by Jorge Montiel
On the evening of April 25, more than 250 parishioners from Sacred Heart in the west side of San Antonio stood in thunderous support of SAPD Chief William McManus after he vowed to “fight crime, not chase immigrants!” He then asked the assembly to work with him, because SAPD wants “to be part of this community, not apart from it.” McManus’ commitments came in response to various gut-wrenching stories of residents who live in fear—fear of criminals and of law enforcement—but are determined to do something about it.
These are two of the stories:
Higinio, married and father of two, was brought to the United States when he was 14 years old. He works, pays taxes, obeys the law, and is an active parishioner. And yet he remains undocumented and is about to lose his long-held Texas driver’s license because of a recent DPS rule change. He needs to drive to support his family, but he risks arrest and
deportation if he drives without a license.
Elizabeth, a 13-year-old student, was recently walking home from Irving Middle School when she noticed that a stranger was following her—the same man she spotted staring at her from his car a couple of weeks earlier. In a panic, she ran into a neighbor’s house and waited until her mom got home. She said many of her friends have experienced this, but such incidents often go unreported because parents have lost trust that the police will help them.
The assembly was organized to begin building trust between the growing San Antonio immigrant community and the police department and to highlight the damaging consequences of Arizona’s immigration law. That law, known as SB1070, has been stuck in courts and was being heard at the Supreme Court that same day. In contrast to the media parade of TV talking heads, courtroom pundits and competing demonstrations, the scene at Sacred Heart was one of reverence and civility.
As energizing as the West side gathering was, what made it truly remarkable was that it emerged from hundreds of similar stories shared during “house meetings,” or small group conversations, organized by Sacred Heart and COPS/Metro during Lent. Parishioners met in the church hall after Masses, knocked on doors around the neighborhood for six straight Saturdays, and hosted neighbors in their homes to understand the pressures on the families and to find people willing to act. Weeks of training, conversations, deliberation and preparation came before the meeting with Chief McManus.
The stories of Higinio and Elizabeth reveal their personal pain, but also point to a larger story; they illustrated the flaws of state and local immigration enforcement laws. As local police departments shift resources to pursuing undocumented immigrants, fewer officers are available to fight crime. But the more malignant consequence of such a policy is the deterioration of trust between the community and the police department that’s supposed to protect it.
When that trust breaks down, everyone suffers. Soon neighbors stop calling the police when
they are victims of a crime, let alone when they witness one. As relationships among neighbors deteriorate, fear spreads and criminals swoop in. Fear-mongering candidates vow to fight so-called “sanctuary cities,” but they turn a blind eye to what West side residents know first hand: forcing the police to act as immigration agents will create “sanctuary cities for criminals.”
So how do communities rebuild trust? How do we create public trust in a diverse city with
increasing poverty, a large immigrant population and low civic engagement? There is no easy answer and no one organization or city leader can accomplish it. However, the Sacred Heart experience teaches us that the patient effort of institutional organizing is a key piece of the puzzle. COPS/Metro is reorganizing to seize this opportunity.
COPS/Metro is a broad-based organization affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). It was formed in 1974 to develop the capacity of San Antonio’s disenfranchised to participate fully as citizens in the life of the community and to have a voice in the public decision-making that affects their lives. It succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. Through COPS/Metro, ordinary citizens learned the skills of public life and built power to leverage over $1 billion in public projects to improve drainage, streets, housing, education, health care and job training.
But times have changed, and a “we vs. them” approach will not work anymore. Sure, the
growing economic inequality in San Antonio creates a divide and raises serious moral questions, but concerns with public education, health care, and wages affect families throughout the city. And people of good will in every zip code are eager to do something about it.
A broader, different conversation is needed. A superficial, PR-style conversation won’t do. This public dialogue must acknowledge the tension and disagreements that come with diversity of interests. There is an inherent conflict in the pursuit of justice, because everyone has his or her own understanding of what is just.
Ignoring or avoiding the conflict leads to rigid ideology and stops conversations. Resorting to lawsuit after lawsuit is no solution either; does anyone think that the upcoming Supreme Court’s decisions on the current immigration and health care cases will make all of us happy? The challenge is to cultivate the habits and practices of true politics, including deliberation, understanding our self-interest and the interests of others, negotiation, compromise, action and reflection.
In his book “In Defence of Politics,” Bernard Crick describes this brand of politics as “conflict become discussion.” Unlike litigation, Crick argues, politics is not a necessary evil, but a “realistic good!”
The challenging task for COPS/Metro is to work with old and new allies to create a much
broader-based organization that leverages community assets, builds coalitions, and continues to create the stage for ordinary people to become public actors, practice true politics and develop trust.
A broad, diverse and organized institutional strategy is the only way for us to effectively respond to seemingly intractable issues in our city. This is because churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, non-profits, small businesses and other locally rooted institutions teach us to see the Other—the Northsider and the Southsider, the police and the immigrant as part of, not apart from, each other.
Jorge Montiel is lead organizer, the equivalent of executive director, of COPS/Metro Alliance. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @jmontiel.