Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Insult to Injury

Fifth in a series of posts about the January UUA Board meeting

Cesar Lopez is no ordinary community organizer. Though come to think of it, I have not met many ordinary community organizers. His combination of passion, knowledge, and humility enables him to provide a compelling case for what he believes in.

Cesar was one of our hosts at Tierra y libertad organization (TYLO), along with Imelda and Teresa. He clearly had more organizing experience, but was coaching and mentoring the two younger women, supporting them as part of the leadership of the organization. Radio Station KPFA (Berkeley) was in Tucson at the TYLO house at the same time we were to interview Cesar as part of their nationally syndicated program Flashpoints -- you can hear that interview here. Cesar starts 17 minutes into the one hour program, but it is all worth listening to, including the interview with two Tucson high school students about the elimination of ethnic studies.

Signed into law last May by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, the law makes it a crime to "promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals." According to the interviewed teens, the popular ethnic studies courses at Tucson High had made a huge difference in the lives of those who took them, significantly increasing standardized test scores and almost doubling graduation rates. The interview also contains a conversation with a teacher of ethnic studies who has refused to stop teaching them, and has been arrested along with several other teachers.

Next post: what else the UUA Board discussed

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Building a Bridge

Fourth in a series of posts about the January UUA Board meeting

Saturday morning included discussion with members of Puente (Spanish for bridge), a grassroots community-based groups devoted to justice, non-violence, interdependence and human dignity. We heard about success in boycotting the Diamondbacks and Budweiser, and how Sheriff Joe Arpiao, who had targeted North Phoenix with massive raids prior to the July 27 Day of Resistance, had not tried one since. Puente's organizers have been going door to door, signing up voters. They are filing complaints against the school that has allowed their children to be harassed by authorities looking for undocumented people, setting up English schools so they can defend themselves.

We also heard from 3rd Space, an immigrants rights group which is helping undocumented BLGTQ youth know their rights, and Tupac Enrique Acosta, from Tonatierra who is working to "create and sustain a Cultural Embassy of the Indigenous Peoples that will support local-global and holistic indigenous community development initiatives in education, culture, and economic development in accord with the principles of Community Ecology and Self Determination". All were moving, and I found Enrique Acosta's mix of spiritual presence and empowered defiance particularly eloquent.

One of the common themes from all of our speakers in the past week has been heightened expectations for what Unitarian Universalists will add to this effort. This is not just about a "Justice GA" in 2012 in which several thousand UUs parachute in, do stuff, and then go home. We have started something -- our partners are stretched even thinner than our local congregations and UUA staff are. They -- and our UU partners from traditionally marginalized groups -- are looking to us to fulfill the promises we painted in May and July with hundreds of yellow T-shirts. We have begun to build this bridge -- do we have the will to strengthen and use it?

Friday, January 21, 2011

How we are with each other

Third in a series of posts on the January UUA board meeting

One by one they stood up, giving their names, congregations, and when they had been arrested. Several talked about their strong conviction that this was a justice issue, how they could not NOT do it. There was a realization that being white made it easier, but mostly what made it easier was that there were at least 7 or 8 others standing on the sidewalks for every person who was arrested.

They knew they were not alone.

These were, of course, the Unitarian Universalists who were arrested in connection with the July 29 demonstration against SB 1070 in Arizona. Coming from across the country, those arrested included Arizona UUs, several from our district (Pacific Central), as well as President Peter Morales. Most of their charges have been dismissed.

This was Day 5 of a very different UUA Board meeting. The morning included meeting with heads of various activist organizations, including Somos America and ministers from other denominations who said to us "you don't know how much it meant to have you here. We have been discouraged. We have felt alone. All those yellow shirts told us we were not. You have inspired us."

In the evening the Board, GA2012 Accountability Committee, and members of the GA Planning Committee were joined by the board of the Pacific Southwest District and members of local congregations. We broke into small groups and talked about what made the idea of GA2012 different: it was a real chance to make a difference, to work together, to do something different. Yes, some people who normally came would not, but there would be space for others who had not attended before, especially our youth and young adults. And one by one we stood up to say what we needed to make this work for us: media attention, money, accessibility concerns in 120 degree heat, interfaith coalitions, singing, impeccable logistics skills, support to bring in youth and young adults, support for an immigration ministry, and opening our capacity for love: "we need a little bit of knock down roll around love".

And my favorite was the person who stood to say "this has the potential to be transformational or a failure. The difference will be how we are with each other".


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Me llamo Lourdes

Second in a series of posts about the January UUA Board Meeting

Her name was Lourdes. We met her at the comedor (eating area) in Nogales, where she was spending her third month, first as a deportee, then as a volunteer. She was desperate to get back home.

"Home" was California, where she had a 9 year old son and 14 year old daughter. She had lived in California for nearly 20 years -- without documentation. An aunt was caring for her two children.

Hers was one of many stories we heard in this border town, where hundreds of people are deported daily from around the United States. The couple from Guatemala, who would try again to cross that very night, the woman whose 8 year old daughter had been sexually abused, the 60 year old man who had lived in Chicago since he was a child.

Between UUA Board members and local Tucson congregation members, over 40 people spent two intense days talking to migrants and various groups who worked with those migrants -- No Mas Muertes, a ministry of the UU Church of Tucson; the Samaritans, who left food and water in the desert for those who crossed; Tierra y libertad organization, "dirt-roots" organizing for the barrios in South Tucson, and the hard-working public defenders who described the inhumanity and indignities of Operation Streamline. Operation Streamline is our tax dollars at work, designed to wage "war on terrorism" by prosecuting border crossings with mandatory jail sentences, under the illusion that this will deter someone whose children need food, or whose mother needs medicine. Currently over half of all Federal prosecutions are small scale immigration offenders -- nearly all of them are solely for crossing the border without papers. This means prosecution of serious offenses like violent crimes, forgery, larceny, and theft have decreased as the courts are clogged with migrants. And the cost is astronomical -- $7-$10 million per month in Arizona. In Texas alone the incarceration costs since 2005 have been $1.2 billion.

The beneficiary of this is the Correction Company of America, who is building the prisons and according to our hosts, helped write Arizona SB1070.

Most striking to me was the dehumanizing of migrants as the "other". We heard Border Patrol referring to them as "bodies". Operation Streamline runs 60-70 people through the court together, in chains at their ankles, waists, and hands. They show up in the clothes they crossed in, without showers, days or weeks later. Having eaten little, and with shoelaces and belts taken as standard procedure, it is not unusual for a migrant to approach to bench and lose their trousers -- and their dignity. Immigration attorneys are assigned as many as 80 clients at a time, leaving them little opportunity to do other then tell them their basic rights.

And it is not working. According to Heather Williams, who runs the Public Defenders office in Tucson, 30 days in jail is not about to scare people who brave robbery, rape, or death in a desert crossing.

There were several posters on the wall of the comedor, warning people not to cross. It included the one at the top of this post -- each of the red dots is where a body -- not alive -- was found.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Walking North

First in a series of posts about the January UUA Board Meeting. A similar version of this post is appearing on the UUA Board blog.

On Monday, January 18, 14 members of the UUA Board of Trustees will walk across the border with other UUs and members of the group No Más Muertes (No More Deaths, a ministry of the UU Congregation of Tucson) to Nogales, Mexico, where we will speak with migrants and just-deported migrants. The afternoon includes a panel discussion with human rights and immigration rights activists, and the next day will find some of us in court, observing the deportation process, and some of us back in Nogales, serving the same groups of people we saw the day before. On Wednesday we return to Tempe and the start of the January Board meeting, part of it joint with the 2012 GA Advisory Team. Chaired by (Rev.) Leslie Takahashi Morris, this team was convened to represent many of the stakeholders in a “justice GA” and reports to both the board and the GA Planning Committee.

The Board meeting includes time with several immigration rights groups and local Unitarian Universalist congregations. The events in Tucson of January 8, in which 6 people were murdered, and a US representative is still in critical condition, add both deliberation and urgency to these meetings. Many of our local congregants knew Representative Giffords and other victims of the shooting, and worked on her campaign. We all shared the shock expressed by President Peter Morales that day.

The immigration issue has become more and more personal for me. As posted previously in this blog, reading “The Death of Josseline” forced me to abandon my own “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding many of the service people I come into contact with. Many of them are illegal, including one who is college-educated from El Salvador, fled because her father and his family were targeted by crime gangs, and spent 10 days in jail when she was caught crossing the border to the United States illegally.

When they let her go, she kept on walking north.

Next post: how we expect to spend 60 hours in Board meetings