Web Only / Features » November 16, 2017
“It Is the Young People Who Will Free Us”: Resisting Militarized Violence, from Honduras to Chicago
A transnational conversation between organizers.
"It’s going to be young people actually making this world a place where people can live and be free and self-determined."
Gaspar Sánchez and Veronica Morris-Moore are young organizers from Honduras and Chicago, respectively. Gaspar is a leader of the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) and a Lenca indigenous LGBT activist. He was mentored by the late Berta Cáceres, the COPINH co-founder who was assassinated on March 2, 2016. Veronica has been on the front lines of youth struggles in the era of Black Lives Matter, from winning a trauma center to helping oust the state’s attorney who played a role in covering up the Chicago police murder of Laquan McDonald.
Gaspar recently passed through Chicago as part of a national speaking tour when an independent international commission of human rights investigators released a report with evidence directly implicating corporate executives and Honduran state agents in the assassination of Cáceres. In the back hallway of the Pilsen Outpost in Chicago, the two spoke about their parallel struggles against military and police violence in Honduras and Chicago. Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle, an organizer with La Voz de los de Abajo, interpreted the conversation and translated the interview.
Veronica: The call to de-fund the police comes from the long history of corruption and involvement in violence that the police have in our communities. They are paid killers. They come into our community and murder our people for no reason—and don’t receive any accountability.
Young people in Chicago were really impacted two years ago when we found out about the conspiracy to cover up the murder of Laquan Mcdonald, a young person who was shot 16 times by a police officer as he was running away. He was running for his life, because young Black men know how much of a threat the police are to them. For a year the city covered it up. The police officer kept his job—he didn’t get in trouble, like it didn’t even happen. Then the media made the police officers release the videos and tell the truth. I was able to help organize to get people out into the streets and really make sure that there was a response to what was happening. I think that put Chicago’s very problematic history with the police back into a current spotlight.
Coming from Chicago, we know of the history of people like the cop, John Burge, who ran second district for years torturing people and forcing confessions. Police torture has always been in Chicago’s history. It makes no sense to invest $95 million in a cop academy. That $95 million belongs to the communities. The mayor has closed down 50-something public schools and six mental health clinics. The resources are being snatched away from us. Gentrification is becoming more rapid, and the police are soldiers in carrying out the government’s intentions to take our city away from us and to put us in the outskirts.
And I witnessed that when I went to Honduras in 2011. In the same way, people are fighting to keep their communities, keep their indigenous lands and keep their homes safe for themselves and their children in Honduras. It’s the same fight that we have to have as Black and Brown people in Chicago.
A $95-million investment in a police academy is only going to lead to more violence, more death of Black and Brown people, people who are poor and people who deserve resources—and not military-trained police officers in their neighborhoods and schools.
Gaspar: The youth is hit hardest by these so-called security policies that they say are to benefit the population but really aren’t. Even though we—as countries and peoples—are very far apart, it’s the same situation. Everything you just said about the displacement and repression people are living through here is the same thing that is happening in Honduras.
One of the things I have heard from people here is how youth are being used as fodder for militarization and policing. In Honduras there is a program called “Guardians of the Fatherland,” where soldiers and police go to the schools, train the kids and make them think that they are guardians of the fatherland and future—the ones who are going to take care of the country’s security. But I don’t believe that the police or the military are in any way on the side of the Honduran people. They’re really on the side of big business and large landowners.
Two years ago a landowner named Miguel Facussé died, and this guy had been part of an association with military Colonels from the Honduran armed forces, and he was plundering entire communities. He has vast swaths of land just for African palm. Here in Chicago it is about housing, and there it is about land access. They were displacing communities to sow African palm, sugar cane and pineapples. They were not allowing communities to produce their own food—corn and beans—which is what we eat there in Honduras. Now the communities they are repressing, that you all saw and visited in the Bajo Aguán, continue to struggle. There are many killings, but the Honduran state doesn’t want to resolve them.
Also there’s the issue of extractive projects. First they have to put soldiers there to make sure the community won’t rise up in protest. The soldiers are there to intimidate, to keep the communities submissive, and these are the new forms of colonization that we’re living through today. I think it is important that we start to talk about de-colonizing territory—here in Chicago and in Honduras. Funding that comes from the United States goes to Honduras turns into killings and criminalization. In fact, Berta’s case has to do with the military, both retired and active duty. They are hit men.
High officials in the army are gang chiefs. They are involved with drug trafficking, with organized crime, which has taken over Honduran institutions. There is no punishment for them, they can do what they want.
But it is important to recognize that we as youth have a huge potential. Even if they try to divide us, we have to find ways to organize new leaders from our communities and our territories. If we don’t start to do grassroots work with our brothers and sisters, this is going to be super hard. The situation for Black and Latinx communities here in the United States isn’t going to change if there is no unity.
In Honduras, we are trying to bring all of us together as indigenous peoples to fight the plunder we are all confronting. It is very hard and wears you down—physically and mentally. But as long as we have conviction and consciousness and are moved by lived injustice, I think that this is possible.
Veronica: I really appreciate what you just said, because I’ve been doing this work since I was 17, and I’ve been able to do some really amazing things, like force the University of Chicago to do some shit for poor Black people that they don’t want to do, which is build a trauma center and provide that care for people. But you’re absolutely right: That work, it wears you down. It took five years to get that campaign where it got to. After it won, I was part of the campaign to get the State’s Attorney who was responsible for covering up Laquan McDonald’s murder out of office. But now, I’m so worn out, I’ve had to take the last year and a half for myself. But I really appreciate you being here, and I appreciate the message that you brought with you. It’s really re-inspiring me and reminding me why this work is so important to me.
And it absolutely is about the youth. It was young people who won that trauma center campaign. It was young people who brought the attention and went out into the streets when they released the video of the Laquan McDonald murder and other videos that they had to release of other people that Chicago police have murdered. It’s really important for us to unite young Black and Brown people of color together. It’s so important for us, especially now, especially with this Black Lives Matter movement, to build a very concrete network of solidarity. We have this saying: “None of us are free until we all are free.” I think that means outside of America. I think it definitely starts with outside of America. A lot of the reason why our country is able to be the big badass that it is stems from imperialism and the way that it conquers other nations and other people. I think we owe it to ourselves as organizers who still have a lot of privilege being from America to go harder, do more and complicate the work that we’re doing.
And we should be working together, we should be connecting. I have no doubt in my mind it’s going to be the young people who free us. When the White House gets taken over, it’s going to be young people kicking in the door. And it’s going to be young people actually making this world a place where people can live and be free and self-determined. Fred Hampton was 19 when the FBI and the Chicago Police Department began spying on him, eventually conspiring to kill him. And that has always been something that I have never forgot throughout all my years of organizing.
I know what the assassination of Berta, how that had to impact the community but you are evidence that young people have risen in that time and are going to continue to rise despite how much this regime and how much this machine is determined to destroy us.
Gaspar: Same, I’m thankful to be able to listen to you. We need to push for Latin American unity, for American unity. America is a continent, it is not just the United States. What moves us is simply injustice: The governments aren’t really helping the population, they aren’t meeting their needs and instead are controlled by international policies to favor multi-national corporations. At least in Honduras, that’s what we are living through. And it is not a case that is isolated from other countries.
In Honduras we have really come together with the student movement, which is also fighting for free and quality education. They have achievements, but they also have losses. Today 19 of the student spokespeople, the people who came out publicly denouncing all of the human rights violations by the university authorities, are now expelled. But despite what happened, they keep moving forward.
We always know that our struggle isn’t for us: It is for the future. We are thinking about the future of other people. We children to be able to see and enjoy this territory—the water, the forest—and not have to suffer through what we suffered.
Veronica: It’s important for me to wear my queer identity as I’m doing this work, so that people can see me. We’ve seen visibility of queer and particularly trans people in America coming out as organizers and as leaders and holding their whole truths. Because it’s all connected. At the end of the day, the revolution needs to be led by those who are the marginalized of the marginalized. I don’t know who could be more marginalized than queer trans people of color. We should be in the forefront—w e need to be. I’m so inspired every time I get to meet other queer organizers, especially folks who are queer and indigenous from Latin America. It’s just amazing—the power and the strength and the truth that we bring to the work.
Gaspar: In our grassroots work, just identifying as and recognizing ourselves to be gay or lesbian, that is a political act. And it influences lots of people. We have to fight against discrimination, racism, the church, the state, the police and the soldiers. We have to struggle with all of them. And then we even have to confront our own families. As more of us accept ourselves, it becomes an example for others to do the same. As LGBTI people, they criminalize us and deny our rights, because they know that we can make change. They say that globally we are 10 percent of the population. But we are more than that, because lots of people don’t identify but they still are—and they are part of our community. And we are changing that and it’s good.
Veronica: I also think it’s interesting that our calls to action are very similar. Young people are calling for funds to be re-allocated into the community and not invested into the police. Young people are asking the government to fund people and not the military and not the police. It’s very similar to the Berta Act that you guys are trying to get passed for Honduras, in asking the American government to stop funding police, so that people can get justice.
Gaspar: As COPINH, we believe that passing the Berta Cáceres Act in the United States, a law for human rights, will help human rights advocates in Honduras. It is a law that carries our sister Berta Cáceres’ name, but it goes way beyond her. It asks for investigation of all of the killings through hate crimes, the femicides, the killings of human rights defenders. These all took place in complete impunity, without any will from the government or the state of Honduras to try to investigate who is really responsible and commits these crimes.
All of that aid that the United States gives to Honduras to strengthen the military and national security in Honduras should be invested in exactly what you are talking about: in education, in healthcare, to create space for the communities from right here in your own country. Militarization is being imposed on our countries as an ideology, as an institution, as a way of making money and generating employment. That is because the United States wants to have our countries militarized to be able to plunder the richness of our lands, as original, autonomous, indigenous peoples, no?
The youth are fighting for education, for the right to housing or for respect. In Honduras it is the same. We want to cut off the funding that goes to our country as military and security aid, until they investigate all of these killings. There are cases where it is the military, the police, who have been committing these crimes, but they’re not investigated. And even though Honduras has so much security investment, we are still the most insecure country and violent country, where they criminalize and assassinate those of us who defend the right to defend rights.
Veronica: I think it’s important for other people to understand that what’s happening in Honduras has been happening for years, for decades, like Berta said. This is the fight of our ancestors, and they’ve been fighting for hundreds of years. And I think it’s important for people to take note that, especially in a time when we want to blame so much on the Trump administration, it was the Obama administration that ignored and allowed a lot of these police officers to exist in impunity when the Black Lives Matter movement started. The Obama administration is also responsible for the coup that took place in Honduras. We are doing the work that has been done for hundreds and hundreds of years. It is time that our people receive the victories that they deserve.
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