Let me start by saying that I am not a “protest” kind of person. My experience with numerous protests is that a lot of people assemble, shout angry slogans, maybe sing a few songs, and then go home, leaving piles of garbage in their wake. No matter how much I cared about an issue it always seemed to part of me like protests were something that we “attend” the way that one might attend a rock concert, and that they were geared more towards letting the participants feel good about having “done something” than actually effecting change. For that reason, I approached the Day of Non-Compliance (July 29th) in Phoenix with some personal apprehension. Since I knew that I was not planning on getting arrested, I wondered then what exactly it was that I would be doing. Was I flying two-thirds of the way across the country just to attend a protest? But I tried to approach the coming days with an open heart – letting the Spirit guide me.
At six am Thurs, we arrived at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral for an interfaith service. A rainbow hung high in the sky, seeming to make its arc right over Trinity. Seeing it, my heart leapt with hope. I thought of the biblical story of God’s promise to His [sic] people. I thought of the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice. After the service, we started marching towards downtown. So far, this was not unlike other rallies/protests/marches/vigils that I had attended. But it was during the march that I first noticed them – people carrying plastic trash bags collecting water bottles and other refuse from marchers, so that the streets remained clean. Cleaning up after ourselves? What a novel concept! How lacking in sense of privilege! I smiled at the young Latino man carrying the garbage bag and felt that he was playing a role as important as any cleric who spoke from the pulpit or any of the rally organizers.
When we got to Cesar Chavez Plaza, I saw that Puente (a local Phoenix movement with whom we’re partnering) had set up a staging area where bottles of water cooled in kiddie wading pools full of ice. Two cots were available for those who fell ill. Hand made signs were available for those who wanted to carry them. Those of us who were not going to get arrested made sure that others had plenty of water to drink, grabbing bottles from the kiddie pools and handing them out to everyone, including the police officers who must have been roasting under their riot gear. Someone from the staging area called for volunteers to run sitting pads over to the demonstrators at the intersection in front of the Wells Fargo Building (Arpaio’s office). I was handed a pile of bath towels that had been cut in half and then sewn to an insulating backing, to protect people’s behinds and legs from the baking asphalt. Wow, I thought, they had prepared for everything. Little did I know.
Much later, after watching the last of our people get loaded into the police paddy wagon, I started heading towards the 4th Ave jail where other demonstrators – including Peter Morales, Susan Frederick-Gray. and Puente’s Salvador Reza – had blocked the jail entrance. On my way, I stopped by the staging area to see if I could carry some bottles of water over. I was told that there was plenty of water at the jail already but I could carry over two spray bottles for cooling people down. I walked the two blocks with the spray bottles alone – a curious sense of solitude given the frenetic energy all around me, including the beating blades of a police helicopter overhead. Once at the jail site, I looked for red faces to whom to offer a cooling spray of water. (By the time the 4th Ave protestors were arrested some time later, I was pretty red-faced myself.) Roaming the crowds, I also saw volunteer medics coming to the aid of those for whom water was no longer enough.
Those of us who had not been arrested straggled back to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix during the mid to late afternoon. We ate some food. We cooled off as best we could. We attended to those of us who had succumbed to heat exhaustion. But now what next? Do we just wait at the church? Go back to our hotel or homestays? That didn’t seem right. The answer came from Puente, who had had the foresight to apply for a permit to hold an all-night vigil at the jail. It turns out that whenever one of their own is in jail, they hold vigil so that no one is released out to an empty street – every member who was arrested comes out to cheers and hugs. So, with night fall, we boarded our vans and headed over to the jail. Puente people had already been there since 4 pm. We lit candles. We prayed. We sang. We tried to sing in Spanish. (Note to self: that is something we have to work on *before* we get to the vigil.) Word came that the 4th Ave arrestees would be arraigned at 11 pm, which meant they would be released in the wee hours of the morning. A group of us stayed all night to greet them as they got out.
Friday dawned, tentative. Those who had been arrested in front of the Wells Fargo Building would be arraigned at 10 am, which meant they would be out by early afternoon. Members of UUCP bought food and fed us breakfast/lunch. Some of us volunteered to go over to the offices of Puente and the lawyers who were helping us to see if there was a way to pitch in. Others headed to the jail to be there when people got out. By mid afternoon, all of our people had been released, and we started packing up the base of operations at UUCP to head over to Valley UU in Chandler, AZ. The plan had called for a potluck dinner, followed by a Taizé worship service and debriefing. As far as we were concerned, we were done (for this round – we knew there would be others). At the potluck, we were told that the delicious cheese enchiladas and chicken tamales were made by Puente, in appreciation for our participation. Once again, I thought, they really understand community.
We had not even finished our worship service when the word came – more people had been arrested. That part was not too surprising as we knew that our partners intended to keep up the pressure by demonstrating in front of Arpaio’s Tent City prison. But what sent a shock wave through all of us was word that Salvador Reza, who had already spent the previous night in jail, had been taken in by Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s deputies even though he was across the street and no where near the site of the protest. I could call that moment a decision point – the kind of moment that determines what kind of people we were going to be by how we respond. I could call it that but in truth people responded so quickly that there was never any doubt. We packed up as quickly as we could. Audra opened up the boxes of yellow “Love” t-shirts, offering a free clean one to anyone going to the vigil. We loaded our vans and cars, and away we went… to Tent City. I had wanted to see Arpaio’s notorious prison but did not know it would be under such circumstances.
By the time I got to the vigil across the street from Tent City, it was in full swing. People lined the street – an intermingling of Puente and Standing on the Side of Love signs. A drummer stood at the center, with at least one person with a smaller drum accompanying him. UUs and Puente people took turns leading chants (so that no one got too tired). Some of us held signs that said “Honk if you oppose SB1070!” and a steady stream of cars flew by, many of them honking. We were especially gratified whenever a bus would honk. At least two different people walked up and down the length of the vigilers, holding smoldering sage – blessing & protecting every one of us. As had happened the previous day, people handed out water continuously. About two hours or so into the vigil, women started handing out bean burritos and tortas with some kind of meat, and little ice cold cups of lemonade. It was another thing that they had thought of. We on the outside supported those inside the jail by keeping vigil, but the vigilers too were supported, ensured that standing outside holding signs and chanting did not mean going hungry or thirsty.
At one point a local leader played the drum while chanting a sacred song. Instinctively, we gathered round him in concentric circles – as if the drum were the center of our little solar system. It was a deeply spiritual moment, not only because of the drumming/chanting but because our people – UUs and Puente – were united as one. The only sour note was when, at the end, a handful of UUs started clapping. In Euro culture, that is a sign of appreciation, but it also tends to turn the ritual into a “performance.” The leader admonished us “Don’t clap! This is sacred.” Oh well, we are two groups learning how to be together. There will be small mistakes. (Note to self: instructions on not clapping should be part of our orientation for future groups of UUs.)
After 10:15 or so, after we had stayed long enough to be featured on the local Fox affiliate, we packed up our vans to move the vigil over to the 4th Ave jail. Word had come that Sal had been moved there. Once again, people – both Puente folks and UUs – picked up every bit of trash that we had generated. When we were done, you would not have been able to tell that dozens of people had just been there. I climbed into the cool AC of the van. Such relief. I was so tired. I did not know how I would be able to stand for another set of hours, however long, once we got to the 4th Ave location. But I knew I had to. With grim determination I got out of the van with my fellow passengers and we walked towards the jail. We heard music.
Puente folks who had arrived before us had set up a speaker and they were blasting salsa music. People were dancing on the sidewalk. My heart filled with joy. It was a lot easier to dance than it was to stand. These people knew how to throw a protest! – how to make it so that everyone felt involved and important, so that everyone was nourished physically and spiritually, so that the streets were cleaner for our being there, and so that everything was infused with both reverence and joy. We danced with crazy happiness, grateful for these last few days. When a few sheriffs opened the doors to take a look at us, we dance over to greet them and invite them to join us. (They retreated back into the building.) That gesture – loving and inviting into community, joyful even in the face of oppression – epitomized to me what our days in Phoenix were all about. I plan to go back to Phoenix and learn more from our partners, Puente (and others). But even if I for some reason don’t, I will never forget the lessons learned in Phoenix. It turns out that I am a “protest” kind of person after all, when it’s done right. And to do it right, it takes a village to hold a protest.