Hate crimes are on the rise. This is apparent. Along with that comes the rise in discussion of a poem by pastor Martin Niemöller in response to the Nazis purging selected groups from Germany and Europe while German intellectuals remained silent. It is titled “First they came for,” for the refrain that remains consistent throughout the poem. Niemöller writes:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
When I see this in tandem with the images of desecrated cemeteries, hate speech in graffiti and crowds of people chanting “Trump, Trump, Trump” or “Build That Wall,” I am reminded of a time when the core theme of this poem revealed itself to me.
It was not under the overreaching shadow of the new administration. It was when I had just entered high school, I was only 14 years old. My mom and I had gone to our local Walmart to pick up a tool box and tools for a school project. I had asked her if I could take the tools we already had at home. She told me that it would be easier if I had a set of my own, and I agreed. While in the store, we had taken the tools we picked up and put them all inside the toolbox, prior to buying them, to make sure that everything fit neatly inside of it. We had gone to the self-checkout area because the only two registers that were open had lines stretching all the way back to the garden section. As we were walking out, we were approached by two Glendora police officers. They had asked to see our bag and our receipt and had us wait on a bench outside the door while an employee checked our receipt and our bags to make sure nothing was amiss. I knew they had suspected we’d stolen something, which I understood from the store’s perspective. I thought about it while we were sitting there waiting and I assumed it had been because someone who had actually stolen something did something similar. However the real outrage began after we had been returned our bags yet not allowed to leave. The officer that had been waiting by the squad car watching us leaned in to the other after he had returned our purchases, whispered something and then approached us once again. One officer asked my mother to follow him some way away to answer some questions while the other stood with his arms crossed and watched me. I took out my phone to text my grandmother and tell her we would be home late, saying that we hit traffic and not wanting to worry her. He stepped closer. I took my phone out again when she replied. He stepped closer again. I could see a hard look of distrust and vexation on his face. I was too afraid to take my phone out again. As I sat there, I could hear some of the questions my mother was being asked. The exchange between the officer and my mother was as follows:
What is your relation to that child?
That’s my daughter.
Where is she from?
Here? We live in San Dimas. [My hometown, less than five miles away.]
How long has she lived with you?
… I don’t understand.
How long as she lived with you?
Since I gave birth to her? That’s my daughter.
Uh huh. For how long?
What do you mean ‘how long’?
I mean, how long.
She’s not adopted. That’s my daughter.
Where was she born?
Here, in Glendora.
Can you prove that?
How would I do that?
Do you have her birth certificate?
Not on me. It’s in my safe deposit box.
Why don’t you have her birth certificate?
I don’t carry that around.
My father had his identity stolen. We don’t want it to happen again.
Uh huh. Okay, ma’am. You can have a seat.
When my mother sat back down, the other police officer took over questioning. But instead of my mother, he was questioning me.
He asked this while pointing to my mother. I didn’t know much Spanish, because my family didn’t speak it much around the house, but I knew enough to answer that question.
That’s my mom.
He immediately looked displeased with my answer.
He asked again, more forcefully, leaning in as if to suggest I say something else.
I don’t know what you want me to say.
That’s my mom.
He seemed frustrated. He pulled the other officer aside and they spoke with their backs turned to us for a while. Meanwhile, a crowd of about twenty people had gathered just to stare. There were no whispers, no murmurs, just twenty sets of eyes dead set on my mother and me. It was like a nightmare where you can’t scream. One officer turned around to watch us, the other walked to the driver’s side door of the squad car and said something into the radio. The only words I could make out were:
… questioning … harboring illegal alien…
I heard the crackle and the grainy response on the other end. He took a moment after that to walk out with two sets of handcuffs and approach us once again. The full weight of what was about to happen didn’t hit me until the employee who had checked our bags ran out in front of him and asked him what he was doing.
Wait, wait, they didn’t steal anything!
Ma’am, I’m gonna have to ask you to please wait inside the store.
But they didn’t do anything. What are you gonna arrest ‘em for?
Ma’am, I have to ask you again to please wait inside the store.
No! They didn’t do anything! You can’t arrest them!
It wasn’t until one or two of those twenty people pulled out their phones to videotape this tiny woman shouting at these officers that the officers gruffly bid us good evening and drove away. I didn’t tell anyone that this had happened, not even my family, when I got home. I was in such shock that I sat in bed for about three hours and didn’t move, didn’t speak, I think I barely even blinked. I am mixed race, Latinx and Middle Eastern, and I am not white-passing. I am dark-skinned by typical standards. My mother, however, is significantly lighter in complexion. It is very easy to mistake me for adopted or for a stepdaughter. But I was never nearly incarcerated for it. Even when my mother and I were both telling the truth, these officers were fully prepared to arrest us while at least twenty people looked on and did nothing. They even seemed to make an effort to make me uncomfortable telling my family where I was and to keep other people from intervening. The only person willing to speak up for us was someone who didn’t have to, because the origin of the conflict was resolved, but did it anyway. She spoke up for us when no one else wanted to and the people who had the most power over the situation tried to keep her from doing it.
That is the importance of the Niemöller’s poem. That is the importance of bystander intervention and acting on your words. If you, at the beginning of this new era of fear, proudly proclaimed that protest does nothing and we should all see where things go before saying anything, then know that the story you just read will keep happening. It absolutely will and it will only escalate. There is no more room to “just see what happens.” There is no more room for “giving chances.” You either do whatever you can to put an end to this new era of modern fascism or you are passive aggressively telling people in harm’s way to lie down and take it. I understand that it is scary. Doing the right thing is often scary. Sometimes it’s downright terrifying ― but it has to be done. “Never again” is happening again. It’s happening again before our very eyes, and we have to put a stop to it. Speak up for people who cannot speak up for themselves because they are being silenced. Being silenced makes it easy to hurt us. Help protect us. When you speak up for those being silenced to protect them you are speaking up for yourself so you can have protection, too.