to improving the human condition.”
With that background, here is a letter Runnels wrote about his arrest, addressing it to other American Jews.
By Calvin Runnels
My dear fellow American Jews,
If those two words apply to you, already we share so much. We belong, you and I, to two peoples – peoples who, in all the glories and tragedies of our histories, have claimed to love freedom, to love justice, to love equality and community and protection of the most vulnerable among us. We remember with great and painful clarity what results when some human being is declared other, is deemed outsider, is called vermin, harassed, taken from their home in the night.
On Monday, I was arrested outside of the ICE Field Office in Atlanta at a protest. When my arresting officer took my ID, he was very interested to see that my home address is in Louisiana, and he made me confirm that that was indeed my permanent residence multiple times. The implication in the question was clear: you are not from here — you don’t belong here — you are an outsider, an agitator.
So, let me explain to you, as I did him, why I am in Atlanta.
I graduated from Georgia Tech last May. Since then, I have been studying at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. While in Oxford, I have watched with disgust and outrage, as many of you have, the not-so-gradual escalation of a genocidal program against immigrants, Latinx people and other people of color — including concentration camps in which children and parents are separated, denied basic hygienic necessities, denied clothes, a bed to sleep on, safe water to drink, medical care. Dozens have died already, including children, and tens of thousands of immigrants are now being held in hundreds of detention centers and prisons around the U.S., including Georgia.
I am in Atlanta because I have basic ties here; several of my closest friends work or study here, and my sister and brother-in-law live near East Atlanta Village. But beyond this, I am in Atlanta because injustice is here. The ICE Field Office at which our protest was held coordinates the abduction, detention, and abuse of immigrants across Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
And injustice anywhere — say it with me — is a threat to justice everywhere. You and I were raised knowing this, you and I grew up with a conviction, a knowledge in our hearts, that if something were to happen in our own country like what happened to our grandparents, or our parents, or their siblings and aunts and friends, that we would not stand idly by and allow the victims to be disposed of as others did our family members.
So, part of the reason why I am here is because of who I am, my identities, my body. Because of who I am, my body, I was born with the inherited trauma of the Holocaust and the centuries of anti-Semitism which predate it and continue in its wake. Because of who I am, my white and (legally, visually) male body, my ability to be arrested without fear of serious repercussions is well above average.
On Monday, I had available to me a team of activists dedicated to making sure I was treated humanely and released with the greatest possible speed. I was even allowed to keep with me a book I brought to pass the time. Because of who I am, this body which was born within the centuries-young and obscenely arbitrary borders of the United States, I was fed at every meal time, given a room to myself, clean water to drink, a bed, a blanket, soap and a toothbrush, and released to my family the following day.
In short, I am not an outsider. I have the freedom to engage in nonviolent direct action, to join those attempting to create the sort of tension needed to force real concessions from those who are most accountable for the atrocities we are witnessing. As a Jew, as an American, I have a responsibility to practice tikkun olam: to take whatever actions I can to grind this ever-expanding machine of isolation and concentration and dehumanization to a halt.
It is true that my individual arrest will not have this effect. But the collective action of immigrants, Jews, people of color and allies across the country has already begun to make its mark. And because you and I in particular, as American Jews, have a voice which may be believed when we name our present American reality for what it is; because we can lay grave pressure on those who claim to have our security in mind while destroying the lives of immigrants; because we wish our German and Polish and French neighbors would have done the same for us with greater urgency 80 years ago — because of all this, we must take a stand, now, and invite the rest of the world to follow.
We must call our representatives until their phones are ringing off the hook, organize protests in our communities, fund the legal costs of detained immigrants, ask our Rabbis to deliver sermons on the ways Jews can and must step up in response to this mass atrocity. We must demand an end to all detention and deportation, the immediate legalization of all 11 million undocumented immigrants, and the reunification of all families which have been torn apart by imprisonment and exile. We must begin to imagine immigration systems which respect the humanity of all people, systems which understand that rights to dignity and justice transcend the manmade constructs of citizenship and borders.
It is time to remember that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” It is time to cry out that never again means — has always meant — now. Join me in exercising the best of your Jewish instincts and the purest of your American values in fighting for a future in which justice, real justice, is more than a rallying cry and a distant dream. Let’s show these fascist bastards what we’re made of.
Yours for the cause of justice and freedom,
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