Sunday, March 8, 2009

Farmville: The Radical Circus

About 150 outsiders, including yours truly, showed up in Farmville, Virginia, to tell the people they didn't need or want a new detention center.

We heard from Native Americans from all over Virginia, Mexicans from Prince William County, Catholic Workers from Goochland, and immigrant rights activists from Richmond and other parts of the state. But nobody stood up and said: "I'm from Farmville and I'm against building this new jail.".

The other voice that was missing was the Church. A couple of religious from Portsmouth came but did not speak from the podium. Not even any sign of the Protestants for this one, much less the institutional Catholic Church. At least when we marched in Prince William County last year we had a couple of evangélico pastors and a local Franciscan. But yesterday? Nada. Un silencio total. ¿Dónde están nuestros pastores? Y las ovejitas más y más perdidas y desprotegidas.

But partly it's our fault. Building elaborate puppets and turning out a bunch of would-be hippies with unkempt hair, raggedy clothes and exotic body art and piercings is not a substitute for the hard work of real community education, organizing, and coalition building. For that you need to cut the hair and the attitude, take out the nose stud, put on conservative clothes, and start reaching out to the churches and other groups in the community itself.

We had no visible opposition yesterday. The police were courteous, the townspeople polite but unpersuaded. The radical circus had come to town. Ignore them and they will go away, back to their homes in communities that don't need the 200 jobs that the new detention center will bring to Farmville with its median income of $33,227 in 2007 (almost half the statewide median income) and 22% of its population below the federal poverty level.

Which voice speaks louder? The one that is chanting in a Native American language that I don't understand? The one that is shouting slogans in Spanish? (Most of the slogans were in Spanish as we marched through a community that is only 1.3% Hispanic) Or my brother telling me softly how ashamed he is because he hasn't worked for over three months and had to go to the food bank for the first time last week to feed his family? He's hoping he can get a job at the new jail but, until then, could I lend him a little money to pay the utility bills?

Bottom line: Unless we make changes in our image and attitude that enable us to connect with the community, unless we start to listen to Farmville's issues and concerns, and unless the people of Farmville start to speak out for themselves, this detention center will be built and the radical circus will move on to the next issue and the next town.

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