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Seeking Justice in Phoenix, Then and Now
Submitted by Rita Butterfield on Mon, 06/18/2012 - 10:27am.
Photo 2010 courtesy of Standing on the Side of Love.
I've been looking forward to General Assembly this year, especially the chance to talk with so many UUSC members and supporters about our work promoting human rights around the world. I'm also eager to return to Phoenix for the cause of justice.
On July 29, 2010, I joined dozens of other UU protestors in the intersection in front of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's plush offices to protest Arizona's anti-immigrant law S.B. 1070. It was very hot. Police were everywhere. A young seminarian sitting led us in singing, "When I breathe in, I breathe in peace; when I breathe out, I breathe out love." We continued chanting for 40 minutes, as our group grew ever smaller while we were arrested one at a time.
At one point, a young Latino man took my picture. I smiled at him as I sang. He leaned in closer and whispered in my ear with tears in his voice and a heavy accent: "Thank you. I will never forget you." His words assured me that I was doing the right thing. That young man's gratitude helped sustain me during the 27 hours I spent in Sheriff Arpaio's jail.
The food was terrible. Arpaio prides himself spending only 87 cents per day per prisoner. It was impossible to sleep. It was cold and there were no blankets. The bright fluorescent lights were kept on, there was no place but the concrete floor to lie down, and the guards kept inexplicably moving people between the three cells that held us. We learned from those who had been in jail before that toilet paper has many uses. A full roll makes a pretty good pillow. Toilet paper can be wrapped around bare arms to create a sweater of sorts, or unraveled to create a thin but better-than-nothing mattress.
The Phoenix police who arrested us had been surprisingly polite. The county deputies who guarded us were anything but. Whenever we were moved from our cells, we were shouted at and made to stand against the wall. I found it difficult to be treated with such disrespect and those feelings made me all the more aware of my privileged place in our society. It is a luxury, I realized, to expect to be treated with respect by the police, which I normally take for granted.
Throughout the afternoon and night, a variety of women were brought in and out of our cell. Some recognized us from the TV news. They were impressed by such "celebrities," and grateful that a group of middle-aged church ladies would stand up for their community. They were, with only one or two exceptions, women of color. I definitely learned some things about racism in the Maricopa County Jail.
I didn't go to Phoenix to learn about jail. I went because of a law that scapegoats immigrants and Latinos. I went because of an immigration system that separates families, that makes people in some communities afraid to call the police. I went because my ancestors came here on a boat a century and a half ago and they too were made into scapegoats. But there was no law insisting that they be deported, and so my grandparents were born citizens of the United States and I am an American. I went because each year hundreds of people die crossing the Sonora Desert. I chose to be arrested because my faith calls me to proclaim injustice when I see it and to offer hope when I can — which is exactly what UUSC is all about. See you in Phoenix!