Earlier this week a group of students were arrested at the University of Texas demonstrating for worker’s lives. The students were trying to get the University to make sure its purchases do not come from sweatshops overseas. For most Americans this is a very hard sell. If the price is lower, most people would rather not hear about worker conditions. The University calculated that the cost of making that switch would be $50,000 and was unfeasible in a time of budget cuts The students refused to leave the administrative offices, and were arrested.
The story hit me hard because I had spoken earlier that day at a campus rally for worker’s lives. I had spoken by phone with one of the young organizers who told me that the group had just read Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham jail and felt that they had to risk the arrests to speak out on behalf of their brothers and sisters trapped in sweatshop conditions.
As I walked to the West Campus to give my speech earlier that day I looked up at the beautiful buildings and realized how easy it is to forget the human toll of making such edifices as inexpensively as possible. I looked up at the statues of Confederate heroes that adorn the campus grounds and realized how easy it is to pretend that slavery is a thing of the past simply because we have moved it off shore. It is easy to ignore the faces we don’t see, and voices we don’t hear. But are we really innocent of the sin of slavery just because we pay someone else to hold the whip?
Am I innocent of the blood of those who grow my food, sew my clothes, or build my shelter, if I am unwilling to give up my luxuries for their necessities? What does it say about a university that calculates that the blood of a laborer is not worth the fair price of a tee shirt?
For three years students have implored the administration to respect the lives of workers overseas. For three years the students have been ignored. But these students have changed that equation when they refused to cooperate with the exploitation of their brothers and sisters abroad. These students have put a face on the people some do not want to see, and given voice to the people some do not want to hear. These students, through their willingness to be arrested, have made visible the violence that lies behind the inexpensive clothes we wear and the lavish buildings we inhabit. These young students walk in the spirit of the prophets and show the rest of us the path out of our own slavery.