“Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.” – James Madison, Federalist 51.
BOSTON – I didn’t get downtown on Saturday until after the speeches were over and until after the Families Belong Together march was done. Time, circumstances, and public transportation on the weekend conspired against me. So, when I got to the vast concrete desert that was City Hall Plaza, they already were taking the stage down and loading the pieces onto flatbeds to be stored until the next time, and there will be a next time.
Instead, I walked down the crowded streets to the place where the city meets the sea. I walked past the King’s Chapel Burying Ground, where John Winthrop lies buried, claiming his eternal piece of his shining city on the hill, the one where they hung Quakers. I walked past the old City Hall, where James Michael Curley consolidated the political power of one generation of despised newcomers into a formidable machine. I walked past the old State House, where James Otis railed against the Writs of Assistance, which allowed agents of the state to roust people without warrants, and where the Declaration of Independence was first read in the city. I walked past 75 State Street, the building that was the last major scandal of the shadowy mix of government and gangsterism that was the career of the Bulger brothers, and which may have marked the final dissipation of the power that Curley had consolidated all those years ago. I walked over the plaque in the ground where Crispus Attucks and the rest of the victims of the Boston Massacre fell. I walked and walked until the city met the sea.
I looked out into the great expanse of the harbor from near the end of the dock. In the first week of May in 1906, a passenger ship docked out there somewhere beyond where the sailboats and party craft now cruised away the sultry morning. The S.S. Cymric was part of the White Star Line, the same family of ships that later included the Titanic and built in 1898 in the same great shipyard, Harland and Wolff, in Belfast, in what became Northern Ireland. The Cymric was a substantial vessel, carrying 13,370 gross registered tons. Originally, Cymric was designed to carry both passengers and cattle, but the first-class passengers soon objected to the aroma of their fellow passengers below decks so the Cymric was repurposed to carry immigrants instead of cattle. I guess this mollified some of the swells anyway.
In 1906, a young man from Kilflynn Crossing, one of twelve children born to a shopkeeper and his wife, boarded the Cymric in Queenstown, now Cobh, in south Cork. He was escaping, is what he was. His parents had plans for him to be the One For The Church common to many large Irish families. He had other plans. He had a cousin who was a fireman in a city in central Massachusetts who’d written that he could get him work, maybe even a job on the city’s police force. The young man climbed aboard the Cymric and, on the first week in May of 1906, it docked in the harbor of Boston.
The young man cleared immigration in the shabby old wooden building on the end of Long Wharf and stepped into a new world for the very first time. His cousin was as good as his word. He joined the police department in the city in central Massachusetts, rose to the rank of sergeant. He married a former shepherd girl from a town not far from Kilflynn and they had five children. He died in 1945 of a virulent lymphoma. He never met his grandchildren. His name was Patrick Joseph Pierse. I was born eight years after he’d died.
(The Cymric went on to have a few tragic brushes with history. In 1908, it fought through a snowstorm to save the passengers of the St. Cuthbert, a steamship that had caught fire off Nova Scotia. Then, almost ten years to the day after it had dropped my grandfather off at the Long Wharf station, the Cymric, which had been repurposed again for service in World War I, took three torpedoes and sank 140 miles off Fastnet Rock in Ireland. It was destroyed by the German U-20 under the command of Captain Walther Schweiger, the same submarine and skipper that had sunk the Lusitania almost exactly a year earlier.)
I sat on a bench on the pier for a long while, thinking about the breaks my grandfather had caught. He walked off the boat with very few qualifications to be a police officer and became one anyway, because he knew someone, and because of the same kind of consolidated political power that Curley had employed in Boston. It was two generations later before the city had hired its first African American officer.
Immigration has a strange history in this country, and there’s always been an edge to it that subtly whittled away at what the country believed itself to be. The first Irish to land in the harbor felt it, but they clawed and scratched their way to power until people like my grandfather had it easier when they stepped onto the dock. I got up and walked back through all that history to the Common, where more speeches were ending and a rally was breaking up.
Immigration has a strange history in this country, and there’s always been an edge to it that subtly whittled away at what the country believed itself to be.
By the time I got to the Common, the speeches were winding down and the rally had turned into a sprawling playdate. Children were riding the carousel, splashing gleefully in the Frog Pond, and screaming for lemonade and Italian ices in an impressive array of languages and accents. Down on the northwest corner, right by where Pope John Paul II once said Mass in a howling thunderstorm, a woman named Blanche was tending to a rolling wooden kiosk, selling ballcaps and T-shirts to a mix of rally goers and ordinary tourists.
I am not going to use Blanche’s last name because it is 2018, and she doesn’t have a green card, and there’s this president*, you see. It bothers me that I can’t use her last name because her story is one of which the country used to be quite proud. Blanche is a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country with a sad history of being on the wrong end of western imperialism from the depredations of King Leopold of Belgium to the meddling of the CIA in the death of Patrice Lumumba. It then went through a name change, to Zaire, and through the mad kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko. In 1997, rebels overthrew Mobutu and installed Laurent Kabila as president of what was then renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That’s when Blanche’s trouble began.
Kabila was no Mobutu, but he was unable to bring peace to the region, and he had sticky fingers of his own. Blanche’s husband was the principal of a primary school and an activist. He advised his friends and neighbors to withhold their tax payments until the corruption at the top was cleaned up. This got him in trouble. “He was a leader for that group,” Blanche said. He and Blanche, and their two children, fled to South Africa, where they stayed for fourteen years. They were never comfortable there, however. There was a serious lingering distrust for refugees from the war zones of central Africa, ranging from simple bigotry to a denial of medical treatment. “We experienced xenophobia,” Blanche said. She and her husband decided to leave for America. They left their two children, now teenagers, with relatives.
“We were running,” Blanche said. “There was no time.”
They have been in the United States for eight months. Her husband recently found a job in Danvers about which she doesn’t want to say very much. “We are afraid,” she said. “It is better here than in South Africa, but we don’t know what’s happening.”
There were no relatives on the Boston fire department to invite Blanche and her husband to come and get the good government job that would be the first springboard for their family. Their children will stay in South Africa until their parents get green cards, and that’s a long way off. They left political violence in their home country, and bigotry in their first adopted one, and now they’re here, and Blanche is selling Red Sox caps and Harvard T-shirts to strangers on a hot afternoon.
“This meeting can do nothing more to save the country.”
I walked back to the subway, but ducked into the Old South Meeting House to cool off on the way. This has been a place of resistance since it was first built in 1729. Speeches were given here against McCarthyism, against the Red Scares, and for abolition. And, on December 16, 1773, Samuel Adams ascended to the podium in the front of the room. The place was packed. Interspersed throughout the crowd jamming the meeting house, and in the swelling throng outside, were white men dressed as Indians. They were awaiting a signal from Adams to march on the south part of the harbor, where three ships carrying British tea were moored. This was the signal that Adams gave:
Then everybody walked to the harbor.