Sunday, August 01, 2010

Melissa's witness

Dehumanizing abuses and rampant racism--that's what the Rev. Ms. Melissa Carvill-Ziemer found in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's jail, as she reports in her FaceBook post, "First Thoughts from AZ". I repeat it here with her permission:

My deep gratitude goes out to everyone who has been part of our efforts here in AZ. I sing praises to Puente and the Catalyst Project and the Ruckus Society and the Standing on the Side of Love team. I sing songs of joy for the members of the local UU congregations who provided so much support, for the UUs from across the country who came here to be a part of this witness, and for the UUs everywhere who have been with us in spirit these last long and intense days. I offer special songs of gratitude to my partner Ellen who has managed tech support for me while caring for our foster children, our family members, especially Ellen's mother Ellie who traveled to OH to help Ellen and my family members who have been driving me all around Phoenix, and the members of my congregation for their support.

Participating in the civil disobedience action in front of the Wells Fargo building on Thursday, I felt completely grounded in the values of our faith. In the beginning we chanted loudly proclaiming our support for human rights for all. In time the chanting gave way to song and then songs and then finally to one song which we sang over and over and over agian. "When I breathe in, I breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love." I could see and hear the UUs on the support team standing on the sidewalk behind the curtain of police singing with us, sending us love.

As I was being loaded into the police van wearing my clerical collar and with my hands cuffed behind my back, I coud hear another chant erupt on the side. "Arrest Arpaio, not the clergy!" Later as I sat in the jail awaiting booking I met the man who was responsible for leading that chant. Miguel (not his real name) asked me to tell his story. He came to be part of the support team in Phoenix. He was not intending to get arrested. He stood on the sidewalk chanting and cheering while those of us in the Wells Fargo intersection action were arrested. Once the last person was taken away he ran over to the 4th Street jail to cheer those involved in the action there. The police issued an order for people to disperse and before he could move he was grabbed by several officers. They held him hard and directed him toward the jail entrance. He was hurting so he started yelling loudly "I am not resisting arrest" over and over again. They told him that he was and once they got into the jail builidng and out of the eye of the cameras and the crowds, they threw him to the ground and kicked him repeatedly in the ribs while one of the officers yelled racial epithets at him.

By contrast, when I was arrested, the officers could not have been more courteous. They gave us warnings over a period of time. Before they began arrests, they told us they understood we had a point to make and they wanted us to understand they had a job to do, but if we complied they would try to be gentle and orderly in the process. What is the difference? Granted we were arrested by diffeent authorities, but it seems obvious to me that I was the beneficiary of white privilege while Miguel was the victim of racism.

During our long night in the county jail we talked with many women in the general prison population. Over and over we heard stories of racism leading to arrest and subsequent mistreatment by the police. We even witnessed some of that mistreatment with our own eyes. We saw prisoners being denied their medications even when they pled for the drugs they needed. We saw a woman attacked by a gaurd when she swore at an officer in frustration. We exprienced their tactics of marching people from cell to cell every few hours in what seems a stategy of disorienting, intimidating and fatiguing the prisoners.

There is no denying that jail is a mean place. The cells are cold, brightly lit cement tanks which are clearly designed to be as uncomfortable as possible. The place is dirty. The food is bad. But those of us who were arrested in the protest were keenly aware that we were there by choice and that our confiement was temporary. We had the benefit of support from our fellow protestors. We knew there were people outside rallying and praying for us and that lawyers were working on our defense. We knew we would soon be returning to our families, our jobs and our ordinary lives. We sang together and told jokes to pass the time. In the morning we prayed. Holding hands we offered a prayer of gratitude for every single person who dares, in whatever way they are able, to take a stand on the side of love. And we offered a prayer of humility, knowing that Latinos/Latinas and other people of color would continue to targeted with increasing vigilance here in AZ after we all go home.

Our actions here in AZ were imporant. I believe we made a difference. But the work must continue. With faith we will stay strong. Together we will keep on bending the moral arc of the universe a little bit more towards justice. Si se puede!

In faith,


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