By Stevie K. Carmody, Intern Minister
Many months have passed since this protest, but the learnings have stuck with me, and the urgency of this call has not abated. Because of my short (3 hour) detention and the ensuing Federal Misdemeanor charge, I waited to offer something to this blog until after my court date had passed. On May 8th, I pleaded guilty in court to a charge of “nonconformity to the lawful orders of a federal agent.” Those detained and charged that day were ordered to pay a fine and perform community service. Here’s the story of that day, to complement Rev. Kathleen’s account on this blog, and offer my own reflections:
On December 10th, 2018, we gathered as faith leaders, and supporting activists and protesters, at the call of the American Friends Service Committee: “Love Knows No Borders”/”Amor No Conoce Fronteras”. There were over 300 of us there that Monday morning. We gathered to pray, and to sing, and to stand up for the rights of the migrants—who have arrived in our region from Central America—to seek asylum in our country. And we gathered to protest what all of us in the San Diego region have seen this Fall: the increased militarization of the border region… not just the new Concertina wire adorning the border fences and border entries, but the low-flying Border Patrol helicopters that sweep over the San Ysidro community at night, or the Border Patrol SUVs lurking outside the UCSD Medical Center’s Emergency Room entrance here in Hillcrest. And we gathered to protest the immorality of the border itself.
After a short vigil at the parking lot at Border State Park, we began this journey, about two miles, from the parking lot to the beach and then along the beach to the border fence. It was especially grounding to take that journey, preparing ourselves for the experience that lay ahead. Our tiny journey bore witness to the much longer journeys that people from Central America have been taking, seeking safety and hope in our country. Sometimes when we marched, we sang together. Other times, we marched solemnly, knowing that many migrants have lost their lives along the way.
Our hope was to march up to the wall, to offer a blessing at the border, for all those who have traveled to seek asylum. But instead, we were stopped short of our endpoint. As we made our way along the stretch of the beach, in careful lines of four, we could see border agents assembling in front of the wall.
I set out that day knowing that I wanted to participate in this witness and blessing. As we reached the point on the border between Federal land and State Park land (about 50 yards from the wall), we were standing in orderly, peaceful rows before the federal agents. The Federal agents would push forward their lines, shouting “Move! Move!” and we would step back—careful not to come in contact with any agents, lest we be charged with “assaulting an officer.”
At that moment, I was scared. There were about 100 of us standing before agents (with the rest of the protesters removed a ways), all of us having made a choice (and received direct action training) to possibly be arrested in an act of civil disobedience. Our denomination’s president, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, was among these “arrestables.” I was afraid because the federal agents were armored heavily and were carrying assault weapons. Even with our peaceable nature, there was an unpredictability in that moment.
It was our singing that bolstered me. “We are not afraid. We are not afraid. We will work for liberation ‘cause we know why we were made” (the Peace Poets original lyric, “I would die for liberation” was not lost on me). Our little cadre sang low, quietly, to one another gathered there. We switched between songs. I felt Spirit coming back, the presence accompanying me in that moment. I could remember again why I was here, and our larger intentions of meeting asylum-seekers with compassion.
Our line extended into the ocean, and I joined some folks at the front right at the shore. Now the federal agents were right before me. Some protestors—in the forward and back pushes from the federal agents—had already been “pulled through” and arrested: cuffed and hauled up the hill towards Friendship Park.
We were still hoping to pass through, and to make it to the wall, but it became more and more clear that wouldn’t be happening. The federal agents started to push more assertively, trying to push us back off the beach and back the way we had come. We were told not to step forward. Sometimes, in the push from the federal agents, religious leaders fell into the ocean or to the ground.
I was acutely aware of how the legal power of the federal agents was so disproportionately enforced. It does not escape my memory, the tear-gassing of families trying to cross the border just weeks earlier. And as I looked down the line, I saw how the federal agents targeted the religious leaders of colors, harassing them and trying to draw them out. And when those individuals were arrested, how one Muslim leader from Los Angeles’ face was smashed into the sand during the arrest.
I watched Rev. Ranwa Hammamy and Rev. Megan Dowdell arrested, members of my own faith. I remember the look on Ranwa’s face especially (we had shared the bus ride over together), and thought, “if Ranwa’s able to step forward, so must I.”
My own decision to step forward, when told not to, came from a place that I was here to protest the unjust laws represented by the border and the wall that stood before us. So I stepped forward. And a federal agent grabbed me, and yanked me through the line, and then brought me behind the line, handcuffed me, and brought me up the hill.
So much went into that step forward:
The songs and the prayers we sang to our hearts, that some stillness and clarity might enter.
The other clergy from our faith who stepped forward before me.
The relationships with organizers I had developed over the months leading up to the action.
The rationale I had discerned over the weeks leading up to the action, talking with people wiser than me in my community and listening carefully.
The non-violent direct action training we had received two days earlier, practicing how our bodies would move on that line.
The phone conversation with my parents, convincing them that getting arrested at a protest on the border was the right thing to do, and that it was going to be okay probably.
And with all that and more, I stepped forward. What a powerful thing to be grounded deeply, and to act from those values.
I tell this story in part to communicate just how much preparation and nurturing and discernment that move forward took. And all that it meant to me: to commit on behalf of my community to face injustice.
And as I reflect on the process I had to go through to get ready for that next move, another appreciation dawns on me: how much more will it take to nurture and support people in our faith communities taking their next move?—whatever it may be. I don’t mean the haphazard, every-day decisions and actions, but the new ones that take us closer to living into the world we dream about.
May we nurture, in our faith communities, our next moves.
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