I can’t believe that it’s been twenty years. I was a student at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, when Doug came bouncing across the student union concourse screaming, “The wall is down! The Berlin Wall is down!” Back then, I knew precious little about its significance. But this had to be big news because Doug, a stereotypically somber philosophy major on the ten-year plan, was gleefully shoving the newspaper in my face.
Encircling the city of West Berlin, the wall had been constructed by the East German government in 1961 to prevent immigration from the then-Soviet controlled East to the West. In 1989, the people of East Germany took to the streets in protest, and soon after millions of us watched in awe as whole slabs of concrete fell. Meanwhile, I was just beginning to learn about governments and their affinity for building walls of all kinds.
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” was the challenge put to the Soviet Union’s General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. All the while the President was building walls in his own country.
Through the stereotype of the Reagan coined-term, “Welfare Queen,” he began the undoing of this country’s safety net. And to this day, the image of a Black, lazy, husbandless, baby-making machine, stands as a barrier between the right to food, shelter and income security for many, while a military industrial complex and Wall Street thrive.
But walls have no political boundaries. During Bill Clinton’s Presidency, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and “Mend It, Don’t End It” erected walls of secrecy and denial around this country’s failure to grant access to the armed services and public education. With the undoing of banking regulations during the Clinton era, barriers to economic wealth were also placed before whole communities of color. And with the passage of NAFTA and GATT, economic destabilization took hold south of the US border, forcing thousands of Mexicans north.
Sadly it seems that wall building is all the craze by governments far and near. After economically decimating countries to our South, today the US is building a wall of our own. Meanwhile, some in Congress are attempting to block access to health care for immigrants, the poor and even women who seek to protect their reproductive rights. But much like in 1989, people are fighting back. In commemoration of the 1989 German protest, peace activists in the West Bank are pulling down sections the wall that separates Palestinians and Israelis. At this point it’s a symbolic move at best. But if a wall is a symbol of man-made separation, then tearing one down must be a symbol of hope.