A TALE OF TWO MARIAS: THE GEOGRAPHY OF TEAR-GASSING by Maria Weir

Pictures of the Year

Honduran asylum-seeker Maria Meza and her daughters at the US-Mexico border. November 2018.

Would you like some milk of magnesia? asked the  grey-bobbed matriarch fresh from Standing Rock. Though I don’t think she meant any harm, she mom-shamed my sister, whose 2-month old slept swaddled to her chest. My niece was possibly the youngest marcher at the Women’s March 2017 in Washington DC. Other women would tell Abby, “You can tell her she was here some day,” but this mom told us that her son was back on the plains, recovering from a tear-gassing.

How did we end up there—sisters squeezing each other’s hands to reassure Abby, while letting her (im)possibility sink in? Would this new administration really use gas against women (and their children) on its land? Never. Surely?

We got there by metro, like the half-million other marchers that day. We got there with faith in civil rights and the laws of the land. When that mother’s story conjured fear in me, I comforted myself by mouthing from the First Amendment: “The right to petition the government peaceably for a redress of grievances.”

Most of us who marched should have been safe. Mostly, we felt safe, but only because of the tradition and the laws of the land. Something curdled under the milky surface of our democracy’s latest yield.

We started in a station in the metro, whose lot was jam-packed even though we’d arrived four hours before the march. Leah, who lived in a DC burb, played parking jockey. She didn’t need to slurp coffee (to its dregs) and brace herself for the crowds. Leah’s a veep for DC non-profit with a big enough budget. She’s rubbed elbows with Tipper Gore, Josh Johnson, and well-cited WaPo columnists. The rest of us are teachers, social workers, nurses, addiction-recovery staff. We mittened our fists and pep-talked ourselves. Let’s do this. Let’s face the masses herding into a tunnel, inch through them to the metro card machines, sweat with other women in the trains, stamp off the barren cold, twitch and warm our bodies during speeches on the JumboTron.

The crowds thinned after we passed the start line, somewhere a few yards away from the downtown station. All through the 45-minute train ride, my fingers worried the edge of my poster. I march for the Least of These, I’d written in rainbows of sharpie ink. For the unborn, the refugees and DACA kids, the LGBTQ community. I hoped the rainbow and the phrase played. I knew I’d be one of the few pro-life women there.

As we threaded through the streets of DC, fellow marchers juggled signs reading My Body My Choice with uteruses whose fallopian arms and ovarian fingers flipped off the the new administration.

All day the air pulsed with fervor. Abby felt elation and said as much: “Can you believe this?” she turned and asked me. I couldn’t find her celebratory heights. My energy waxed with indignation and a kind of how-did-we-get-here confusion and waned with something like panicky fear of the future of my friends and children. Not for myself, a WASP. Well, not the Protestant part, but a Christian, a convert to Orthodox Christianity, which in the USA basically means I put a new coat over a Protestant upbringing.

I smiled bleakly at Abby and blew kisses at my niece’s pink cheeks. She looked snug as a bug in a rug, as they say, under Abby’s wool coat.

I didn’t go to the Women’s March looking for a fight. I just wanted the new administration to see hundreds of thousands, if not millions of citizens, like the pink sea, sending a message #notmyvalues and #notinmyname. Yet, I had sharpied my name, a contact name, and a phone number on my forearm on the train because of the seasoned matriarchal protester.

She didn’t say,  “You brought a baby to a tear-gassing,” exactly. That’s what she insinuated.

When she asked, “Do you want some milk of magnesia?” and shook a ziploc bag with bottles of Maalox in it, we murmured declines. We condescended to her by dutifully drawing the contact numbers on our arms. But she knew. She read us our looks askance yet educated us on tear gas. It closes the throat,  she told us. It affects the bronchi of the lungs and burns the eyes. Its effects last days to weeks on adults, depending on the proximity of the release. It can cause death or permanent damage to the very young. 

Maria, Maria 

It all came back to me when I saw the Reuters photo of Maria Meza gripping her daughters by their arms on the Sunday after Thanksgiving 2018.

Her little girls must have caressed her cheeks and giggled that morning when she put on her skin-tight, Frozen princess shirt. In the photo she vice-grips them and drags them up from tripping. She forces them to run from what will leave rashes on their bare legs and arms. They cannot run fast enough. I can imagine fear and the burn screaming in her. She fears how the chemicals will sear their throats and eyes. A few yards behind her, white smoke plumes from the edge of a muddy ditch. The cracked, wet ditch and the tear gas separate fifty, a hundred people behind her. They are sliding down an embankment whose apex is a fence looped with barbed wire. I know this dry dirt from my own crossings into and out of Tijuana, crossings as an American helping Mexicans build 2-room homes on shamefully teeny plots of land they bought for their families. I know the billboards and the dust, the Corona caps stamped into the earth, and the way Mexico was improving financially until my last trip in the summer of 2016, before the 45 administration of the US made everything uncertain.

Tear gas and pepper spray, the weapons-grade level, I mean, is banned in international warfare. It’s allowable “in house,” so to speak, which means, countries may use it within their own borders without triggering an international intervention. It’s the national equivalent of “What goes on in the neighbor’s house is…” a) none of my business, b) their right to self-governance and their own values, c) impossible to know or understand fully. Knowing that a nation can use it on its own, as our nation did in Ferguson MO in 2014, makes me wonder if we should be better watchmen (or persons) of our own house. Just how often does the USA use it? According to The Atlantic,  in 2013 the USA deployed it nine times inside US borders, including within hours of my hometown: Cleveland and Louisville are hours from me.

Production of it, like any military weaponry, is profitable enough that the US-based company, Combined Systems, Inc., helped supply mass deployments of it across the world in the past ten years. Although banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) for international warfare, not only does the USA use it as “crowd control,” it was deployed as countries across the Middle East marched for the right to democracy in the Arab Spring. Europeans used it in the anti-austerity protests in Europe. It’s used as “humane” in nations that are developed or economically stable.

How naive was I to think tear gas wouldn’t be deployed in DC that day when it was used near my hometown of Indianapolis in the last decade? Perhaps the niggling I felt that day in DC was that voice in the back of my head which said that an administration or civil authority force might use this whenever and however they want. Like tear-gassing across the fences of the San Yisdro border crossing, the tear-gassing of migrants who’ve been camping  or sheltering in Tijuana, waiting for a legal chance to appeal for asylum, I am not safe. If humanity is not dignified in one place, it’s not dignified anywhere. Principles can be a matter of relativity or convenience. Principles are petty decorations to those who never valued them.

I’m a news hawk, circling daily. I’ve read that some 6000 people were waiting there, with 40-100 cases heard a day. I calculates the numbers. That’s a camp-out of a couple of years for some migrants. Meanwhile, Mexico lacks what the US has: jobs and social safety nets and networks to support scared, displaced people to use their energy productively. It has a stable economy. Trump’s administration knows it. It’s why the same administration throttling these immigrants is the same one playing its upper hand against the trade agreements with the migrants’ host nation, Mexico The very economic agreements that may be able to heal the Mexican and Latin American economies by equalizing trade and jobs are subject to the mood swings of a businessman-president who built his empire on trademarking himself and finagling his way out of bankruptcy. What confounds me, at least when I think about how I hope fellow Christians respond, is that he successfully pawns a kind of “a-ME-rica first.” It’s the dope in his tweets and whistles about “those” people.

How did Maria Meza end up dragging her daughters away from a gas canister smoking behind her?

Because she didn’t play “captain loophole” with the competing, confusing laws of the US. She could try to cross the border and appeal for asylum. One law says that’s legal. Another says she needs to approach in an orderly fashion at a proper border crossing. Immigrants trying the latter have been creating an orderly process with a lottery system. If I were Maria Meza (not Maria Weir, as I am) I would feel stressed, thinly spread, as I imposed on the hospitality of the locals and the grace of the crowds, wondering how and where to use what few resources I have. Given the chance to march to the fence with others as a part of a visual, I would feel bold enough at one moment, trusting the process and the codes of human goodwill that I would not be tear-gassed.

But I am Maria Weir, not Maria Meza. I marched in DC, a WASP. I didn’t think our president would have the courage to tear-gas WASPs in the streets of his capital. Yet. I thought. I am not certain, though. He did speechify before election:

I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters. It’s incredible.

It’s a crap shoot whether we should have taken an infant girl to the march. At least I shouldn’t have shrugged off the possibility of tear gas to disperse nearly a million pink-knit capped women in our capital.

What about the optics? This, about them. This president insinuates and gets traction. He helms a media machine fueled by name-calling and insinuation. It took a few tries to perfect, but he’s managed to persuade his supporters that millions of men who marched with us were “feminized” and that we women were “militant.” Somehow his tone drips, as if both of these terms are useful weapons. I find his tone hard to ignore, considering that in Christian tradition, militant is a compliment applied to the Theotokos and the Church, and Christ Himself becomes accessible to all with his “feminized” qualities as a lover and nurturer, a person who suffered in place of the least (and worst) of these.

But this administration plays old tropes masterfully to reframing common people. It did with Maria Meza, calling her and others “‘grabbers’ who had taken children with them to improve their chances of asylum.”

So this administration will deflect attention from using a chemical warfare method across borders. It will score further support points from this optic. It will further the idea that a few people with signs, rocks, a message, and hope are “tough people.” To me, a writer and teacher of English, this vague insinuation is yet another soft-open to campaign against actual mothers, daughters, fathers, and sons, not criminals. It created a false association between those who seek asylum at all costs and hardened people, even as the law is more nuanced. The worst US code allows for asylum-seekers to be charged with a misdemeanor (at first crossing), but that’s what this administration wants. Its success is in ratcheting up. First, rhetoric to inflame the angry, loud ones. Next, it works the crowd into a frenzy to torch the “outsider.”

Some of us try to use the social mediums in response. I tweet or repost reactions. But they fail. I offer as proof the arguments that blossom like the Red Death on our Facebook pages. While I employ Biblical language calling fellow Christians to remember to be kind to aliens and strangers, since we ourselves are sojourners on this earth, I get blow-back. I think I am challenging my Christian siblings to accept our New Testament dispensation, a call to citizenship in the other-worldly kingdom. I get “How do we deal with the aliens in an orderly way, then?” As if our concern is with our narrow strip of land. Meanwhile the same Christians must wrestle with the competing call not to see this world as their home. Such a citizenship competes with the Great Commission: “Go ye therefore into all the world and preach the Gospel, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

None of what Jesus commanded had anything to do with protecting the economic security of local homeland while out proselytizing. It was all about being “world-less,” (i.e., homeless) migrants, subject to whatever hospitality or violence that the locals exacted.

It was always about being aligned with the sojourner and refugee, the migrant and the outsider.

See also Christopher Brittain’s White-Rage and the Migrant Caravan: When Religion Justifies Racial Self-Interest and the extensive White Supremacy and Racism section in our Archives by Author.

Maria Weir holds an MFA from Chatham University in Pittsburgh and teaches rhetoric, writing, and literature for Indiana Connections Academy, an online high school. Her essays have appeared in Relevant Magazine, The Handmaiden, the Vonnegut Library’s So It Goes, and the anthology Enduring Love. Her poetry has won the Laurie Mansell Reich Poetry Foundation Award and appeared in Poetry of the South. She is an Orthodox Christian and clergy wife.

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2 thoughts on “A TALE OF TWO MARIAS: THE GEOGRAPHY OF TEAR-GASSING by Maria Weir

  1. Pingback: WHITE-RAGE AND THE MIGRANT CARAVAN: WHEN RELIGION JUSTIFIES RACIAL SELF-INTEREST by Christopher Brittain | ORTHODOXY IN DIALOGUE

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