On the day before SB1070 was to go into effect, Unitarian Universalists from across the country converged in Phoenix. We came by air, car, bus, and some already lived here. About 150 of us met at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix in preparation for the National Day of Non-Compliance that was to take place the next day, Thursday, July 29th, 2010. As you can imagine it was chaotic fun to have that many UUs in one place – people greeting old friends and making new ones. But an air of uncertainty hung over us. What would the next few days bring? What would we do if the federal judge did not act and left SB1070 to go into effect? What would we do if the federal judge did act? From following the news, we knew to expect a partial ruling. And we knew that regardless of the ruling we would do “something” but what that something was might vary depending on what kind of law went into effect at midnight.
The news came in the early afternoon (Phoenix time), Judge Susan Bolton had placed a partial injunction on four of the most controversial parts of the law, including the much talked about section that directs law enforcement officials to determine legal status whenever they have “reasonable suspicion” that someone they’ve stopped might be undocumented. This was undeniably great news. At least temporarily (Gov Brewer has vowed to appeal), the state of Arizona could not legally use local police officers -sworn to serve and protect – to be agents of terror within the communities. Many people and organizations, including many in the faith communities, interpreted the ruling as an unqualified victory. It must have been curious then when several hundred people – including 150 who were there to Stand on the Side of Love – went ahead with the protests on July 29th anyway. Is it “loving” to be out on the streets, chanting, waving signs, blocking traffic, chaining oneself to a county jail? From the time that the ruling was announced to the Thursday dawn worship service to the events as they unfolded throughout the day, we as a group had decided yes. A core remained committed to civil disobedience and the rest of us to providing support in any capacity that we could.
We did so because the parts of SB1070 that were left intact were those that targeted migrant laborers, some of the most vulnerable within our communities. SB1070 makes it virtually impossible for them to work in Arizona, to support their families. How could we rejoice in a partial victory and go home when we knew that was the case? As the press release from Puente said, “a split decision only serves to split our communities.” We also knew from talking with the people in Phoenix that what was happening in Arizona was bigger than just SB1070. In truth, Sheriff Joe Arpaio had been terrorizing Latino and immigrant communities in Maricopa County long before SB1070 was drafted and would continue to do so regardless of the judge’s ruling. Arpaio himself has repeatedly said this. The fact that federal enforcement ICE ACCESS programs tap local law enforcement officials to enforce federal immigration laws creates a perception that undocumented immigrants are “criminals” – as if crossing a border without papers in order to work were the same thing as robbery. This in turn leads to a culture where it is acceptable to target and degrade an entire segment of our society based on nothing more than their unfortunate economic circumstances, or, even worse, the color of their skin. For as long as federal ICE ACCESS programs such as 287(g) and Secure Communities remain intact, there will be laws such as SB1070, and not just in Arizona. Around 22 states have either moved or are planning to move to introduce similar anti-immigrant legislation. We acted on Thursday, July 29th, because we knew that if we did not then what was happening to communities in Arizona would happen to communities across the country. The protests were an act of love – love for our neighbors, love for the most vulnerable, and love for our nation and the highest values that we espouse.
So that is why those of you who tuned into the newscasts or read reports online and in print about the protests saw yellow-shirted “Love people” in almost every picture. But let me tell you some things that you did not necessarily see, because the media did not show it. The protests on Thursday were multi-racial; we saw people of every skin tone – brown, red, white, black, and yellow. They were multi-generational – from seasoned Vietnam era boomers (and older) to college students (and younger). They were multi-faith (although I am proud to say that Unitarian Universalists were over-represented).
What you probably also did not see is how well our Standing on the Side of Love people represented themselves. Media across the nation have been happy to print pictures of yellow-shirted UUs grimacing while being handcuffed or dragged away. We are grateful for the coverage. But we wish that the media had also shown pictures of Unitarian Universalists handing bottles of water to Phoenix city police officers as we all baked under the Arizona sun. We wish they had shown that for the most part, Phoenix city police reciprocated the kindness, treating our people with compassion and respect even as they were arresting them. We wish the media could have shown UUs peacefully singing “A Meditation on Breathing” while they sat in the intersection. Even after they were arrested and subjected to the cruelties of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, our people maintained a faithful composure, providing pastoral care to each other and to others who were in jail for differing reasons. At one point when Arpaio himself came to inspect the protesters – an attempt at degradation – and one of our UUs responded by telling him that she loved him. I will not go into details because in the coming days we hope to let people tell their own stories of their experiences (see the Standing on the Side of Love blog), but suffice it to say that the presence of Unitarian Universalists made a positive difference in people’s lives that day.
Those of us who were not arrested kept vigil outside, determined to send spiritual sustenance to those inside. With folks from Puente and others, we lit candles, we prayed, we sang. By Friday afternoon, all of our people (including Puente partners) had been released and we UUs gathered at the Valley Unitarian Universalist congregation for fellowship and decompression. But we hadn’t even finished our worship service when word came that Arpaio had arrested more members of Puente, including their leader, Salvador Reza, for the second time in two days. Without hesitation, we mobilized to hold vigil again, even those who had spent the previous night in jail. We started in front of the “Tent City” prison where Sal had been taken, then moved to 4th Avenue jail when word came that he had been moved. By the time I got to the latter location, salsa music was blasting from a speaker and people were dancing. At one point, the doors to the jail opened and some sheriffs came out to watch us. Our response was to dance over to where they were and invite them to join us. That response – loving, inviting – even in the face of those who seek to intimidate, was what our time in Phoenix was all about. I saw it our Unitarian Universalists who came to stand with communities of color to face the Maricopa county sheriffs, and I saw it in our partners in Puente who approached everything they did with a deep spirituality and sense of community.
One last thought: On Friday morning as Audra and I stopped for breakfast, a young man recognized our yellow “Love” t-shirts and came over to thank us. That was not unusual. Everywhere we went, UUs reported that local residents recognized our t-shirts and expressed their gratitude for our presence. What particularly struck me about our conversation with this man is his telling us how people in his community are too afraid to leave the house, even to go buy groceries. How Arpaio and his deputies would take to cruising up and down the streets, not looking for crime but just looking to intimidate, and in the span of an hour or so a street that had been bustling would be empty, everyone having gone indoors to hide. Folks living in these communities are citizens, legal residents, and undocumented – they are all terrorized by Sheriff Joe. President Obama has the power to end the terrorization of migrant, Latino, indigenous communities by eliminating ICE ACCESS programs. We call on him to take moral leadership to end this crisis. In the meantime, we will continue to Stand (or sit, as the case may be) on the Side of Love.