Earlier this week, I was arrested alongside 17 other Jewish activists in Washington, D.C., as part of a protest against the U.S. government's detention and abuse of immigrants. As the Capitol Police lead us away from the tall, echoing rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building (part of the complex of Congressional office buildings scattered above and burrowing below Capitol Hill) our arms were bound behind our backs with zip ties and our possessions placed in large plastic bags. We sang "Oseh Shalom," a song that calls for peace to us all, as we were lead out into the hot D.C. summer.
We were there, supported by hundreds of Jews and allies who bore witness, as part of a series of similar protests by Jewish activists in the past few weeks, first in New Jersey, then in Boston and Chicago, with more being planned. We were there because the United States of America is operating concentration camps at our southern border, and elsewhere around the country. We were there because two dozen people have died in ICE custody during the Trump administration. We were there for a lot of reasons.
I was there, at least in part, because of my identity as a transgender woman. After all, two transgender women have died in the past year due to ICE neglect and mistreatment, a number which may continue to go up. But my thoughts, while the police loaded me and my fellow arrestees onto vans headed to the station for processing, were most on my identity as a Jewish woman.
As an American Jew, I grew up hearing NEVER AGAIN -- a declaration that humanity must not stand by and allow the horrors of the Holocaust to repeat themselves -- often enough that it was easy to forget what it was really supposed to mean: Not simply "never again" to genocide, an abstract word for an unspeakable horror, but never again to death camps and forced labor. Never again to ripping children from their parents. Never again to piles of shoes. Never again to weaponizing abuse, indignity, and dehumanization.
Right now, as you read this, the United States is locking children in cages. We are providing inadequate facilities and broken plumbing, leaving women to drink from toilets. We are placing hundreds of people in cells designed for a fraction of that number. We are dividing families, neglecting medical needs, withdrawing legal aid, making the path more difficult for refugees and those seeking asylum.
As an American Jew, I grew up hearing NEVER AGAIN, but quickly learned that humanity has failed to live up to that rallying cry: Cambodia. Bosnia. Rwanda. Darfur. NEVER AGAIN is both a call to action and a reminder of the cost of inaction. What starts as out-of-sight mistreatment of an easily-identified "other" can escalate to a final solution, as history has shown over and over and over.
Now, after a lifetime of hearing NEVER AGAIN and naively thinking that it mostly applied to distant and foreign parts of the world, I watch as fellow Americans weaponize abuse, indignity, and dehumanization. Again.
To be clear, I am not claiming that what the United States is doing is equivalent to the death camps operated by Nazi Germany until their defeat in 1945. On the other hand, the first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau, opened in 1933 to house political prisoners. No German in 1933 could have possibly foreseen how Dachau, and similar camps across Nazi-controlled Europe, would ultimately result in the murder of millions of people. No American in 2019 can truly predict what horrors we might be capable of, and I’m scared that the United States is on a road that, step by incremental step, leads to unspeakable and inhuman atrocities on a massive scale.
Ironically, I risked arrest in part because I’m scared. I’m transgender and Jewish, and I worry that state-endorsed and state-supported racism and xenophobia may soon become anti-trans and anti-Semitic as well. After all, you never know who they’ll come for next. More importantly, I have an unpayable debt to all those throughout history who used their voices and bodies to defend the people that society insisted were less than human. I refuse to call these American-run concentration camps anything but what they are, and if Congress won’t shut ICE down we’ll do it ourselves.
And we have a responsibility, as LGBTQ people, to make sure NEVER AGAIN means exactly that: NEVER. AGAIN. We owe it to ACT UP and Stonewall and Compton's Cafeteria and the Mattachine Society and all the countless queers who refused to back down. So push yourself, stretch past your comfort zone, and take action. No matter what, I beg you to find a way to take action that feels right to you. No one can do everything, but everyone can find a way to do something.
Because Never Again is NOW.
Rebecca Kling is a D.C.-based educator, artist, and activist. Follow her on Twitter @RebeccaKling.