Last Sunday’s sermon. It will shortly be up at the UU Church of Palo Alto, along with a list of resources for further action and inspiration.
A Modern Abolition Movement
Picture workers rising in the early morning mist. They are exhausted. They were forced to work long hours yesterday, as they are every day. Last night brought the waking nightmare of rape, the assaults from the slaveholder that have become predictable but are no less terrifying for that.
Now begins the round of cleaning, of serving, of cleaning again, falling again into a bed that offers no rest, only fear. It has been like this for more days than they can count, days that stretched into months, into years . . . they’re not sure.
They are so far from home. It is an ocean away. They don’t know if they will ever return.
How could they pay their passage? They haven’t been paid since they got here. Who would even let them on board? If they dared approach a boat for passage home, they would just be returned to the slaveholder and punished.
Free people see them, even smile at them, but they do nothing to help. The girls want to beg them for help, but they don’t speak the same language, and even if these smiling people could understand them, what if the master overheard? They would be beaten again. They are silent. Nothing changes until one of the girls becomes so ill that the slaveholder is frightened, takes her to the doctor, rolling her in a carpet so no one will see her leaving the slave quarters. There is nothing the doctors can do for her. She dies, and her sister falls into even greater despair, but their nighttime, secret trip to the doctor has been seen. The truth comes out at last.
Where was this? When?
Ten years ago, in Berkeley, California. Within the tragedy is embedded a rare success: the slaveholder went to prison, for a few years anyway. The story of what he did to the sisters, and 20 other people forced to clean his rental properties, work in his restaurants, and be his sex slaves, is one of the better-publicized cases of human trafficking in the Bay Area, but it’s far from unique. There are the case of the Thai welders falsely promised work on the Bay Bridge, then transported to Long Beach and imprisoned; the cases of forced prostitution in San Mateo and Sunnyvale, Oakland and San Rafael; the woman in Walnut Creek who thought she was being hired as a nanny but was forced to work for 15 hours a day, every day, for two years, sleeping on the floor, and never being given enough to eat. These are the stories with the happiest endings, because we know about them; someone was brought to justice, their crimes were brought to light. I have no doubt that if we were to investigate, we would discover cases of forced labor right here in Palo Alto. Modern slavery is so common and so widespread that it would be foolish to think it only occurs just north, south, and east of us.
Let me be clear what we’re talking about: not exploitation, not bad working conditions–as much as those concern us as well–but slavery. One person under the absolute control of another, kept there by violence or the threat of violence; coerced into working for the purposes of that other person’s financial gain, not his or her own; and unable to walk away.
Mark Twain said that the ideal life consists of good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience. I’m glad you are among good friends and have access to so many good books (gesturing toward the book sale), because I’m going to share some facts with you that no conscience could sleep through. I wouldn’t share them with you if I didn’t have tremendous hope to share as well. There is a lot that we can do. But first, those conscience-disturbing facts:
By conservative estimates, there are 27 million slaves in the world today.
This is not only more slaves than there have ever been at any point in human history, but more than were bought, sold, and enslaved in the entire 400 years of the transatlantic African slave trade. (It is not the highest percentage of the world population that has ever been enslaved, but the greatest number.)
Half of these 27 million are children—not children doing the kind of labor that is common around the world, helping in the family business or so on, but children working alongside adults, 10 or more hours a day every day: no time for school, little time to play, little or no compensation for their labor, and often working in hazardous conditions.
Slavery takes many forms—forced prostitution, forced labor, debt bondage (probably the most common form today)—and exists all over the world in every industry you can think of. This is in spite of the fact that the legal battle has been largely won: slavery is not legal anywhere.
Human trafficking is, in fact, the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world, ranking close behind drug trafficking and the illegal arms trade. It is, in short, a huge and growing industry of organized crime.
The Central Intelligence Agency estimates that over 50,000 people are trafficked through or within this country each year. The United States is a source of slaves, a destination for slaves, and a transit country through which slaves are trafficked. Very few cases are prosecuted.
As a recent report of the State Department said, “It is impossible to get dressed, drive to work, talk on the phone, or eat a meal without touching products tainted by forced labor.”
If modern slavery doesn’t look exactly like the chattel slavery of the pre-Civil War United States, that is largely because of the change in the market. In today’s dollars, someone who wanted to buy a slave in 1850 typically had to come up with about $40,000. Today, to gain complete control over another human being may cost about $30. Life is, literally, cheap. People are a commodity, and there’s a glut of us. When a modern slaveholder’s workers are exhausted, used up, worn out, worked to death, he can easily toss them out and get some more.
How are we to respond, as Unitarian Universalists, as people who affirm the value of freedom, justice, equity, compassion, interdependence, and the worth of every person? The answer is unequivocal not only in our principles, modern and changing document that they are, but when we turn to our abolitionist heritage and our pride in that heritage. The heritage is a mixed one, and on another occasion I’ll delve into the stories of our religious ancestors who supported slavery, actively or implicitly—they are illuminating. Yet the stories we tell are all about the abolitionists. It is not because the North won the Civil War; it is because we know that they were right.
Benjamin Rush, an early Universalist and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote “It would be useless for us to denounce the servitude to which the Parliament of Great Britain wishes to reduce us, while we continue to keep our fellow creatures in slavery just because their color is different from ours.”
Almost a hundred years later, our freedom as a nation had been won but the white people of the young country still enslaved the black. The Unitarian minister Theodore Parker declared “two propositions: first,” and then he switched to all caps, “NO SLAVERY ANYWHERE IN AMERICA; second, NO SLAVERY ANYWHERE ON EARTH.”
We fought our country’s bloodiest battle to make it so. And yet slavery has never completely vanished, and now it is on the rise. A hundred and fifty years later, Parker’s words call us to action.
And who more than we, the inheritors of Rush and Parker and so many others, should be today’s abolitionists? Yet we have only the spottiest involvement in the movement to end slavery: a couple of speakers at our General Assembly seven years ago, a cover article in the UU World magazine at that time, some awareness here by the UUSC, a little action there by the Holdeen India program, neither of which are formally part of the UUA; a sermon from time to time in a scattering of pulpits; an affiliate organization called UUs Against Slavery, active for a couple of years and now dormant. Most of us know little about this issue. Once your eyes are opened, even when you try to shut them, the light troubles them. Once you’ve seen trafficking up close, seen how close it comes to your home and business, heard the stories, met the people, you have to act.
That’s what happened in the 19th century, and it will happen again in the 21st. Our Unitarian forebear Ralph Waldo Emerson declared of slavery, “Every person who touches this business is contaminated.” And that proved to be its unraveling. In 1850, the slave states, pressing for more federal protection of what they saw as their property rights, won the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, by which officials in states both slave and free were required to return escaped slaves to their owners. The Act made everyone complicit. Northerners’ mills, their goods, their wealth had long depended upon slave labor, but they had avoided facing this fact. Their involvement in slavery was now made explicit and they could no longer hold it at arms’ length. And that tipped the balance. Northerners had to take a side; when they responded with protests, the deliberate sheltering of escaped slaves, and a proliferation of “personal liberty laws” asserting the freedom of fugitive slaves, southern governments were so enraged that the situation spiraled into secession.
I think that’s where we are as soon as we know the extent of human trafficking, how we cannot go through a day without touching something produced by slaves, how our neighbors are forced into prostitution, how we either strive to end every instance of forced labor or we benefit from it.
The ubiquity of the problem, the extent to which we are all entangled in the international web of slavery, the fact that it reaches right into our cities and leaves none of us free of complicity, actually gives me hope. It gives me hope because it makes our responsibility clear. It gives me hope because we have so much leverage.
We have leverage, economic leverage, precisely because we are buying the cell phones whose components are made from tungsten mined by slaves in the Democratic Republic of Congo; we are buying the t-shirts made of Uzbekistani cotton that’s picked by children; we are buying the flowers harvested by women who work 20 hour days and are met with violence if they press for safe conditions; we drive the cars whose steel derives from pig iron produced by slaves in Brazil; we eat the shrimp raised by forced and child labor in Thailand and Bangladesh; we wear the makeup made from mica mined by children in India. Those products are made that way because there is demand for them. And if that demand dries up, if we insist that our cell phones, our clothes, our flowers, our steel, our food, our cosmetics be produced by free workers, the trafficking of human beings for forced labor will end. People enslave others because it’s profitable. Make it more profitable to pay your workers than to traffic slaves, and trafficking will stop.
It is not simple; supply chains are complex. But we have the tools to trace and hold companies accountable, and these resources are expanding by the month. Awareness is expanding. Corporations are finding it increasingly difficult to plead ignorance of what their suppliers and subcontractors are doing, or claim that they are not responsible for the entire supply chain that brings their products to consumers.
And it’s not as if these products would become unaffordable if every worker in the supply chain were free. The change in price for a pair of jeans or a new car would be negligible—in fact, the flow of millions of people into slavery is devastating to economies around the world, including our own.
Three success stories from the garment industry:
The Gap, Inc., was one of the first companies to have this spotlight shone on its practices. When people discovered, about 15 years ago, that some of its clothes were produced by slave labor, at first the company said it couldn’t be held responsible for its sub-sub-contractors. “It’s not us.” But the Gap is working hard to flush out all cases of abuse and end them and is now one of the best companies in the industry.
More recently, through research and an online petition, activists tackled Carter’s, which makes children’s clothes under that label and the label Osh Kosh B’Gosh. Children’s clothes—this made it vulnerable to pressure, because parents don’t like to think of clothing their children in cotton picked by other children. Carter’s had depended heavily on cotton picked by forced child labor in Uzbekistan, and has now stopped.
Another group that brought successful consumer pressure was college students, who discovered that their college gear was made by slave labor. They insisted on an alternative. Out of this movement came a new company, Alta Gracia, in the Dominican Republic, whose workers are not only free, but paid excellent wages. I was pleased to discover that I can now get a sweatshirt with my college’s logo that’s made by Alta Gracia. I’m looking forward to the day when none of the clothes in the college store are made by enslaved people. With a movement of college students pressing on companies like Champion, I believe it can happen. Using our consumer leverage works.
There is so much we Unitarian Universalists can do to keep our abolitionist tradition alive, thanks to the excellent work of organizations like the Polaris Project, Free the Slaves, and right here in the Bay Area, the Not For Sale Campaign.
We can access information that tells us whom to boycott and whom to “buycott,” the opposite of boycott, proactively supporting good practices by companies. Free2Work, a website and smartphone app created by Not for Sale, can tell us which companies and brands to avoid and which ones are doing the right thing and deserve our business.
We can move our investments from businesses using slave labor to those who eschew all trafficking.
We can give our money to organizations that are shining a light into dark places and freeing slaves all over the world.
If we want to get more ambitious . . . .
We can sell free-trade goods right here.
We can learn to investigate cases of human trafficking and gather evidence that will give the police reason to open a full investigation. We can learn to recognize the signs of trafficking, like an unusual concentration of massage parlors in one small town, or an au pair who almost never emerges from her employers’ house and never talks to anyone outside the family.
We can lead our cities in becoming zero-tolerance communities, where police and schools, social services and other faith communities are watching for human trafficking and determined to root it out wherever it appears.
We can learn much more at the Global Forum on Human Trafficking taking place in Sunnyvale in two months—join me there—and bring a presentation to our own Unitarian Universalist district in the spring—I’ll be doing that too (if my proposal is accepted!).
We can re-ignite a Unitarian Universalist abolitionist movement and add a UU button to the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim buttons on the Abolitionist Faith Community webpage so that every Unitarian Universalist can learn more, live differently, and take action to end slavery.
The question is not whether we should set the captives free, nor whether we can, but whether we will. And we will when we truly feel that we are trapped by the suffering of people who are trapped in slavery. Kevin Bales, who has written two books about human trafficking and founded the organization Free the Slaves, poses the question, “If we can’t use our power to bring about the end of slavery, are we truly free?” When I met this week with Not For Sale’s director of the Abolitionist Faith Community, he spoke of Harriet Tubman, and it reminded me of this challenging question. Tubman found her own way to freedom, and then she turned around and made over a dozen journeys back to the slave states, the most dangerous place she could go, in order to free her family and other slaves. What gave her the courage to risk her freedom, her very life? Clearly, she believed that she was not free as long as others languished in slavery.
The same challenge faces us: we are ostensibly free. Are we willing to venture into troubling territory to bring people out of bondage? That territory, for us, does not carry the risks the South did for Tubman, the dangers of imprisonment or death; the risk we run is the discomfort of facing others’ suffering and having to change: change our behavior, change our assumptions.
I believe we’re up to the challenge. We are overdue for a new Unitarian Universalist abolitionist movement. The train is moving, and it’s time for us to jump aboard.
The Unitarian abolitionist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper wrote,
I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.
That is my prayer. Let us not die in a land of slaves. Let us live in a world where every child is free to go to school and to play, where every woman’s body is her own, where every man reaps the work of his hands, where none enslaves another, where all are free. As Harper, and Emerson, and Parker, and Rush sought to free our country, let us free our world. Let us wake up each morning with our minds stayed on freedom, and we will make a world whose people are free.