Reported by Donald E. Skinner, and originally published in UU World, August 2, 2010.
Twenty-nine Unitarian Universalists, including eight ministers, were arrested in Phoenix, Ariz., for acts of civil disobedience protesting Arizona's strict anti-illegal immigration law.
Among those arrested were Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales and the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, minister of the UU Congregation of Phoenix. They were among 150 UUs, many from out of state, who came to Phoenix for actions in support of immigrant families on Thursday, July 29, the day Senate Bill 1070 went into effect. Opponents of SB1070 say it encourages racial profiling by police, although a federal judge issued an injunction July 28 that blocked several controversial provisions of the law.
UUs were among hundreds of people who swarmed into downtown streets, blocking traffic at midday in the vicinity of the Fourth Avenue Jail and the offices of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio, who calls himself "America's toughest sheriff," is a strong supporter of anti-immigrant legislation, launching workplace raids and authorizing the arrest and deportation of thousands of undocumented people.
Morales and Frederick-Gray were arrested as they blockaded the prisoner intake entrance at the jail with three other UUs and members of Puente, a Hispanic human rights group. One of those arrested at the jail entrance was Salvadore Reza, a Puente leader who came to the UUA General Assembly in Minneapolis in June to invite UUs to Phoenix to act in concert against SB1070. Most of the other UUs were arrested as they blocked a city street outside the sheriff's office several blocks away. Across the downtown area similar blockades were undertaken by other groups.
UUs were acting in support of local immigrant groups, including Puente, an affiliate of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. In all, more than 80 people were arrested Thursday.
The demonstrations went forward as planned, even though a federal judge blocked key parts of the law from going into effect, because a higher court could reverse that decision. As written, SB1070 would have authorized local police to check the immigration status of people already stopped or detained if a "reasonable suspicion" existed that they were undocumented; the law also would have made it a crime for undocumented workers to solicit or perform work. Under the new ruling, both provisions have been removed, although much of the law remains, including a part making it a misdemeanor to harbor or transport undocumented people.
Phoenix police and sheriff's deputies allowed the blockades to go on for one to two hours before arresting those who refused to move. Arrests began around noon on Thursday; prisoners were released overnight or Friday morning. Court appearances were set for some in mid-August. Most were charged with obstructing a public roadway and with failure to obey police, both misdemeanors.
Events started early on Thursday. Some UUs were at the State Capitol in Phoenix at 4:30 a.m. to march about a mile to Trinity Episcopal Cathedral for an interfaith worship service. UUs marched in support of a group of mostly Hispanic and Latino/a people who have held a daily vigil at the Capitol since SB1070 was approved in April. The vigil ended Thursday morning out of fear that some participants, who are undocumented, might be arrested.
The nearly two-hour service at the cathedral included Roman Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Muslim, Jewish, Unitarian Universalist, and nondenominational faith group representatives. A rainbow lit up the sky just before the service began, following a rainstorm that passed through overnight. A mariachi band participated in the service, as did a combined choir that included many UUs. During the service immigrant family members told stories of being separated from loved ones.
During the service, Frederick-Gray noted that her congregation includes families separated by deportations as well as the family of a police officer who was killed. She received strong applause when she said, "We must not be intimidated, and we must not be silent about where we stand. We must be clear that we stand on the side of love, that we stand on the side of family unity, that we stand for justice. We will not let more families be torn apart."
From the cathedral, UUs and others marched downtown, gathering in Cesar Chavez Plaza amid a complex of city and county government buildings, before beginning the blockade.
There were echoes of the 1960s civil rights movement in Phoenix. Tempie Taudte, from the UU Church of Tampa, Fla., says she was too busy graduating from college in the sixties to do anything. But at General Assembly this year she made a decision to come to Phoenix. "Now I have time, and I want to give back, in part because I didn't do anything then." On Wednesday she decided to risk arrest the following day. "It breaks my heart to know that families are being disrupted and parents taken away," she said. "I want the rest of the country to hear us. I'm also concerned that other states, including mine, will try to adopt something like this."
Taudte was indeed arrested Thursday when she sat down in the street and refused to move. After her release Friday afternoon she called her experience "life changing." She said she plans to go back to Florida and challenge her congregation to get even more active than it has been on immigration issues.
The Rev. Wendy von Zirpolo, minister of the UU Church of Marblehead, Mass., and president of UU Allies for Racial Equity, was arrested at the county jail with Morales and Frederick-Gray. The experience was "physically frightening," she said. "The experience validated much of what I understand about white privilege and racism." She said that while she experienced some roughness during the arrest and the jail experience was harsh, fellow inmates of color were treated far worse.
Held overnight in a cell with as many as 30 other women, von Zirpolo said the group bonded, even those people who had been arrested for other issues. "It was an unintended consequence of their strategy to disrupt our sleep by moving us around. Each time, we would share names and origins. We sang together, held those who needed to cry, demanded medical attention for our sisters in need, and most importantly, listened to each others stories. We made community."
The Rev. Gregory Scott Ward, minister of the UU Church of the Monterey Peninsula in Carmel, Calif., said being in jail changed him. "I no longer think I'm different from other people. I was surprised by how quickly one's humanity can be diminished when wearing prison stripes and the pink socks and pink underwear they make you wear. And how that humanity is restored when you find out that people are waiting for you when you come out."
UUs who had not been arrested held a late evening candlelight vigil outside the jail Thursday night, bringing a guitar and flute and singing songs in Spanish and English. A few people remained all night, to be there when fellow UUs were released from jail.
Unitarian Universalists were the most visible religious group in Phoenix. Many wore the yellow T-shirts of the UUA's Standing on the Side of Love campaign. UUA Moderator Gini Courter said, "On the street we were clearly identifiable as religious people. We lived our faith in a very public way. People were coming up to us and thanking us for being there."
As a consequence, Morales was in constant demand for interviews. Dea Brayden, special assistant to the president, said Morales was interviewed 15 times by local, national, and international media. After he was released from jail, Morales participated in yet another press conference. When asked by a reporter if blocking streets is the best way to address human rights issues, he said, "We want to interfere with the incredible intimidation that is going on here. We as people of faith are called upon to take action to stop that. This is what happened in Selma. This is in the greatest tradition of America. While we are law-abiding citizens there are times when the laws are so immoral they need to be changed. That's what responsible citizens do."
Courter said this week's efforts build on the long-term work of UU congregations in Arizona, as well as local human rights groups like Puente and the National Day Laborer Networking Organization, in confronting racism and immigration injustices. She said, "I have seen us take our calling very seriously here. Our ministers and lay people have taken some real risks. Our work here is a substantial move toward living our UU values in a democracy. And there is so much more for us to know and learn."
"What we need to do now is build capacity to do this work," Courter said. "We need congregations to take seriously the fact that their delegates at General Assembly this year chose immigration reform as the next Study/Action Issue. We need congregations offering Spanish and learning hymns of other cultures and building partnerships with groups in their communities. There is such a critical role for Unitarian Universalism in this human rights struggle."
The Rev. Kenneth Brown, district executive for the UUA's Pacific Southwest District, which includes Arizona, said, "I have been doing this work for 45 years, and this was one of the most meaningful events I've been involved with. What we hope happens now is that the people who came here take this issue home and work on it there. This is the civil rights issue of our era."
The main action happened Thursday, but that wasn't the end of things. On Friday, members of Puente, the Ruckus Society, the Catalyst Project, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, and Let's Build a U.S. for All of Us, were arrested when they tried to prevent sheriff's deputies from conducting an immigration sweep. Salvador Reza was arrested again while watching events from across the street. For the second night in a row, Unitarian Universalists held a vigil outside the jail until Reza and others were released.
The UU Congregation of Phoenix and the Valley UU Church in Chandler, Ariz., served as headquarters for last week's events. Events were also held across the country, in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, in support of the protests against SB1070.
Delegates to the UUA's 2010 General Assembly voted to hold a "justice General Assembly" focused on immigration and human rights in Phoenix in 2012; they also passed a resolution condemning SB1070 and similar legislation in other states.
Dan Furmansky, campaign director of Standing on the Side of Love, the UUA's campaign against identity-based oppression, said that UUs made a real difference in Phoenix this week. "Media outlets across the world have images of SB1070 protests with our message of bright yellow 'Love' emblazoned everywhere. Our partners striving for immigrant justice know that their struggle is our struggle, and that we stand on the side of love with them for the long haul. Sheriff Joe Arpaio has met a new form of resistance that brought greater scrutiny to his actions. And those who were arrested showed that there are people of faith who feel morally compelled to put their bodies and their freedom on the line when injustice pronounces itself with an exclamation point and demands a response."
The Rev. David Miller, minister of the UU Fellowship of San Dieguito in Solana Beach, Calif., wrote in an e-mail after last week's events that he believed events in Phoenix marked a turning point for Unitarian Universalism. "It was phenomenal to be part of a well-coordinated effort of civil disobedience with Unitarian Universalists from every corner of this country."
He added, "I was personally thanked many times for being there—the desk clerk and maintenance person at the hotel, someone on the mayor's staff who I met at Starbucks, people in the street. Finally, as I stood on the street corner watching those who had volunteered to get arrested stake their claim to the street, I heard a young African-American girl turn to her mother and say, 'What are they doing?' Her mother replied, 'Do you remember what I told you about Dr. Martin Luther King? That is what they are doing.' I broke into tears.
"Growing up just after the Vietnam era . . . I have never truly felt a part of a great struggle for human rights that has moved my soul. Now, with the struggle for marriage equality and for basic human rights in Arizona, I feel so honored and called to do whatever I can. The desire to do this work is one of the primary reasons I felt called to the ministry. I am filled with deep gratitude for being a part of this act of love, and I have so much hope for our future."