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Grace Ross: Who Defines Extremism?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


Grace Ross, GoLocalWorcester MINDSETTER™

As a civil society, we should be worrying about who defines what is extremist, or even criminal, and why.

In 2007, I stood with a few other leaders at a forum and spoke about the critical importance of bringing home the troops from Iraq. As a longtime person committed to the building of peace, there was nothing surprising about that position. At the time, over 70% of the United States held the position that they wanted the troops home, and in Massachusetts, of course, those percentages were even higher. By late in 2008, we had elected a President who had run on bringing home the troops from Iraq.

And yet, in October of this year, after suing for the files, the ACLU found that I and the folks I stood with in 2007 calling for the return of our soldiers from Iraq, the position of the vast majority of the people of Massachusetts, that we had been put on a list as “extremists”. Was our president to be an extremist as well?

This past Friday I had the honor of standing with our sisters and brothers, the nurses at UMass Medical, who were out protesting that UMass Medical, which cleared some 87 million dollars last year, is continuing to cut back staffing levels among nurses. Nursing is absolutely critical to one’s survival, when one arrives at a hospital with a life-threatening illness, all the way through until one is recuperated enough to leave the hospital. Of course there are issues about jobs and safety, but what the nurses are really out protesting is the inability, given the continuing cuts in staffing levels, to carry out their calling. As nurses, they answered a calling to do their best to make sure that you and I when we end up at the hospital get the care necessary to get better. Their stories of understaffed NIC units, understaffed emergency care, are quite horrifying. The decision from the hospitals have taken UMass Medical from one of the leading hospitals a number of years ago to being fined for inadequate staffing levels in recent months.

One of those spoke eloquently and stood with us was Representative Naughton, recently back from his most recent tour of service. He quoted with such clarity the famous words of the Ambassador Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit who said, “the more we sweat in peace, the less we bleed in war.” The core of his speech was speaking of the critical nature of nursing in civilian life and in wartime. He was pointing to the critical spending our energy and sweat in the construction of a peaceful, civil society to avoid the bloodshed of our soldiers. This was particularly appropriate as we entered Veterans Day weekend.

I believe the vast majority of people in the United States support our veterans. We believe in their right to wellbeing when they return home, regardless of even the strongest-held positions against the perpetration of war anywhere in our world. Veterans, unfortunately, in this terrible economic turndown, have suffered more than others from the increasing unemployment and lack of jobs; unemployment is especially bad for rank and file soldiers when they return from war. It’s not just the emotional and physical damage that war takes, but it’s the damage from an economy that cannot support the work that we all need done and the workers who need that work to do.

I remember years ago my friends who ran the veterans shelter in Boston and my friends who stayed there when needed. Now the situation’s way worse. Reports from early 2012 show unemployment rates among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan at some 16.7%. For young veterans, the figures are even more alarming—20 to 24 year olds facing an unemployment rate of 35.7% at that time, and even those aged 25 to 29 at 22%. Staggering as those figures are, we know that they are an expression of the impact on a sector of our population that have already given so much of themselves in an attempt to serve the greater good.

Our City Council may vote Tuesday, this week to make criminal the act of asking for money on our streets. Asking for money when there was no other source of income has surely saved the lives and been the only means of food for some of our veterans over the last few decades – especially for those who have suffered from abnormally high unemployment rates. I know it breaks my heart to see folks at the point where asking for money of strangers is all they have left – for our veterans it is particularly heart-breaking. Wouldn’t we all love not to have to face the immoral impact of poverty in the faces of those asking for money on our street corners? But I want to not face them because we have addressed the jobs, housing and inaccessible healthcare crisis.

I can only hope that our City Councilors are careful not to misname behavior as criminal or extreme. I hope they reconsider adding a law to criminalize what is not criminal behavior and instead use existing laws that address public drinking, or being high on drugs, or if somebody becomes violent on our streets. Let’s not make criminal legal ways of asking for help and leave only truly criminal options like stealing for the increasing numbers of those who are in the growing gap between the number of our able-bodied residents and the number of jobs.

If we stand to bring our troops home from Iraq, and we stand with the vast majority of people, we cannot be extremists.  When we stand with those seeking to make sure that we have enough nursing care when we need it the most, then we put our shoulder to the load stone of health and justice. If we can really listen to those who serve us to this day in the military talk about the critical importance of sweating in peacetime to create a truly civil society to avoid bloodshed in war, then surely we can protect the rights of those who are the victims of bad economic policy and the lack of jobs, especially our veterans who have already given so much.


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