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Jason Walsh: Across the great divide

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This time was different.

When Sonomans assembled at the Plaza on Wednesday to demonstrate against the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy that, since its inception two months ago, has separated nearly 2,300 children from their parents in a self-described attempt by the White House to appear “tough,” community members weren’t merely protesting political agendas, distasteful sentiments or obnoxious tweets.

This time – and arguably the first time in an ongoing string of local protests against perceived executive office transgressions – they were confronting an action – an action that has appalled even some, though sadly not all, immigration hardliners.

This wasn’t just mean in spirit. This was mean in policy. And that crossed a new line.

Sonomans are 2,000 miles away from the southern Texas border region where the zero-tolerance policy has housed kids in chain-link “summer camps,” as Fox News personalities have creatively described. Demonstrators here carried signs that read much like they’ve read in the past: “Impeach the lying fascist”; “Trump is a tyrant and a lunatic”; “Hurry Up Mueller,” etc.

But there were some new sentiments, as well. “Stop the cruelty”; “No taking kids”; and “Children should not be treated like animals.” These weren’t messages seen at the Women’s March, or march against gun violence. This was outright disturbing.

As always, context is everything, and overstatement serves no one. This isn’t the breakup of slave families at the auction block; it isn’t even the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II; and it certainly isn’t the Nazis separating families between hard labor and the showers.

But dispensing with history’s most vile points of comparison does little to cleanse one’s palate of the foulest plate served yet since the 2016 election.

The good news is that when the concept of tearing toddlers away from their parents became a public relations problem, the administration reversed course and shelved its family separation directive. That does little to diminish the trauma imposed upon the families, nor does it help reunite all the kids being held in juvenile-detention camps; with no reunification plan in place, immigration experts predict some of the kids may never see their parents again. Ending the separations in no way relieves us of our collective culpability in all of this.

But perhaps, as Cesar Chavez said, we draw our strength from despair. And maybe that strength comes from the knowledge that, despite the cavernous divide that’s split America the past two years, it would seem we do have our limits.

There is a threshold of indecency that neither side of the political spectrum is OK with crossing – terrorizing children for the sake of terrorizing would-be border crossing families. That’s a pretty low threshold for a country to have, to be sure. But when neither neo-Nazi rallies in Virginia nor Russia tipping our presidential election nor the deportation of innocent DACA Americans is enough to give folks pause, one takes what thresholds one can get.

By the time Sonomans gathered to demonstrate on the Plaza horseshoe lawn this week, the President – in a self-described “pathetically weak” moment – had already been convinced by his advisors to reverse the politically damaging course he’d taken the GOP down the past few weeks and ordered border patrol to stop ripping babies away from their mamas’ bosoms. That the arrests of the indigent and those seeking asylum will continue, as entire families will now be held together – indefinitely – is of little consolation.

Trump protests on the horseshoe every few months have become de rigueur in Sonoma – inevitable in a way, but an important show of engagement nonetheless. This one was less despairing than previous marches, more hopeful. Lots of haven’t-seen-you-in-a-while handshakes and let’s-get-drinks-together-later hugs. Maybe that’s because news had broken that they’d already won the day; collective political pressure across the country had achieved a result.

Sonomans raising a voice Wednesday against the family separations weren’t a direct factor in the decision to rescind the policy.

Rather, they were part of a larger wave of common decency that, however momentarily it may be, was like a 2,000-long bridge across our cavernous divide.

Maybe border families aren’t the only things that will be reunited one day.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.