At first I thought this was just funny, but the more I think about it, the better it makes me feel about America.
The reference here is Pastor Martin Niemöller’s statement about cowardice in the face of the Nazi rise to power. The best-known version reads like this:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
To be sure, the sign maker is wrong in a lot of different ways. For one, this is not the first time “they” came for the Muslims. There’s been a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment in this country, and while some people have always objected, most of the time there wasn’t a big protest. We’re still killing innocent Muslims who get caught in drone strikes. Protesters against these things have been remarkably absent during the Obama administration.
Another problem with this sign is that Muslims are hardly the first ones they came for. In some cases, we did eventually speak out. Although the job is hardly done, we’ve been slowly but steadily grinding away against the oppression of black Americans (not without setbacks), and gay Americans have recently won some major victories.
On the other hand, hardly anyone speaks up for drug using Americans, or sex worker Americans. We’ve been screwing drug users into the ground for decades, with ever more oppressive laws, although there have been a few cracks in the wall with the piecemeal legalization of marijuana that’s working its way through state legislatures. Sex workers were for a while experiencing a period that at times smelled a little like benign neglect, with escort work being mostly ignored by law enforcement (e.g. some online escort agencies have been operating in the open for over a decade now) but there seems to be a backlash lately in which adult consensual sex workers are harassed and arrested, ostensibly for the purpose of stopping “human trafficking” in “sex slaves.”
Then there are the edge cases, including everything from drunk drivers to sex offenders. These are often people who did bad things, but in many cases the punishments are far out of proportion to the actual crimes, or the situation in which the crimes occurred. In my state, hardly a year goes by that politicians don’t do something to increase the penalty for drunk driving, and even a first offense with no injuries or property damage can result in dozens of criminal and administrative sanctions. In some states repeat offenders can get many years in prison. Sex offender registration laws continue to punish and isolate sex offenders for years or decades after they are released from prison, even in cases where the “crime” was relatively benign, like consensual sex between teenagers.
There is activism on all these issues, but hardly the kind of mass protests we just witnessed on behalf of Muslim immigrants. But that doesn’t make the mass protests a bad thing. I’m guessing the author of the “First they came for” sign is thinking in terms of the Trump administration. Trump (or more likely Bannon and Miller) came for the Muslims, and people spoke up to stop them. Even if it doesn’t meet my standards of “first they came for,” that’s still a good response to authoritarianism.
I’m hopeful that this will continue. I wish more people had spoken out against attacks on our liberties during the Obama administration, but perhaps we’ve stumbled onto a silver lining to the Trump Presidency: Now that it’s odious right wingers attacking our freedoms, maybe people will sit up and take notice.
In any case, we’ve had a good moment. This time, we did speak up. We were tested, and we passed.