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The Line They Can't Cross

During these past few days, two of the most important people in the struggle, and in my own life, died.

Lucius Walker, leader of Pastors for Peace and one of the truly great activists who worked on so many issues, including solidarity with the Cuban revolution, died last week. Two days ago, Juan Mari Bras, among Puerto Rico's most respected and accomplished Independentistas passed away.

I knew them both personally -- worked with both of them extensively. Both were inspiring in their own ways. Lou was a truly amazing figure: remarkably humble, simple, soft-spoken, unflappable and tirelessly committed to the causes he took on. And he wasn't afraid of anyone or anything. They tried so often to get him to step back: attacking his primary organization, IFCO, in all kinds of ways (including legally). Lucius simply looked repression in the eye and said, in his soft-spoken voice, "you're not crossing this line".

He once told me: "I have no problem admitting that I'm stubborn about where we keep our data and our other information and how secure that is. We don't give it up for anybody. That kind of information is really the trust people have in us and in the movement. We lose that, we lose everything."

And I have a quote (in this little book I keep of quotes that move me) in which he said, in a speech at Riverside Church about the Pastors work: "We want to support each other and come to each other's support. It's what we do. Nobody can deny us that right and we need to exercise that right most vigorously when they try. That's what this struggle is -- an exercise of that right."

And he lived his life that way and since I rheard that comment I have framed my own comments about this struggle in that way. We aren't fighting to be given something; these are our rights! Lucius taught me that and as I think of him, ironically, I think of an incident with Juan Mari Bras.

Juan was the main leader of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party -- the largest Puerto Rican revolutionary organization -- and I was in its leadership for several years working in the U.S. One party so us leaders in this country would frequently travel to Puerto Rico for meetings and seminars and other unifying activities.

To understand: Puerto Rico in the 70's was not always a peaceful or safe place for revolutionaries and the offices of the PSP were frequently targeted. One afternoon I was sitting in the San Juan offices waiting for a ride to some other location when the police showed up. They immediately demanded to come in.

Now I was born and raised in the South Bronx. When a cop approached you, he was going to beat you and when he beat you there was nothing you could do about it. And nobody else would do anything about it. You stayed beaten. There are no rights on those streets and the brave die young. Period. That's the way it is. That's why you need a movement. Led by people like Mari Bras.

Juan emerged from his office. I guess he was close to 50 then, as overweight as he'd always been his entire life and certainly not what one would consider an athlete. In an altercation, Juan would not beat those cops. And the head cop was a huge guy and the others weren't much smaller. In fact, they dwarfed the door of the office.

But Juan was a man who didn't think like that. In his world, lines were principles, actions you took at the moment would have a long-term impact and, in the end, the movement was the true expression of the Puerto Rican people's will -- not some cops. And so his response to these bullying cops was "no".

"You can't come in," he said and he stood at the door, blocking it. "We do not allow people in here who have no business being here."

"We have papers," the head cop said. "There is a complaint that there are illegal substances here. The papers are in English. Who is here who speaks English?"

The conversation was in Spanish and the cop's question about English was, of course, a provocation. The guy probably thought this was a way to get some Independentista to hit him. Juan merely frowned.

"Those papers are worthless here," he said. "We don't respect those papers and we don't respect you. This is Puerto Rico. People here speak Spanish. Are you a moron?"

The head cop glared and then chuckled and said, "We'll be back." And they left and didn't return. And Juan left to go home to dinner without saying a word to any of us. He smiled but said nothing.

He didn't have to...not to me anyway.

After that, every political lesson he taught had a fuller and deeper meaning. And the lessons he taught form my politics today and greatly influence my organizer's style. He remains, for me, the model of a leader: His ability to listen to everyone, to sit patiently in the back of a huge meeting just listening before speaking. His remarkable ability as a speaker. His love of language and his precision in using it. His sense of journalism in all he said and planned and worked on -- always thinking about the impact of the message it would have. That incredible shyness that some mistook for aloofness. And his incredibly incisive mind -- his analytical and strategic brilliance. There were times when I disagreed with Juan but seldom did he say something that I didn't learn from.

I remember the many times we accompanied Juan to the United Nations during that body's deliberations on colonial status of Puerto Rico and how he crafted each set of remarks to the moment and the specific make-up of the body he was addressing. I heard so many speeches he made to so many audiences doing the same thing -- speaking to the specific audience.

And I remember his consistent support for the work we were doing among Puerto Ricans in this country perhaps symbolized by the 1974 Day of Solidarity in Madison Square Garden that I had the privilege of being principle organizer of. I remember Juan's speech and, after the action, his saying: "You (the plural you...meaning all of us in the PSP in this country) have done something that will last forever."

Juan didn't throw compliments around easily; it wasn't his way. But I was a 25 year old kid and he told me that! One sentence, at the right time, and it changed my life.

How do you do that? What glues all those thoughts, those speeches, those many struggles. How do you focus? How do you keep things clear? How did Juan do that? How did Lucius?

I think it was all anchored by the ability to draw the line. And as I move along in my own sixties, examining a life that has for the most part been lived already, I ask myself about the line in my own practice. Have I drawn it clearly enough? What do I need to draw it even more clearly.

I think I'm starting to understand it better as I think about these two guys.

Both Juan and Lucius taught us eloquently that the line means more than just some principle written someplace. It is the commitment you have with a movement that flows from your own relationship with the rest of the human race. How, in your life, are you going to relate to the rest of humanity? What's important? What can never be given up? What is expendable?

There is one thing these men had in common: as far as I saw neither of them ever gave up, not for a split second, their absolute belief that the people of their respective countries and of the world could make the revolution that is necessary to reroute the world's path and save humanity.

They were confident, both of them, in the human potential and its certain realization. They died with that confidence and I guess that confidence is the substance that draws the line.