I’ve been following the U.S. government’s prosecution of Scott Warren with more than casual interest. Warren is the 36-year-old geography teacher who gave food and water to two desperately hungry and thirsty Central American migrants lost in the Arizona desert last year. As part of the recent crackdown on migrants, the government wanted to teach all of us the lesson that migrants are so subhuman they must be left to starve. Over the last couple weeks, he’s been on trial before a jury of his peers in Tuscon for felonies associated with his kindness that could have landed him in jail for ten years or more..
The case reminds me of two other similar situations I am more than a little familiar with. The first is the prosecution of Vernon Hershberger, the Wisconsin raw-dairy farmer who sold members of his community raw dairy products, despite very serious legal limitations on their distribution in his state. He felt it was his right to provide these products privately to individuals who for a variety of health reasons needed raw dairy. After a week-long trial in 2013 where a guilty verdict could have meant more than two years of jail time, he was acquitted by a jury of his peers, several of whom were so moved by his efforts that they joined the Hershberger food club so they could access raw dairy. It was a major validation of the notion of food rights—our right to access and distribute the foods of our choice, in any way we wished. Despite that and other validations, the U.S. Justice Department recently announced its intention to target private food clubs for prosecution.
The second case is one involving my aunt, Inge Joseph, who as a teenager was trapped in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. During the first week of January 1943, she attempted to escape France for Switzerland, together with a group of four other teens. The five of them got caught in a snowstorm as they attempted to cross the border late one night, and were captured by border patrol agents on the French side. Inge escaped by jumping out a bathroom window, got help from some French resisters, and continued on her trek into Switzerland, which was officially neutral, and had taken in several thousand Jewish refugees from France.
As she walked toward Geneva on a bitterly cold night, and came within sight of the city lights, she was stopped by a Swiss soldier, who took her to a police station for processing. In the Swiss scheme of things, she was another migrant. Except that she was a migrant in very serious trouble, because on January 1, 1943, just days before Inge and her group came to the border area, Switzerland had toughened its laws affecting migrants—it had too many and couldn’t handle them all was the reasoning (sound familiar?)—requiring them to not just make it across the border to qualify for asylum, but to get several miles into Switzerland. Inge hadn’t gotten far enough into Switzerland, and so was being returned to France, where the odds were real that she’d be rounded up and shipped off to Auschwitz.
Here is how Inge recalls the rest of that evening, in the memoir I co-authored with her: “The soldier who was driving me back to the border felt sorry for me. He stopped the jeep in front of a small farmhouse and told me he would ask his wife to fix me something to eat. I definitely didn’t want to accept food from him to salve his guilt. I told him I wasn’t hungry, but he insisted and woke up his wife.
“We sat at a round wooden table in their small farm kitchen as he told her my story and how I was to be returned to France. She asked him to let me remain with them to help with the house and the children. He hesitated. Clearly, he was considering giving in to his wife’s suggestion. ‘Please,’ she said.
“I sat there silently, hoping against hope. The silence hung there as hours seemed to pass.
“ ‘No,’ he sighed finally. ‘Too many forms have been filled out. We will be discovered. I must carry out my orders.’
“Much as I would have liked to have eaten the soup his wife had heated, I tersely refused….
“The obedient soldier drove me back to the border, lifted up the barbed wire, and I climbed through. I did not notice the French soldier behind me until I was about five steps back into France. He arrested me for illegally passing the frontier and not carrying identification papers or a permit to travel. As if any Jew would willingly try to sneak across from Switzerland to France!” (Inge was eventually able to escape to Switzerland late in 1943, but three of her friends who had been captured at the border that snowy night in early 1943 died in Auschwitz.)
Of course, none of these situations—that of Scott Warren or Vernon Hershberger or Inge Joseph—was really about food. They were about much bigger things, like freedom and human dignity and basic decency.
The good news for Scott Warren is that American defendants still have the right to a trial by jury in the U.S. His trial ended a couple days ago with a hung jury and thus a mistrial, which means he remains free, unless the government decides to re-try him and can get a jury to rule unanimously that he is guilty of a criminal act by providing food and water to two starving migrants. The bad news is that one or more jurors actually voted to convict Warren of a felony and have him sent to prison, for having acted as a decent human being to starving migrants.
Pick the religious text of your choice: The Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran, the Buddha’s teachings—they all preach kindness to the hungry stranger in your midst. Yet many hundreds of years later, with each religion having millions of devotees, we still get easily hooked by rulers spouting crude ideologies calling on us to deny food and basic decency to certain groups of people our rulers have decided to turn into scapegoats. Shame on us for falling for their lies and hatred.
By the way, more than 70 years after the fact, Switzerland came to its senses and honored its resisters, its Scott Warrens, in ceremonies I was invited to (see photo at top). I expect the U.S. will eventually go through a similar soul searching about its recent behavior toward migrants–hopefully in less than 70 years.