By Susan Leslie, Congregational Advocacy & Witness Director
Monday, July 26th: After arriving in Phoenix and meeting up with the UU Congregation of Phoenix (UUCP) Immigration Task Force, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, the congregation’s minister, invited me to accompany her to Puente’s Monday Assembly meeting. The open air meeting in front of the bright blue Tonatierra building where Puente is housed had over 100 people seated on folding chairs out in the parking lot surrounded by pink sky and palm trees. Sal Reza, with his signature grey ponytail was talking to the majority Latino crowd about the political situation heading into the upcoming Day of Non-Compliance on Thursday, July 29th, when the legislation was scheduled to go into affect. Whatever the ruling, and he said they expected it to be mixed and to not completely overturn SB1070, the day would go forward in order to protest the criminalization and repression of the immigrant community. There was simultaneous translation provided for us English speakers in one section of the crowd near where a documentary film crew was taping.
Seeing this grassroots leadership in action was inspiring. A white board detailed the many tasks for people to sign up for: medical team, legal assistance, mobilization and outreach, logistics and more. After the situation and the stakes of escalating resistance non-violently on the 29th were discussed and assignments made, those who wanted to engage in civil disobedience or support those doing so, were provided training by The Ruckus Society, an anti-racist direct action training organization. These same trainers later came to UUCP on Wednesday to provide training for the UUs and others who answered the Standing on the Side of Love call to participate in the Day of Non-Compliance.
While at the meeting, Rev. Frederick-Gray introduced me to local Puente organizers and I also got to meet organizers from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) and the Catalyst Project, many of whom I have had phone and e-mail conversations with (some for years!) but had never had the opportunity to meet. I was also gratified to see a number of interfaith colleagues who are also national staff at the meeting. There was an intensity and excitement that people from all over the country understood that what’s going on in Arizona needs to be stopped here. Later that evening over dinner Rev. Frederick-Gray explained to me why, even though she is the mother of a four year old, she was going to risk a felony arrest by chaining herself to the doors of Sheriff Arpaio’s jail. I got shivers as she detailed for me how Arpaio operates like Bull Corner with no accountability and with no one challenging him. She explained that there was a huge blanket of fear covering Phoenix. Arpaio announces his sweeps and whole neighborhoods close down—no one goes to the grocery store, the children come indoors. People are living in fear. Equally distressing is that too many people have been silent.
The Catholic Bishop in Phoenix is a friend of Arpaio’s and many of the people, snowbirds and others, that live in gated communities around Phoenix feel protected by Arpaio. With the departure of Governor Janet Napolitano to the Obama administration, the state legislature is increasingly controlled by the ultra right politics of militia type forces and straight up racism. If this seems like an exaggeration look at the legislation in Arizona that has recently passed: a ban of ethnic studies, immigration enforcement by schools, and most recently a law allowing concealed weapons. (Pretty scary when the issue is framed in Arizona as people who come over the border are trespassing and breaking into ‘our houses.’ So what do you do when someone invades your home?) The Arizona Department of Education recently ordered school districts to remove teachers whose spoken English it deems to be heavily accented or ungrammatical from classes for students still learning English. A new bill is coming up that would deny citizenship to any child born in the United States that has one or more parents that are undocumented. (A similar ballot initiative was proposed in California last year but fortunately did not gain traction. However, let’s not rest easy that this kind of anti-immigrant movement will not try again in CA and elsewhere).
As Rev. Frederick-Gray spoke of her determination to break through the silence and take demonstrative action as a member of the clergy and as a white ally, she brought tears to my eyes. She was willing to take risks to stand on the side of love with the immigrant community in Phoenix, in Arizona, in our nation. Her faith called her and she heeded it—not unmindfully or carelessly. She was making an informed decision about the absolute need to send a clarion call that this wave of chauvinism and fear must be stopped with an equally forceful display of love.
Tuesday, July 27th: On Tuesday evening, UUCP held an event that was part of Alto Arizona’s 30 actions in 30 days campaign (Puente, NDLON, Somos and others created the Alto Arizona – Stop Arizona campaign after SB1070 was passed in April). They screened the new film 9500 Liberty that documents how a county in Virginia was able to defeat a local anti-immigrant ordinance that was causing fear and polarization. Over 250 people attended – about 50 UUs from the four Phoenix-area congregations, 25 UUs from out of town (who participated in the actions against SB 1070) and 175 others from the community. Some were our ongoing interfaith partners who received special invitations. Others saw the event on the 9500 Liberty website or received a mass email from 9500 Liberty director/producer Eric Byler. Others saw the notice of the event on the UUCP website, the UUCP or Valley UU Face book page. Director/producers Eric Byler and Annabel Park were there to discuss the film. Other panelists included former U.S. Representative from Arizona Sam Coppersmith, and Dale Wiebusch, Legislative Associate (lobbyist) for the League of Arizona Cities and Towns. “Mi Familia Vota” was also present at the event to register voters “then and there,” and to sign up volunteers to register voters at other events. They have a goal of registering 75,000 new Latino voters in time for the mid-term elections.
Wednesday, July 28th: UU volunteers start arriving and we begin our orientation meeting at 2 p.m. that afternoon. Gini Courter led us, Rev. Fredrick-Gray welcomed us and oriented us, various UUA staff members including myself and Rev. Ken Brown, Pacific Southwest District Executive, UUCP organizer Emrys Staton (leader of the No More Deaths ministry at the UU Church of Tucson) and others provided political orientation, faith grounding, and resources for taking advocacy home to other states. We offered civil disobedience training, a clergy calming presence training, and an SSL visibility training to the volunteers. Music was provided by UUCP and Valley UU of Chandler, AZ, musicians and choir members and by First Parish UU of Cambridge MA Rev. Fred Small. We are grounded, we are trained, we are ready.
Thursday, July 29th: For some the day begins with a 4:30 am vigil at the State Capitol with an interfaith group of religious leaders and immigrants, including some who are undocumented, who are vigiling for the 102nd day since SB1070 was passed by the legislature. That group joins over 500 of us who have come together for a six a.m. sunrise interfaith service at Trinity Cathedral. All the speakers are incredibly moving and compelling. The Catholic Diocese sends an Auxiliary Bishop who has only been in the area for nine days who makes it clear that he stands with the immigrant community. Rev. Frederick-Gray calls for all to stand on the side of love with immigrant families and to join her in action. Former State Senator Alfredo Gutierrez, founder of the Arizona Boycott Committee, along with the Assistant Mayor of Phoenix join the clergy in their call to stop the worst of SB1070 that still remains.
From the service we march to the Courthouse, with SSL Campaign Manager Dan Furmansky leading us in chants, where Mr. Gutierrez is being arrested for civil disobedience, then past the Wells Fargo Building that houses Sheriff Aripaio’s office and onto to Cesar Chavez Plaza across from City Hall. Part of the march continues on to the State Capitol to join a rally there. Our contingent of 150, many in our bright yellow “Love” shirts, stays with the hundreds who plan to block the intersections by Arpaio’s Office and across from City Hall. The civil disobedience is well organized. People sing, chant, and pray – those in the streets and those on the sidewalks. Water and sunblock is handed to those awaiting arrest. Riot clad police begin making arrests. A few blocks away, Sal Reza of Puente, UUA President Rev. Peter Morales, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray and other UU clergy (Rev. Wendy von Zirpolo and Rev. Ian White Maher) along with UU lay leaders and Puente and other activists have blocked the entrance to the County jail (Arpaio’s jail). SSL sends out a text (via Audra Friend who is staffing our operations ‘command’ center) to our group to ask some of them to come witness at the jail while others keep witness with those in the intersection by Wells Fargo and City Hall.
Rev. Susan Frederick Gray and four others are chained to pillars on the side of the driveway, effectively blocking the sheriff’s vans from going out to conduct sweeps. Later, the local news reports on their arrests and credits their actions with preventing raids that day.
Those of us who are in support roles and engaging in witness head back to UUCP for debrief and rest. We check in with organizers at Puente and agree that while some of our folks will come for their rock ‘n roll rally later in the afternoon, we plan to organize a vigil in front of the jail where all those arrested are now being held. We confirm that the permit Puente got for the rally will cover us. They love this plan. Puente activists and others from the interfaith community join us at the 8 p.m. vigil. A mixture of UU hymns and movement songs along with Latin beats fills the air. Rev. Josh Pawelek leads us in prayer – “We are building beloved community here.” he says. The local FOX news team loves it and tells us that if we will keep the vigil going until 10:10 pm they will lead the 10 pm news with us live. The reporter and the camera crew thank us for being there.
After the vigil ends, several of us remain with Puente activists to be there for our folks when they are released from jail. While Rev. Ken Brown works with the legal team “on the inside,” we keep vigil on the streets and have food and water awaiting all those who were arrested. After being arraigned at 10 pm, the group arrested at the jail are finally all released by 3 a.m. Sal Reza tells us that this is a typical tactic, to release people on the city streets in the dead of night. Sal is amazed that he is the first out. His political observation is that the new activists are being punished, especially when he finds out that the dozens of people arrested in the intersections are not even getting a first hearing until 10 a.m. the next morning—the absolute legal limit of 24 hours within which anyone arrested must be arraigned. Rev. Peter Morales is released to great cheers (as are all those arrested). He is rumpled and tired but his spirits are high.
Friday, July 30th: Another witness is held at the jail while those arrested are arraigned and released. Rev. Morales participated in a press conference with Sal Reza and others to explain why they took action and how while many are calling the injunction against SB1070 a success, there are still provisions that are very dangerous, including making it a crime to transport or harbor an undocumented immigrant (so a citizen child bringing an undocumented parent to the doctors would be committing a crime); a crime to hire day laborers on the street or for them to solicit work on the streets; and for anyone to oppose enforcement of federal immigration law (sanctuary cities would be illegal).
UUs gather at Valley UU Church in Chandler for debriefing, next steps and a closing worship service. Pastoral care, massages, and legal information are provided for those arrested. Shortly before the service is to begin we receive a call from Puente that Sal Reza has been arrested again. He has been out of jail less than 24 hours. There is a civil disobedience out at Sheriff Arpaio’s notorious Tent City jail where he has erected a new tent labeled 1070 and has a planned sweep for Friday afternoon/evening. There is also a sidewalk vigil where Sal has been talking to folks before walking over to his car to head out for an interview with a Spanish language newspaper. He is surrounded by deputies and taken into custody where he is held for hours in a hot unconditioned van. ‘Why are you taking him?’ the demonstrators cry. Sheriff Joe tells the press that Reza has violated the conditions of his release. At his arraignment, hours later, the judge and the prosecuting attorney find no probable cause for Reza’s arrest. Arpaio has made his statement. Clearly the actions have struck a nerve and retaliation has come.
Meanwhile, at the conclusion of the service at Valley UU, we let people know what has happened and that Puente is calling on us to come vigil at Tent City. We explain that while it is legal for those recently arrested to attend, we cannot guarantee that like Reza, they will not be picked up for violating the terms of their arrest. While many of our group need to get to the airport for flights home, over thirty of our group – including some who have been arrested and local newcomers who couldn’t take off work – head out to Tent City. When we arrive, again in our Love shirts, people cheer as we swell their ranks. I introduce myself to Alfredo Gutierrez (former state senator) head of the Somos boycott committee who grabs me in a bear hug, and says “You UUs are awesome” and that he is coming to Boston to give the UUA the largest bouquet of roses he can find. Shortly after he is giving an interview to the press and he pulls me to his side and says to the camera – these people stood with us, got arrested with us, are standing with us. “You are the ones who are awesome,” I tell him.
From Tent City we all head down to the County Jail but not until after 10 p.m. as the local Fox station has again asked us to stay so they can film us. Down at the County Jail which is starting to feel like very familiar territory, Standing on the Side of Love, Puente, Interfaith Worker Justice and other activists blast Salsa music and dance into the night until Sal and some of those arrested in the blockade at Tent City are out. SSL sends us text updates to let every know what’s going on.
Saturday, July 31st: We continue our presence at the jail. It takes hours for all those arrested to be released. One Latino man is held for hours longer than the rest of our folks for no apparent reason. Another Latino man is having his immigration status checked and is still being held. We are finally informed that he is being moved to Tent City. Gini Courter and Rev. Wendy von Zirpolo bring bail money to Tent City jail to get him out. Finally only one person remains in custody. A team from Puente is monitoring his case. Before we leave, Rev. Wendy leads us in prayer—all of us– from SSL, from Puente, Ruckus, the Catalyst Project, and folks who are waiting at the jail for family and friends who have been picked up for misdemeanors during the night—join hands and meditate, pray, and give thanks for each other.
Local Phoenix folks throw a celebration dinner at a local Latino cantina. We are exhilarated, we are exhausted, we are full of what we have learned, what we will do better next time, and of plans for how we will continue this struggle.
Sunday, August 1st: I meet with Immigration Task Force Co-Chair Sandy Weir from UUCP to debrief and plan for the future. On the flight back to Boston I write my reflections report for my supervisors. I lead with: Escalation called for by Alto Arizona in response to situation in Arizona and SB 1070 achieved!!!! Many more reflections after that to be continued in these weeks and months ahead. Si se puede – we can harness the power of love to stop oppression.