Revolution #63, October 1, 2006
“We need to stop them. And we can stop them. But we need to come together.”
Revolution Interview with Father Luis Barrios
Father Luis Barrios
Luis Barrios arrested in front of U.N. September 19
Photo: Stanley Rogouski
The Rev. Luis Barrios is an associate professor in psychology and ethnic studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, and also an associate priest at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan. In addition, since 1997 he has been a weekly columnist for El Diario La Prensa, one of the oldest Spanish-language newspapers in the U.S. Most of his research is with street organizations, the juvenile criminal justice system, and immigrants rights. Luis is an academic activist, an activist priest, and a community activist. He was born in Puerto Rico. He is a national leader of World Can’t Wait—Drive Out the Bush Regime.
On September 19, Father Barrios was part of a diverse group of 16 arrested in front of the United Nations.
Their statement that day said: “We have come to the United Nations today to engage in non-violent civil disobedience. We demand the war on Iraq end immediately. We oppose any attack on Iran. We declare to the world that President George W. Bush has been found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He does not speak for us.”
While Bush was inside justifying his past war crimes and preparing new ones, out on the streets police were assaulting and jailing Father Barrios for opposing those war crimes. He has now been charged with felony assault on a police officer, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct.
Father Barrios spoke with Revolution newspaper (revcom.us).
* * * * *
Revolution: You were arrested on September 19 along with a number of other people, in front of the United Nations as George Bush was talking inside. Would you like to tell us why you were there?
Father Luis Barrios: Let me start by saying it is a real pleasure to participate with this interview here.
The first reaction of one of the police officers there was when he became aware that I am a priest. He then told me, “Father what are you doing here? You are not supposed to be here.”
And I answered, “I am a priest. And I am supposed to be here, at the same time that the President of the United States is going to address not only the United Nations, but the whole world. He is going to lie again. And he is going to try to build a fake case to do exactly what he did to Afghanistan, to Iraq: to now jump into Iran. He is going to do some kind of military action against Iran. And he is going to continue doing what he has been doing with Iraq and Afghanistan.”
What we understand is that U.S. imperialism is taking away the resources that belongs to other countries.
So yes, that’s the place. At that particular moment that was the place where we needed to be! And that’s why we organized this civil disobedience. We wanted to go a little more than just having a demonstration and passing out our messages. We wanted to show a little more sacrifice. Because, what people living in Iraq at this moment, in Afghanistan, are experiencing cannot be compared to what we went through here, at that particular moment.
Revolution: Who was there with you that day?
Father Barrios: Different people from different organizations. It was in total 16 people.
One of the persons who really impressed me a lot was Geoff Millard, who is a veteran of the Iraq war. He is only 25 years old, this young man—similar to all these young people who have all these fantasy ideas of going into the army or going to the navy so you can “fight for democracy” or “defend your country.” All this nonsense—they swallow this. And also in addition to that, that it is a “job opportunity.” So he went there with all these fantasies and the Iraq experience was some kind of awakening. That it was not correct what they were doing there, and it was not correct to be in that particular place.
So standing next to this young man, only 25 years old, I was learning so much. The courage and inspiration that we can trust that there are people who really want to do something different to stop George Bush.
We went there to do a civil disobedience—to get arrested in a peaceful demonstration. To make a point. We wanted to “go through the system”—to have our stand documented over something that we understand is correct.
Then things got out of control at that moment, with the NYPD, like always. The way they responded: A whole physical confrontation broke out – NYPD, they don’t know how to talk. This was a peaceful demonstration. We weren’t resisting arrest. But they were pushing, hitting, punching, kicking, you name it, because that is the way they deal with us, the people.
Revolution: Can you talk about your personal perspective on why you are taking the stand you are taking?
Father Barrios: We were trying to pass out this message at exactly the same time the President is talking. Because you have this man standing there to talk to the whole world, like he’s the Messiah, like he’s the hope, that he represents peace with justice, that he represents democracy. And it’s the opposite! This man is, like President Chavez said, he is the devil. He is a threat to humanity. And we said, we want to accuse this man of crimes against humanity, crimes of war, human rights violations, civil rights violations—these are the serious accusations that we presented to him. And at that moment we wanted to get across with the message that we need to bring this man to court so he can respond to the people for all these atrocities that are being committed.
I’m a Christian, I’m a priest. The more I read about Jesus, Jesus was always in the street—not only helping and building solidarity with those people who were in pain, desperate and in need. He was always confronting injustice and those people that produce injustice against the people. He wasn’t just passing by, not wanting to deal with these people. He was always looking and going for a confrontation. He needed to accuse them. He had this capacity of breaking silence. “I’m not going to be part of this silence. I’m going to denounce you. And I’m going to do something against this injustice.” This is the kind of ministry that we understand we are supposed to do.
We have so many religious organizations in this country. But this is not the way they do God’s business. This is how God is expecting that we do it: Take the streets! This is where you find God. You have homeless people. You have child abuse. You have domestic violence. You have people who don’t have something to eat in the richest country in the world. You have police brutality. You have the exploitation of Black people, of Latino people. You have all these attacks on immigrants. What the hell am I going to do inside the building? I need to be in the streets! Are there going to be consequences? Of course there’s going to be consequences. If you challenge those people in power? They’re not going to throw a party so we can celebrate! They are going to go against you. But that’s part of the business. You have to learn how to take the consequences. That’s it. We have a lot of people who really teach us to do this. You had the two opposite sides like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. You had peaceful demonstrations like Cesar Chavez’s labor movement. You have Mother Jones. You have Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Yes we take the reaction that is coming from those people that we charge.
Revolution: And if people in this country mount such resistance, what kind of impact do you see this having on the world and on events?
Father Barrios: Both for good or for bad, this is what’s going on: This country is dictating all political, economic, religious, socio-cultural patterns for movement. That’s the reality.
If we start moving in that kind of direction, we are going to build some kind of movement here that people are going to say, “That’s good, let’s imitate this kind of movement. We can do this.” We are not saying this is not happening—it is happening. In a lot of places it is invisible because the corporate media do not let us see how most of these actions are going on in the U.S.
We need to create a critical mass in this moment. And we are not going to do this inside the building, we have to be in the street. This is how we are going to do it.
Some people say, “You are not going to toss the President.” That is exactly what they were saying with Richard Nixon. The day before the resignation, Richard Nixon came out on national TV with that stupid smile and said, “I’m not going to resign.” And the next day he was out.
This political pressure put on people is very very important. Now we know!
This man Bush is out of control. And he can’t function when you attack him—he needs to be the one attacking. We know that defensively he doesn’t know how to function. That is how we are going to do it.
European countries are isolated from him. Now you see that a lot of Republicans are also isolated from him. We want to trap him in a corner. The whole regime can change—because it is not that we want his resignation and then going to get the Dick Cheney as president. No. The whole regime can change—and bring them accountable to a criminal court.
Revolution: From your vantage point and experience, speak to us about your vision of the role immigrant people can play in this country.
Father Barrios: The first thing is to recognize that this is a country of immigrants. This is a country where the only people who can tell people “Get out of here this is not your country” are Native Americans. Some of them were so nice that they allowed immigrants to come here. But a lot of them were forced. It was not an invitation, it was an invasion of Europeans here. But now we are here, and we need to find a way to live together. Some people have the approach that “this land belongs to me, and no one else is coming here.” With this they have been building the hate against the people that they call immigrants (when they don’t want to call themselves immigrants now). Immigrant means those people coming in the last 20 or 25 years, and what came before that are no longer immigrants—that’s a very selective way to define the concept.
We’re here, we are not going any place. That is the reality. So you have got to face this reality.
You can close the border—which is a contradiction because this is a capitalist system that needs these undocumented people to do the job that no one else is going to do. That’s painful, but that is the reality. We have two borders. Why are they going to close one border, and keep the other one open?
I believe there is another important issue here with the immigrant movement. One is we need to continually raise political consciousness that we are here and we are not going any place. Two is to find the way to make the connection that nobody just woke up in a particular country—let’s say Colombia, Honduras or El Salvador—and thought, “I don’t have nothing else to do, I’m going to go to the United States.” This is a process. This is a process where you have national governments that respond to the interests of the USA’s government. You have all these so-called free trade agreements that only benefit all these capitalist corporations that deal with the exploitation of people. They create unemployment, they destroy the infrastructural economy of those countries. And the only option they leave the people is immigration into the United States. So you need to understand that in some ways the U.S. government went into these countries and they participated in something that brings people here. If you don’t want people to come here, then we have to develop a serious economy in those countries. Create jobs. Then those people won’t want to come here.
Revolution: What role do you see for immigrant people in the struggle to drive out the Bush regime?
Father Barrios: One is that first they need to be in politics. Sometimes people say “We don’t want to do something against the President, because probably that is going to jeopardize the chance of an amnesty.” They are not going to give you any amnesty! So let’s be clear about that.
The other is this issue that “We are going to vote for the Democrats because they are much better.” It’s the same! This is one political party with two options. These people respond to the interests of the ruling class here. They are not interested in finding a solution to this issue that we call the “immigrant issue.”
Third, that those of us organizing the immigrant movement, we need to understand that we need to connect this with a political movement. This is not just about getting amnesty or papers—this is more serious. You need to get rid of this political system. We need to implement something different.
Where is the connection? African Americans need to see that there is a connection: This is oppression, exclusion, and marginalization. African Americans, Asians, women, gays, and lesbians—every single person needs to see that this fragmentation that is put on the immigrants is not going to work. This is about poor people, working class people, Black people, gay and lesbian, women, Latinos/Latinas—this ruling class, they don’t want you! This is a ruling class that is making a decision—of who is going to be part of their party.
We need to stop them. And we can stop them. But we need to come together.
I also want to say, as a priest, that you have this president who wants to present himself as a Christian. He has his own way of practicing Christianity that is not close to what is in the Bible. He is building this theocratic government. He criticizes Muslims for being fanatics. And you also find a lot of fanaticism among the Israeli government. I’m not saying that every single Jewish person is a fanatic. No. But those people who are in that government, they are fanatics. But Bush doesn’t go against them. And he doesn’t go against all these Christian fanatics (starting with himself). Every single religion has fanatics. Yes, I understand that. Muslims have fanatics. The Jewish religion has fanatics. And also Christians have fanatics. We need to resist them and replace them with people who have the interests of the people. This kind of fanaticism is a distortion of the real body of religions. And if someone really wants to practice the real body of these religions, that person needs to become some kind of revolutionary for peace with justice.
October 5 is a day of mass resistance. We have been calling this The World Can’t Wait—by this name we mean to say that we are people who understand that we can’t wait—we need to get to a different way of doing business, we need to place a government that will respond to the interests of the people, not the corporations, and we need to build peace with justice.
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.