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Volunteers for No More Deaths in the Sonoran desert. (Photo: Volunteers for No More Deaths in the desert/Carrot Quinn)

Volunteers for No More Deaths in the Sonoran desert. (Photo: Volunteers for No More Deaths in the desert/Carrot Quinn)

Voting With Food and Water

Standing up to this kind of cruel action—especially when it is ensconced in legality, armed and wearing a uniform—is voting at the deepest level of citizenship.

Robert C. Koehler

A bad app in Iowa throws everything into a tizzy. Who won? Come on, the horse race has begun. Let’s get some numbers up on the board.

Spectator Nation stomps its feet.

Voting is the activity at the core of democracy, right? It’s a citizen’s sacred duty. While I have always believed this, questions about the nature of our democracy have been simmering in my soul over the decades with ever-increasing intensity. Is affirming our citizenship really nothing more than making a pencil mark on a ballot or a blip on a computer screen, indicating our "choice" among highly controlled options?

"It’s no exaggeration to call this a crisis of legitimacy," Richard Eskow writes, regarding the Iowa Democratic caucus. "Like the GOP, the Democratic Party holds a position that is unique among democracies. It is, in effect, one half of a state-sponsored duopoly that controls electoral politics. That kind of unaccountable power is detrimental to democracy. As long as it exists, however, it confers an obligation to serve the interests of democracy."

He adds that the Dems must confront the crisis of legitimacy the Iowa caucus fiasco has generated "by changing an insider culture that serves it, and the public interest, poorly. If it doesn’t do that, and soon, the result may well be another victory for Trump and his party."

While all this is true, I’m certain the insider culture has no intention of letting any serious change occur, which pushes the urgency to take action—morally creative action, you might say—further down the hierarchy: to the voter . . . to the citizen.

Indeed, I suggest a change in thinking regarding the nature of "voting"—yanking it away from its institutional roots and redefining it, not as simply making a choice among preselected (and often extremely tepid) options, but as an act of moral conviction, challenge and risk: To vote is to create the nation in which you live.

To "vote" may mean to declare, in the moment: I do not live in a racist nation.

My inspiration for this redefinition of voting came from learning about the actions of volunteers at an organization called No More Deaths. The primary takeaway for me—upon learning that a U.S. District judge recently reversed the convictions of four group members, who had committed the offense of trying to help refugees stay alive as they trekked through the Sonoran Desert to the U.S. border—was that we as citizens have a deeper, more sacred obligation to our country, and what it is, than helping to choose a leader. Voting is also an act of leadership in and of itself.

A nation is not simply an infrastructure of rules and values, within which we live our lives. It is also a machine in motion, forcefully acting, at times, on values rooted in questionable moral certainties, including racism. To "vote" may mean to declare, in the moment: I do not live in a racist nation.

The four volunteers for the Arizona-based No More Deaths—whose mission is "to end death and suffering in the Mexico-U.S. borderlands through civil initiative: people of conscience working openly and in community to uphold fundamental human rights"—had been convicted last year of several federal misdemeanors, which included entering the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge without a permit and—the biggie—leaving food and water for migrants on their perilous journey. The four were given $250 fines and 15 months of unsupervised probation.

They appealed the conviction and, lo and behold, a different U.S. District judge, Rosemary Marquez, found the federal case against the four deeply flawed. The government said the volunteers’ action interfered with their efforts at border control, but Marquez found this reason deeply problematic, writing:

"The government seems to rely on a deterrence theory, reasoning that preventing clean water and food from being placed on the refuge would increase the risk of death or extreme illness for those seeking to cross unlawfully, which in turn would discourage or deter people from attempting to enter without authorization. In other words, the government claims a compelling interest in preventing defendants from interfering with a border enforcement strategy of deterrence by death.

"This gruesome logic is profoundly disturbing," she wrote, noting that human remains have frequently been found in the wildlife refuge, including 32 sets of remains in 2017. But the claim that this cruel policy was actually deterring illegal entry is "speculative and unsupported by evidence."

And The Guardian, reporting two years ago about the arrest of another No More Deaths volunteer, Scott Warren, for the crime of "giving food and water to two migrants" (he was eventually acquitted), pointed out that No More Deaths had released a report "documenting the systematic destruction by border patrol of water and food supplies left in the desert for migrants. Over a nearly four-year period, 3,856 gallons of water had been destroyed. The report linked to video showing Border Patrol kicking over gallons and pouring them out onto the ground."

Standing up to this kind of cruel action—especially when it is ensconced in legality, armed and wearing a uniform—is voting at the deepest level of citizenship. Such voting comes with consequences, including the risk of arrest, but the consequences go both directions. The people are the ones, finally, with the power and responsibility to hold the government accountable.

This is participatory democracy.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, "Courage Grows Strong at the Wound" (2016). Contact him or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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