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An Arizona Chronology: One Person’s Story of a Day Protesting SB 1070 in Arizona

August 6, 2010

First Person:
By Rev. Colin Bossen
Unitarian Universalist Society

    Thursday began with a ride over to the interfaith service at the Trinity Cathedral. Rev. Susan Frederick-Grey was the only Unitarian Universalist clergy person who spoke despite our large numbers in attendance. Perhaps this was appropriate given our minority status in Arizona. However, it was noticeable that other denominations had a larger role in the service despite their smaller presence on the street.

    Overall the service was fine. The best bit for me was the sermon by the Catholic Auxiliary Bishop. He described Jesus as an undocumented immigrant. Attending the service was a good way to center before participating in the rally and civil disobedience.

    After the service I found my way to the rally in front of the Wells Fargo building where Sheriff Joe Arpaio has his offices. Once there I listened to some speeches and some songs by Unitarian Universalists and others. Eventually we hooked up with the people who were coordinating civil disobedience. They offered us a rough outline of the plan and then helped us organize ourselves to occupy the intersection at 1st and Washington.

    Once we occupied 1st and Washington it took about two hours for the police to arrest us. As usual they managed to obstruct traffic far more than we possibly could have.

    The police presence shut down the light rail. Gradually, they used riot police to cordon off the street from the sidewalks. At some point several of us decided to sit down. We had mats to sit on that protected us from the heat of the pavement. We sat for probably about 40 minutes while the police arrested people.

    The group sitting down was made up entirely of Unitarian Universalists and at some point we started singing the ‘Meditation on Breathing’ together. It is an excellent thing to sing as you are getting arrested. It really centered me and removed any anxiety I might have otherwise felt about the situation. As any good neuroscientist would argue, the singing put me into synch with my fellow protesters and in those moments I feel that I experienced a sort of sacred unity with them.

    When the actual arrest took place the arresting officers were polite as can be. I imagine that this had to do with the fact that we were surrounded by the media and that I am a white clergyman. Nonetheless it was not quite what I expected. The arresting officer apologized for arresting me, gave me time to make sure that all of my personal possessions were handed off to a support person and tried to make me as comfortable as possible, my cuffs were not very tight and I was placed in an air conditioned police car as soon as possible.

    Once we were arrested we were taken to the County Jail for processing. Because of the volume of protestors–I am told that over 80 of us were arrested on Thursday–processing took quite sometime.

    Before the Sheriff’s Department arrested the protestors they formed up what looked like three phalanxes of riot police behind the garage doors of the jail–the part of the jail the protestors were blocking. Then they opened the doors and snatched the people who were either locked down or participating in the soft block.

    I could tell that the Sheriff’s Department handled people more roughly than the Phoenix Police Department. They were not too gentle with the people who had locked down and I noticed that they were making people who had participated in soft block, including UUA President Peter Morales and Puente organizer Salvador Reza, lie on their backs.

    I learned later that the Sheriff’s Department had snatched a few protestors who had not been committing civil disobedience from the crowd. At least one of these they brutalized. He was thrown to the ground and kicked all over the body by the Sheriff’s deputies. I don’t think it is a coincidence that he was a Latino man.

    While all of this was going on we were taken into the jail for booking. The entire booking process took several hours. We were processed with the general populace. For the most part the general populace consisted of people who had failed to pay traffic fines or had been drunk in public. There were some exceptions, most notably a couple of guys who were being held for armed robbery and a frightfully tough looking Neo-Nazi skinhead.

    The purpose of jail seems to be to strip away an individual’s identity and humanity. Each stage of the booking process removed a little of one’s humanity. Shoelaces and, in my case my clergy collar, had to be removed. Other property was also confiscated.

    We were subject to a general cursory medical examination, and then given over to someone who began to process our paperwork. Once our paperwork was processed our mugshots were taken. At that point we were sent to wait at the end of a concrete bench until there was a room in a holding tank for us. Once there was room in the holding tank we were made to take off our shoes, searched and put through a metal detector.

    And then we were in a holding cell. There were phones that we could call collect from. I used the phone to call the legal hotline and report both my arrest and the police brutality that took place. It got pretty crowded in the holding cells pretty quickly.

    My experiences for the next day or so can only be described as Kafkaesque. Jail is designed to be a disorienting and dehumanizing experience. There are no clocks anywhere so you never know what time it is. There are no windows to the outside so you also cannot know whether it is day or not. Furthermore, the jail in Phoenix is designed to make it difficult for you to sleep. Each holding cell has two concrete bench divided every two feet or so by metal bars. This means that it is impossible to lie down except for on the floor. And forget about privacy. The toilet, such as it is, is placed in the middle of the cell. If you use it everyone else can watch you while you do.

    Every hour or two we were moved between cells. The purpose for these moves always seemed arbitrary and the moves consistently resulted in people being split into different groups. Eventually though most of the male protesters were in placed into one cell. The talk relatively quickly turned into a seminar on the issues in Arizona led by Tupac Enrique, the coordinator for Tonatierra.

    Tupac placed SB1070 within the broader context of the conquest of the continent by Europeans and the ongoing attempt to obliterate the indigenous cultures of the Americas. He pointed out that the peoples of Arizona and Mexico have been moving across the border between what is now the United States and Mexico for thousands of years. The border artificially separates families and cultures. SB1070 is an attempt to once again remove people from their ancestral lands for as, my mentor Carlos Cortez was always fond of reminding me, Mexicans are Indians and Indians are Mexican.

    During this seminar Sheriff Arpaio appeared in our cell. Unfortunately we were so engrossed in our conversation that we did not notice him until he had actually entered the cell. This meant that we did not have time to really come up with a plan as to how we wanted to engage. Therefore, people responded to him when he talked to them. He was able to engage one of the older Unitarian Universalist men in some polite political banter. The subtext of that conversation was clear enough. It was, “Hey, white dude, why are you in jail here for all these Mexicans? Can’t you see that you and I have more in common than you have in common with those Mexicans?”

    He also engaged one of the young anarchists in a little tete-a-tat. Here, unfortunately, he was able to get a rise out of the young anarchist. This was obviously exactly what he wanted.

    Arpaio is one of these people whose ego fills whatever room he enters. It is sickening feeling to be in his presence and it was clear that he came to us to gloat. It made him feel powerful to have us in his grasp. It was an opportunity for him to try and intimidate us.

    If I had noticed him before he entered our cell I think that I would have tried to organize everyone to be silent in front of him. I know that being met with silence, with a refusal to engage, would have deflated him. I understand that the other groups of protestors refused to engage with him when he came near them–most of them sang instead of answered his questions–and I wish we had had the presence of mind to do the same.

    After our encounter with Arpaio we were moved to the end of the hall to the “Dress Out” room where we were told to take off our street clothes and given stripped prison uniforms to wear. Our prison uniforms came with pink underwear and pink socks. The undergarments were clearly meant to humiliate us.

    Once we were dressed out we were shackled together in groups of six and marched off to a cell block. There were a total of twelve of us who were taken off to the cell block.

    A minor blessing meant that I found myself in the same cell as Tupac and we continued our conversation from earlier. He wanted to know about the history of Unitarian Universalism. We spent a great deal of time talking about creeds and covenant and how that tied into the history of empire.

    Eventually both Tupac and I ran out of energy to converse and tried to catch some sleep on the thin plastic mattress, towels and flimsy blankets we had been given. We both probably got about six hours of sleep. At probably about six in the morning the door to our cell opened and we were given another meal of unappetizing bread, sugary peanut butter, partially desiccated oranges and colored fructose water. After we ate our food we were told to assemble in the common area of the cell block, re-shackled and transported down one level to a holding cell to await our time in court.

    We waited in the holding cell for about an hour before being hustled into the court room. We were then reunited with, but not allowed to sit by, our fellow female demonstrators.

    For reasons that are not clear to me our volunteer attorneys were not present when we arrived in court. This led to a great deal of confusion and anxiety while we tried to figure out what to do as a group without being thrown out of the court of talking.

    Eventually people figured out that we should all be pleading “Not Guilty.” This decision was no doubt made easier by the ridiculous plea deal that the prosecutor was offering us. It was 40 hours of community service, a $460 fine and paying for our jail costs. Given how ridiculous those terms were it was not hard to decide to plead “Not Guilty.”

    Once we had entered our plea the prosecutor tried to argue that we should all be released on $500 bail. The judge decided that pretty much everyone should be released on ‘OR’ or Own Recognizance (i.e. no bail).

    From the court room we were carted to another holding cell where we waited for another couple of hours before we were finally given our clothes and effects and released. There was a lovely jail solidarity group waiting us when we got out and we emerged to cheers. We were given water, the opportunity to call our partners and then taken to one of the local Unitarian Universalist churches where we were fed and reunited with our stuff.

    At that point I went back to my home stay, took a shower and had a nap. A little later we returned to the church to participate in a Taize service. When we arrived I learned that Salvador had been re-arrested. Sheriff Arpaio claimed that Salvador had violated the conditions of his release and personally arrested him after he had attended (but not participated in) an action where ten activists had blocked access to one of the Sheriff’s jails.

    In response to the arrest, as a group everyone headed over to a solidarity vigil that was taking place outside of Arpaio’s tent city jail. I spent about two hours there and while I was there I learned a little bit more about the conditions that Salvador was being held in. Apparently he was being kept in a van with no air conditioning. In the Arizona heat such an action is akin to torture.

    The next morning and early afternoon I relaxed and caught up on church work. Then I hooked up with some of the members of the Phoenix branch of the Industrial Workers of the World. After a couple of hours, Tupac and his daughter came to pick me up to go eat dinner. He gave me a ride back to my home stay and we parted ways with a promise to keep in touch.

    That more-or-less completes a chronology of my experiences in Arizona. Over the next few weeks I hope to try to write something about recasting SB1070 as an assault on indigenous peoples and something else about my experiences in jail. Sunday I am preaching on the transformative power of love and the situation in Arizona.

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