Hundreds of people surrounded us with signs and banners, chanting, bullhorns blaring: “Whose streets? OUR streets!” Friends brought us water and candy; little offerings to help ease the tensions. Police dressed in full riot gear lined up and advanced, one lockstep at a time. There was just one way this was going to end and it involved a trip to jail.
We took that street to protest the nation’s first and most notorious state immigration law, SB1070. Our target was the Phoenix headquarters of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on busy Central Avenue; a location that was pretty much guaranteed to draw attention.
ICE was in our sights because of its complicity in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s arrests of undocumented immigrants during his infamous sweeps that have targeted brown people indiscriminately, no matter what their status. ICE has deported over one million people since Obama took office, over 46,000 of which are working parents of U.S. citizen children. Thousands of these children have been placed into foster care because of the resultant destruction of families. Without ICE’s collaboration, Sheriff Joe’s notorious raids would be curtailed or severely limited.
Presidential administrations have always had discretion about how vigorously they enforce immigration laws and Obama’s has turned into a deportation machine on steroids. As a lifelong Democrat and more recently a human rights activist, I was sick of trying to reconcile the discrepancies. I finally felt it was time for action.
A large anti-SB1070 civil rights march had been planned to take place on April 25th, the day the Supreme Court heard Governor Jan Brewer’s challenge to the enjoined parts of SB1070. The law never went into effect due to being struck down by lower courts before it could become enacted in 2010. The news emerging from the hearing on the day of the march was not good and tensions were rising as people anticipated the worst from the decision expected in June.
SB1070’s passage was the final straw that ended my timidity about getting involved and speaking out against what I perceived as unjust laws. Even as a child I remember admiring the few white folks who had the courage to march with Martin Luther King, Jr and later I learned about the Freedom Riders and white allies who braved the dangers of Klan violence in the deep south to help register voters. Those were my role models during my younger years and I realized it was time for today’s white allies against oppressive laws to step up and provide the same role models that guided me. So when I was asked if I would be willing to participate in civil disobedience that would result in my arrest and detention in the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) dreaded Fourth Avenue Jail in Phoenix, I hesitated only for a moment before saying, “I’m in.”
My hesitation was based on my underlying health issues. I have rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, both conditions that present challenges to me on a daily basis but that I also try to ignore as much as possible so they don’t dictate my life. I knew there would be some discomfort involved but I figured I’d get through it somehow.
I should have hesitated more because Arpaio’s jail is a very dangerous place. The list of deaths from beatings and Tasings by guards and medical neglect of inmates is long, depressing and has cost Maricopa County tens of millions of dollars in lawsuit settlements. The most recent was Marty Atencio, a Latino Gulf War veteran who suffered from bipolar disorder and who was repeatedly Tased and choked by MCSO guards last December and then left alone in a cell to die. The entire episode was captured on video and quickly went viral, ensuring yet another huge lawsuit against the county. Though the chances were small of anything like that happening to me, it was still something that I should have considered.