I have a decision to make and I am looking for some common sense to help me understand what to do.
On Oct. 29, my name will be called at the Maricopa County Court in Phoenix and a judge will ask me how I plead.
I was arrested July 29 for blocking a thoroughfare — demonstrating in the street – against the SB1070 law that went into effect that day. I went to Arizona with 120 Unitarian Universalist ministers at the request of colleagues serving there. We were being called to witness racial discrimination and cultural tension that surrounded the immigration issue.
Eighty-three of us were arrested, including 40 from my denomination. I hadn’t gone to Arizona planning to demonstrate or to get arrested. I just went to learn. I met with Catalyst, an anti-oppression group, and Puente, a Latino rights organization. We studied the immigration issue, the laws and the impact they would have on the Latino community.
Still undecided on my plan, I attended the morning interfaith service at a downtown church where the local Catholic bishop preached a sermon reminding us that Jesus was an undocumented worker with a message for people to love beyond regional, religious or racial affiliations.
Several hundred Unitarian Universalists poured out of the church and marched to demonstrate at the courthouse wearing bright yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” shirts.
We are a mostly white denomination joining 1,500 demonstrators, mostly people of color. It was the look of surprise, amazement and hope on the faces of so many Latinos that ultimately convinced me to stand with them in solidarity. They didn’t know what to make of us. Neither did the media.
“You are not Latino. Why are you here?” they said, seeing my clerical collar.
I replied, “Because when fear gets written into law, someone has to stand on the side of love.”
“There are hundreds of police with riot gear. Aren’t you afraid?” they said.
“Yes, I’m afraid. But I’m more afraid of living in a country where police stop and arrest people based on the color of their skin. I’m afraid of living in a country where those who stand in fear of discrimination are allowed to stand alone.”
Having grown up in East Los Angeles, I thought I knew about racial tension. I had seen how immigration issues compromised families of many of my friends, and the unfair treatment my Latino friends got in school. I thought I knew about what racism looked like and where it lived. But I discovered that you could fill an entire jail with what I didn’t know.
We’ve heard a lot about how undocumented workers come to this country out of arrogant disregard of the immigration system. But we fail to realize that the people of Central and South America have been migrating back and forth for thousands of years — long before the United States existed.
We fail to realize that by diverting the Colorado River, we destroyed much of the farmland in Mexico. We fail to consider the impact of flooding Mexican markets with the U.S. surplus of corn. Or the effect of U.S. corporations building factories in Mexico that they fill with cheap labor as they dump toxic waste and remove their products and profits. We don’t think about how drug cartels from Mexico, responsible for unspeakable crimes, exist only because the market for the drugs is here.
In the 27 hours I spent in jail, I saw three prisoners of color for every white prisoner. I saw how they were treated with more aggression and intimidation. I saw how they were still in jail when we were released. I learned more about immigration and institutional and systemic racism in those two days than in my lifetime of reading newspapers.
I will be asked how I plead next week. I was hoping that some common sense would help make it clear. But as Albert Einstein said, “Common sense is just the collection of prejudices we acquire by the age of 18.”
I’ve decided to plead not guilty. Not because I have any delusions of grandeur that my case can fix a broken immigration system. But it can continue the conversation. It can give strength to people too frightened to speak out.
And I hope it can help good sense become a little more common.
— The Rev. Greg Ward is senior minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula in Carmel, Calif.
He was arrested July 29 by Maricopa County Sheriff’s Deputies.