There is a protest at Tent City tonight, the place where Sherriff Joe Arpaio holds thousands of immigrants in his self described ‘concentration camp.’ Where there is never any relief from the Arizona heat, where humiliation is a daily occurrence.
I’m with my people, in our bright yellow Standing on The Side of Love shirts that match the school buses that take us there, Unitarian Universalists in Phoenix for our annual convention. There are hundreds of us going, a couple of thousand maybe, mostly white, middle class, documented. And yet I am afraid.
I’m afraid because I’ve heard there will be counter-protestors, militia folks maybe, perhaps with the weapons which are legal to carry in Arizona. I’m afraid because it’s so hot, because I’m not exactly Olympics material in my physical fitness, because I am taking a teenaged child whose safety means everything to me.
And then, as we sit in worship and prayer, preparing to go, speakers from the local Latino community speak. A young woman describes her decision to commit civil disobedience, to be arrested by Sherriff Joe Arpaio, because she is tired of living in fear, of her whole community living in daily fear of being rounded up for real or imagined infractions and thrown into the Tent City, as they have been for the past 20 years. A young man describes arriving in the United States at age one, and now facing deportation –leaving the only country he’s ever known to be sent to one which is foreign to him.
And I begin to feel embarrassed by my fear. Not ashamed, not guilty, just embarrassed. As if I am a kid who grabbed too many cookies off the plate. And I think, this fear that binds us all, this fear of being arrested and humiliated and tortured in our own country: How does that hold us back? How does that diminish us? The young woman who chose to be arrested says, Yes, she was afraid, but she’s been afraid all her life. This arrest, in a way, freed her. I think of the words of the poet Audre Lorde, in her essay which is desert-island-essential to me, The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action:
What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?
As we get into our bright yellow school bus, a minister offers a prayer for our journey. I say to the driver, Are we holding our departure up because we are standing up praying? And she looks up with some annoyance and says, “No! I am praying!” As I begin to lead the crowd off the bus, she says, “Thank you so much for doing this. My husband is in there.”
At Tent City, I don’t see any counter protestors, with or without weapons. I see a small gaggle of brave locals, who have come to thank us for being there. One woman I speak with tells me that her inability to pay for a traffic infraction landed her there for ten days. She describes the endless heat, the lack of adequate drinking water, the horrible food. She says then, tears in her eyes, “My girlfriend is in for a year.”
Another man holds a sign charging Joe Arpaio with homicide. I ask him how many people have died at Tent City. He says at least five. I ask him if his church stands up to speak out about this. He replies sadly, “I am still Catholic but I do not go to church anymore. Most of us don’t. There was one priest who spoke out for us but they got rid of him.”
As I get back on the bus to go back to air conditioned comfort, a shower and clean pajamas, his words stay with me most. I wish that I could have responded, in Arizona or in my own home state of Minnesota, “You would be welcome in my church!” I know that the Phoenix UU church is doing fantastic work to be welcoming, to stand tall as an advocate for justice for immigrants. And yet I know that, while we stand on the side of love, sometimes we stand too far off to the side, in our fear, in our privilege, buffered, unwilling to disrupt our comfort. I offer a silent prayer and wake up this morning with his words still piercing my heart.
(Photos by Jie Wronski-Riley)