Thursday, June 17, 2010

Memory and Protest


First I should say that I was not one of the people in this beautiful line of activists putting their bodies on the line to demand immigration reform that protects the rights and dignity of immigrants -- not this time, anyway. But some of them are my friends, and I am so proud them.

This protest took place on Tuesday, here in Denver (WashPost article w/a few pics here, best local story here). We marched from the capitol through downtown to the Federal building where the immigrant court is. A couple hundred of us marched a looped picket line on the sidewalk while 14 walked into the street which the police had blocked off on each end of the block. Most were SEIU staff, with a few local activists as well.


There they knelt and chanted and sang, and declined to leave when approached by the police.


They were then arrested one by one, placed on a police bus, and taken to the jail for processing.


In case we got too rowdy (or whatever, who the hell knows) the guy below was standing by:

That's a tear gas rifle. There were children not ten yards from him. Would he really have used that? Or was he just there to terrorize us? This was a planned arrest, the organizers met with the police beforehand. I guess at a minimum he was there to remind us who is in charge in the Empire.

Someone asked me if the protest was peaceful, and I responded, well, the police didn't beat up anybody this time, so I guess so. One of the local news stations reported that the protest was not peaceful because people got arrested. So non-violently putting your body on the line for justice is not peaceful? Hmm.

Anyway. The whole event was beautiful, powerful. As we marched the chanting was loud and energetic and just built up as we looped around the sidewalk. So much outpouring of Spirit for these brave folk. After the arrests many of us waited outside the jail for everyone to be released, which they were, all as a group, near 11pm. The group keeping vigil was a wonderful blend of youth and, er, not quite youth activists. We prayed and sang together and cheered everyone when they were released.

The 14 were charged with obstructing the street (see above about the police having already blocked the street...) and failure to obey a lawful order. Now comes the rest of the process.

The immigrant rights movement is stepping up its presence all over the country. As we say, we've marched, we've visited the capitol, we've met with Obama, we've met with our legislators, we've written letters, we've signed petitions, we've made phone calls, we've done EVERYTHING ELSE, and NOTHING is happening to create dignified and just immigration reform.

Sorry, that's not true. Things are happening. Deportations (with no guarantee of due process) are increasing. Detentions are increasing. Hate crimes against Latinos are increasing. Border enforcement (an expensive, completely ineffective policy) is increasing (even though crime in border states has declined drastically in recent years). Border deaths of migrants crossing the desert are up 30% over this time last year (even though border crossings are down). More useless walls are being built on the southern border (pushing people into ever-more-remote areas of the desert). Hate speech is increasing. Families are ripped apart and live in desperate fear now more than ever. Police departments utilizing 287(g) agreements (which permit local police to function as immigration enforcement) are increasing. Immigrant worker exploitation is increasing.

Oh, and SB1070 et. al. happened in Arizona. This weekend in Colorado there's a rally by right-wingers to support that law.

Meanwhile, the President and Congress think maybe they'll get to this issue next year, in spite of the fact that Obama promised the movement he would pass reform his first year in office. Oh, and he promised he would be better on immigration than his predecessor, but the opposite is actually true.

So the movement is stepping things up. Civil disobedience in various forms is happening all across the country -- arrests, marches, fasting. What is going to take? Many more bodies on the line -- citizen-privileged bodies, undocumented bodies, white bodies, brown bodies, men's bodies, women's bodies, youth's bodies, all kinds of bodies.

As St. Paul says, "I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect." (Rom 12:1-2)

So that's the protest part. Here's the memory part.


The photo above is at the intersection of 15th and Stout, downtown. We were coming up 15th and I turned to my friend S. and said, "Uh...do you know the march route?"

"Yeah, I think we're going up 15th and turning at Stout."

"15th and Stout? Seriously?"

"Yeah, why?"

I just gave her a look, and then it dawned on her. 15th and Stout was the intersection of the 2007 columbus day arrests. She smiled wryly and said, "A little PTSD, maybe?" We laughed.

We stood at that intersection waiting for the light to change. I remembered...I always remember when I go by there, but this was the first time to actually *march* through there, the police carefully keeping us on the sidewalk with their special keeping-us-in-our-place vehicle.

This was the first protest I've been to since then where civil disobedience was planned. (Uh, I was too scared to go downtown during the DNC in '08, so I missed all the police violence then). And it was downtown, so it would be the same police squads as dealt with us.

I had lots of feelings about all that (primarily anxiety and fear), and marched right into them anyway. Who would I see? How would I respond? What would they do? How would I keep focused?

There was more police presence along the march route and at the Federal Building than all the police I saw when I marched in Phoenix a couple of weeks ago protesting SB1070 -- a march of at least 200,000 people. On Tuesday we were 200-300.

I marched anyway. Look, my body still hurts. I still hurt. I still get nervous around police and trust them not at all, even when the protest is "planned" and they were met with beforehand. S. was not kidding when she mentioned PTSD (she was pulled out of our circle by her neck, and I saw the bruises there 6 hours later).

But I marched anyway. There is no other place for my body to be, than stepping out of the place its white, well-educated, citizen-privileged being has been assigned, and to put it in the street marching with, as my amiga Robyn says, "the browns." So I acknowledge the pain and the fear and the anxiousness and the fact that I keep forgetting to breathe, and I keep marching.

Sure enough, there were cops I recognized, especially the one on the left, below:


That's the commander. She testified at my trial, and she lied (demonstrably w/video and photos), and it didn't matter.

I don't know how to explain how I felt but as we kept marching by her suddenly I thought, "They wanted to keep me out of the street. They tried to stop me. BUT I AM STILL HERE."

So there.

I could feel myself trying to come out of my body as the police approached the bold line of justice kneeling in the street. Part of me terrified and crying out "no no no" but I gulped breaths and kept marching, kept chanting. And then I started just hollering at the top of my lungs. I don't know where that sound came from, but it was somewhere deep inside and beyond me. I can only say it was Spirit. I hollered, and shouted "Gente! Fuerza!" and hollered more and sang "We shall not be moved" and kept marching and praying and hollering. All that hollering -- really, it was more like a scream, but it was not a scream of fear, it was a cry of strength and Spirit and power and it kept me present and rooted in my body.

It's not like I thought, "Hmm, maybe I shall holler and that will help." No, it just started flying out of my throat (which is still sore) and I can't really explain it.

Afterwards I hung out at the jail. My church donated water and food for the folks keeping vigil and for the arrestees upon release. I remember how good it felt to be welcomed by loving folks and good food (compared to jail food, a bagel with peanut butter was damn-near gourmet) and wanted to provide that for others. I hung with my friend the fabulous street medic Z who told me crazy jokes and kept me laughing. Kept me healing.

Here's what I know: Stepping out of place is hard, it can be risky and painful -- the Empire will punish you -- and the healing can be a long time coming (if you haven't figured out by now if you've been hanging out at the Window very long at all).

But look at that top photo again.

Stepping out of place is beautiful, and powerful, and Spirit-filled. And I'm going to keep doing it. I have good people around me, and we are fighting for the love of our lives.



is there no mastermind
of modern day
who can blueprint a plan
to make love stay
sturdy and weatherproof
ushering in a new revolution

at the drawing board the hopeful ones still try
how can we help it
when we're fighting for the love of our lives

5 comments:

  1. It was the prophetic breathing and hollering of the prophet who guided by the Spirit, prophesied life and hope in the valley of dry bones . Keep engaging your prophetic breathing you faithful, beloved one.
    N.

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  2. Towanda, this is such a powerful reflection. Glad to be there with you on that day, glad to hold vigil with you the other day, and to glad to hear about your resistance on this day. Keep stepping out of place!
    G

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  3. I know the experience was powerful and I'm so grateful for your raw, poignant, and theological reflection on the experience so that the rest of us can learn and experience too. Thanks for being who you are and for encouraging the rest of us to step out of place.

    Here's a blessing for you from "To Bless the Space Between Us:"

    "For Courage"
    When the light around you lessens
    And your thoughts darken until
    Your body feels fear turn
    Cold as stone inside,

    When you find yourself bereft
    Of any belief in yourself
    And all you unknowingly
    Leaned on has fallen,

    When one voice commands
    Your whole heart,
    And it is raven dark,

    Steady yourself and see
    That it is your own thinking
    That darkens your world,

    Search and you will find
    A diamond-thought of light,

    Know that you are not alone
    And that this darkness has purpose;
    Gradually it will school your eyes
    To find the one gift your life requires
    Hidden within this night-corner.

    Invoke the learning
    Of every suffering
    You have suffered.

    Close your eyes.
    Gather all the kindling
    About your heart
    To create one spark.
    That is all you need
    To nourish the flame
    That will cleanse the dark
    Of its weight of festered fear.

    A new confidence will come alive
    To urge you toward higher ground
    Where your imagination
    Will learn to engage difficulty
    As its most rewarding threshold!

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  4. Towanda, thanks so much for this blog post. I read it yesterday and have been thinking about it since. Is justice that elusive? And, how do we (yes, i'm including myself) use power in a way to create a different paradigm, a more just paradigm where all persons flourish? is tuesday a way of fighting for the love(s) of our lives? and, does that sort of expression help create the necessary change? i *hope* so!

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  5. Oh, Towanda, this is so beautiful and so powerful. Thank you thank you thank you.

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