In 2001, I boarded a Miami Dade public school bus headed for Little Havana. The purpose: a viewing of the family home of Elián González. The child at the center of an intense and highly publicized international custody battle had been returned to Cuba in June of the previous year, but the fence outside his relatives’ home remained draped in American flags and white roses, the latter a reference to Cuban poet José Martí’s work, “Cultivo Una Rosa Blanca.” As the child of a Cuban American family, I saw these offerings as split as the Cuban diaspora itself: the flags a call for Elián to stay stateside, the roses a blessing on his return voyage to the island.
Despite having interned for the Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service (CRS) as a law student years later, until I read America’s Peacekeepers by Bertram Levine and Grande Lum, I was unaware of the agency’s significant role in this dispute. I was unaware that CRS sought to facilitate a meeting with Pope John Paul II, Elián’s Miami relatives, and the US government; that the infamous raid of the relatives’ home by agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service was preceded by five months of exhaustive mediation that bordered on agreement; or that the division in the Cuban American community drove CRS conciliator Thomas Battles into hiding in the aftermath of Elián’s eventual return. My ignorance of these critical details is not surprising: CRS works behind the scenes to provide free, impartial, and confidential conciliation and mediation services to communities, with the intention of “keeping the peace” and enhancing local capacity to respond to public conflicts more effectively. In perusing the book’s helpful appendix, a CRS Timeline of Cases and Significant Milestones, you may notice, as I did, that CRS was present at almost every event that contributed to your political or professional development.
America’s Peacekeepers builds on Bertram Levine’s Resolving Racial Conflict, which chronicles the history of the CRS until 1989. Lum, a former Director of the CRS, picks up the story with a thoughtful and comprehensive discussion of the history through 2019, in five chapters on CRS interventions in the face of neo-Nazis in Skokie, Illinois; anti-Arab, Muslim, and Sikh violence after 9/11; anti-LGBTQIA+ hate crimes; the Elián González case in Miami; and hostile police-community relations in Sanford, Florida, after the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. Lum dissects these conflicts, as well as the strategies employed by CRS to diffuse them, through vividly told stories as well as meticulous technical details. Although it is fit for any academic syllabus, America’s Peacekeepers also feels deeply personal – and tragically relevant.
A CRS for the current moment
CRS was created by Title X of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and expanded by the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. The agency, and its many successes, have been inextricably tied to the lives and legacies of the same Civil Rights activists who helped birth it. Notably, the book opens with the late Rep. John Lewis’s praise for CRS’s “capacity and courage” to help “build a beloved nation.” At CRS’s 50th anniversary, Attorney General Eric Holder, flanked by Freedom Riders and former SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) leaders, underscored CRS’s link to the 1960s politic, saying, “we must recommit ourselves to the legacies of visionary leaders and courageous citizens who made the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the creation of this agency, possible.” With such a strong association with the activists and politics of yore, what should this recommitment look like in the present moment?
Civil rights and social movements have transformed in the last 50 years. There are new leaders, different demands, and more organizing strategies. These movements are sometimes born, negotiated, amplified, and challenged through a new medium: the Internet. And some that begin as hashtags, such as Black Lives Matter, grow into political powerhouses.
For all that has changed since 1964, some things have remained. The same vitriolic strain of white supremacy that CRS helped diffuse in Skokie in the 1970s reared its head in Charlottesville in 2017. Hundreds gathered with pitchforks in hand for the “Unite the Right” rally, the largest and most violent public assembly of white supremacist groups in decades. In fact, earlier this year a Department of Homeland Security report identified violent white supremacy as the “most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland.” And yet in 2018, the Trump administration unsuccessfully attempted to eliminate CRS. In the last four years, the agency has dwindled to less than half its former size, restricting CRS from being able to engage in this critical moment.
As America’s Peacekeepers illustrates, oppression does not end. It adapts. The brutal recounts of historical racism detailed in Part I, are echoed by Lum’s sobering present day examples of how communities of color and the queer community are actively made marginal today. The way Lum’s chapters mirror the themes explored by Levine’s original work suggests that Lum is writing with this message in mind: that tragically, the work of CRS is more critical today than ever.
As CRS looks to a new presidential administration in 2021, perhaps it, too, should adapt how it “recommits” to its mandate of peacekeeping and hate crime prevention. Throughout the book, Lum highlights the importance of relationships between CRS and the communities it serves, whether these involve carrying messages between groups after the torching of Black churches or brokering a key introduction in the effort to diffuse the xenophobic backlash against Arab, Muslim, and Sikh communities after 9/11. CRS’s successes seem always to be tied to personal connections. After four years of diminished capacity, the moment is ripe for authorities to reinvest in CRS and for CRS to invest in its evolving communities. This should include building relationships with new activists and public visionaries and engaging them to help determine what the course of peacekeeping could look like in today’s political landscape. This could also include advocating for policies and resources that address the systemic injustices that affect the same communities CRS serves. In these polarized times, CRS’s mantle of peace need not mean neutrality.
It is this tension between peace and neutrality that merits further exploration in America’s Peacekeepers. Lum’s final chapter suggests this “ethical dilemma” is a bygone one. He writes that early CRS workers were plagued with the paradox of being “a neutral mediator if, deep down, you believed in racial justice.” However, he states that this tension is not a “valid” one, resolved by the fact that “all settlements represent movement away from the status quo and toward a situation of greater equality.” These heady times call for a more prescriptive answer. In the vast expanse of “better than status quo,” CRS is too expert in conflict engagement, too connected to community, and too skilled an organization not to articulate a more specific, less neutral, vision of equality towards which we should all strive. Critically, CRS is also too unique to forsake leadership in imagining new processes for achieving those ends.
Reinvesting in CRS and Communities
In his closing remarks about the Elian Gonzalez case, Lum writes that “although it could not be grasped, peace was so tantalizingly close in Miami in 2000.” On my most optimistic days, I believe the same is true for the United States – that if we individually and collectively keep doing the hard work, peace will come. For this to be so, a reinvestment in CRS is essential, and so is a reimagining of its role in the political landscape.
In reference to the Civil Rights Act, President Lyndon Johnson said CRS’s role was to “help the medicine go down.” America’s Peacekeepers makes it clear: now, more than ever, we need CRS’s “medicine.”