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A Letter from Syracuse to the People of Portland

On Tuesday, April 29, people of the Portland area will gather peacefully in support of Mike Hawash, an American citizen who has been detained without charge since March 20. 150 years ago, people of Syracuse, New York also gathered in hopes of freeing another unjustly detained American.
A letter from Syracuse to the people of Portland:


"Fellow citizens! We are here in the most extraordinary circumstances. We are witnessing such a sight as, I pray, we may never look upon again. A man in chains, in Syracuse! ... We have arrested him, confined him and chained him... They say he is a slave. What a term to apply to an American! How does this sound beneath the pole of liberty and the flag of freedom?"

--Samuel Ward, speaking in Clinton Square, Syracuse, N.Y., October 1, 1851

On October 1, 1851, a barrel maker in Syracuse, New York -- an escaped slave named William "Jerry" Henry -- was arrested at his workplace by federal agents on a trumped-up charge of theft. Only when he was safely in chains was he told the real reason for his arrest: the Fugitive Slave Law. Under this law, those suspected of being a runaway slave could be arrested without a warrant, and could be turned over to an alleged master based on that person's word alone. A suspected runaway was entitled to no jury trial, and no testimony on his or her behalf.

During the day, news of Jerry's detention spread throughout the city. By nightfall, a large crowd of Syracusans and others in town for an anti-slavery party convention had gathered outside the jail, beside the Erie Canal in Clinton Square, to demand his release. This crowd of 2,000 people freed Jerry by force that night, and aided his escape to Canada through the Underground Railroad.

The "Jerry Rescue" is commemorated in Syracuse to this day. The Fugitive Slave Law is commemorated nowhere in America to this day.

The Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850 to keep the political peace. Born of Congressional horse-trading over the admission of new states to the Union, it codified the notion that a certain class of American (the slave) did not have the rights of other Americans even in a "free" state such as New York. More broadly, it was a law designed to keep down the slave and support the entrenched economic system of the entire country. In so doing, it also conveniently helped address the very real fear in America that potential slave uprisings and rebellions might force Americans to alter their economic system and way of life.

Today, we fear the violence of politically and religiously motivated terrorism. The fears of the Southern slaveholders (and even whites in the North) were of a different sort than ours, but no less intense. We can't forget that the Nat Turner rebellion, and later the raid on Harpers Ferry, were violent crimes that resulted in murder and destruction (while achieving none of their stated aims). History doesn't distance us from the inherent horror of such violence. But it also gives us the light to clearly see that the Fugitive Slave Law -- despite the many rational reasons it was considered a good idea by most Congressmen at the time -- was still morally repugnant all on its own.

Whatever the specific fears of the different generations, the sweeping laws designed to allay them -- and to satisfy the dealmakers in Washington -- have some disturbing similarities. And it seems that these laws' impact on the freedoms of Americans turn out to be pretty much the same.

On March 20 of this year, an American citizen named Mike Hawash was detained as a "material witness" by the FBI in the parking lot of Intel Corp. near Portland, Oregon. Since that day, Hawash has been held without charge in a federal prison. Like other Muslim Americans who have been swept up in the net afforded by aggressive new "Homeland Security" laws, he has not been informed of the charges against him. He has been subjected to secret detention hearings, and the warrant for his detention has also been kept secret.

What are these acts and laws being passed today in the name of "The War on Terror"? These laws, which result in American citizens like Mike Hawash being detained without charge, are also politically expedient laws of appeasement. Not the least, for appeasement of those who demand action in response to the lapsed security on Sept. 11 -- a lapse which federal government agencies have never explained and for which they have never taken responsibility. They are laws designed to keep Muslim American citizens frightened and out of the public square; to satisfy some Americans' hysteria about the dangers of Islamic extremism; and to provide a false sense of security to the American people. This is a false security that helps minimize our consciousness of the anger over our policies toward the rest of the world; a consciousness that might persuade ordinary Americans to reexamine our economic reliance on oil and our way of life.

The Patriot Act, I am sorry to say, is no more a noble piece of legislation than was the Fugitive Slave Law. The proposed Patriot Act II, which would strip the American citizenship of any person the government deemed undesirable, is even worse. It is a cowardly and cheap response to Sept. 11, a fundamentally unconstitutional piece of legislation that deserves no approval by any American who remembers their history. Although our President sees our "war on terror" as open-ended and apparently eternal, these laws deserve no place in our country's future. They deserve to be thrown, as our President might say, on the ash heap "with the rest of history's discarded lies" -- some of which are true-blue American ones.

Since Hawash's arrest, people in Portland have chosen to come out to the streets to quietly and peacefully ask for answers and for Mike Hawash's release. They are learning, as the people of Syracuse learned, that sometimes significant threats to liberty can be found in your very own backyard. But I also hope that they learn lessons that the people of Syracuse did not learn.

For several years after Jerry's rescue, throughout the 1850's, the event was commemorated in high ceremony in Syracuse on each anniversary. Even as some of the ringleaders of the rescue faced prosecution, speeches were given and celebrations were held. The Underground Railroad took root in upstate New York. But it also seems that the meaning of what happened in Clinton Square that day eventually became forgotten. The boldness of Jerry's rescue was not properly transformed into equally bold legitimate political action.

Eight years later, this unfortunate fact led Gerrit Smith, one of the leading abolitionists of the day and a participant in Jerry's rescue, to write in exasperation:

"Of the thousands, who, on the glorious night... were actuated by justice and mercy, probably not less than nineteen twentieths fell immediately after under those ecclesiastical or political party influences which had previously swayed and shrivelled them. Of the thousands whose motto that glorious night was: "No law for slavery," perhaps not a dozen have called on their churches to adopt it, and not fifty have perseveringly refused to vote for men who recognize a law for slavery... In short let us who talk well against slavery stand aside for those who will vote well against it." Then, ominously, with dangerous candor that would haunt him: "For many years I have feared and published my fears that [slavery] must go out in blood."

It had been Smith's belief that such a national tragedy could have been averted. That perhaps, if after the euphoria of Jerry's rescue had faded, just fifty citizens of Syracuse had voted and become otherwise engaged in peaceful and patient action, the deep national problem of slavery would not have had to be resolved fourteen years later with the deaths of 600,000 American soldiers, and continued bondage and suffering of millions of black Americans. If the resolute action on that night had not just been about the men who physically detained Jerry, but about the lawmakers who approved of his capture -- could the unrest and violence that was to come have been avoided?

In the years after the Jerry Rescue, Gerrit Smith had become disillusioned with politics, and was drawn more and more into the circle of religious fanatics such as John Brown who advocated violence as the final solution. It was an association about which Smith would later feel deep personal conflict and regret.

Drawing what lessons we can from the past, can we not avoid the insidious attraction of violence in our own day -- between peoples and nations, and between us and our allies throughout the world, and between ourselves? For the deep divisions we face are not only global, but among ourselves here at home.

This Tuesday, people of Portland will once again gather peacefully outside the Hatfield Courthouse in the same spirit that passionately moved people of Syracuse 150 years ago. We should commend everyone in Portland who is willing to gather in orderly fashion to speak out in a fellow American citizen's defense, and willing to keep asking the right questions about highly questionable and unconstitutional laws currently set to deprive Americans of the due process and liberties they enjoy by right.

The Patriot Act, and the other laws that permit such detentions, seems destined to become a discredited relic of history just as other unjust and erroneously passed laws have been, if only Americans of conscience everywhere continue to stand up to them in their own communities and in the voting booth. As our nation has already learned once in its past, this will not be an easy level of action to maintain.

I wish good luck to the people of Portland in setting an appropriate example for the rest of the country. May they achieve the same success in their endeavor as did the people of Syracuse in theirs, and much more besides.

Ellen B. Edgerton
Syracuse, N.Y.

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