The enduring image of General Assembly has long been thousands of arms raised in a convention center holding voting cards.
In one, hot June evening, that vision may have been indelibly replaced with another: thousands of arms, still raised, but holding battery-operated candles glowing against the black desert sky. Wedged together, shoulder to shoulder, more than 2,500 people sang, prayed, and shouted “Shut it down” at a vigil outside the notorious “Tent City” jail in Phoenix, Arizona.
It was the centerpiece public witness event at a new kind of Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly, a “Justice GA.” By vote of the delegates two years before, the Justice GA was to have minimal business to make room for public witness against the culture of cruelty against immigrants in Arizona that is spreading across the United States. For many of the 3,714 people who registered for the Phoenix assembly, the most notable events this year happened outside the convention center.
Unitarian Universalists twice gathered in Phoenix city parks. After the opening ceremony on June 20, they processed from the convention center to Heritage Square singing “Freedom Is Coming.” Members of local groups that had partnered with the UUA to plan Justice GA thanked UUs for coming to Arizona and told them to take home what they learned. And attendees ate and sang with local families and activists in a Friday night community gathering in Civic Space Park.
Justice GA invited Unitarian Universalists to look far beyond themselves. Six hundred people volunteered to help immigrants complete their citizenship paperwork at an off-site Naturalization/ Citizenship Fair, in conjunction with the Phoenix chapter of Mi Familia Vota and UURISE (Unitarian Universalist Refugee and Immigrant Services and Education), based in Vista, California. They assisted about 300 people with their naturalization paperwork and sent them home with study guides for their citizenship tests. UURISE gave all volunteers information about helping at citizenship workshops in their own communities when they go home. At the same time as the Naturalization/Citizenship Fair, UUs in the convention center filled 130 backpacks with supplies for local school children in need.
But it was at Tent City on Saturday night, June 23, where the UU presence made the most visible impact. Inmates behind the chain-link fences of the outdoor jail could hear the songs and the prayers of the thousands of UUs and community members. And newspapers around the world ran photos of people in yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” T-shirts, waving candles in the dark.
“When I first heard about Justice GA I didn’t know what it would look like,” Carlos Garcia, director of Puente Arizona, a grassroots migrant rights organization, told the Assembly Sunday morning. “Then last night when I saw all those candles, all the love. That’s what love looks like. Thank you for being here. The people from our community couldn’t believe it as people just kept coming and coming.”
Before speaking at the Saturday night vigil, an interfaith delegation toured Tent City, a complex of outdoor jails created by Joe Arpaio, the five-term sheriff of Maricopa County, who calls himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff.” Parked beside the entrance was a black tank emblazoned with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office logo. Beneath concertina wire on the chain-link fence, a sign said, “Tent City. 19 Years. 437,946 ‘served’ time.”
As the sun was setting on a 109°F day, Arpaio led a tour of a women’s and a men’s jail, showcasing his detention facility to a five-member group: UUA President Peter Morales; the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ; the Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz, president of the UU Service Committee; the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, minister of the UU Congregation of Phoenix and leader of the Arizona Immigration Ministry; and the Rev. Leslie Takahashi Morris, minister of the Mt. Diablo UU Church in Walnut Creek, California.
Arpaio led the ministers along gravel walkways separating concrete slabs covered by army-green tents. Under the tents were rows of metal bunk beds. Inmates, dressed in black-and-white-striped pants and shirts with “Sheriff’s Inmate” written in block letters across their backs, approached the visitors. They wore the jail’s trademark pink socks and pink ID bracelets. Some men could be seen in pink boxer shorts.
Inmates swarmed around the visitors, trying to quickly relate a list of grievances as guards urged the visitors along. They spoke of “horrible” food that contained maggots and rocks. A kitchen worker said ingredients were often expired, and the kitchen was plagued with roaches and rats. They had no cold water, several said. A man told of a dust storm recently gusting through the encampment. The inmates were not allowed to put down their tent flaps, and dust stung his eyes. “Why couldn’t they put the tent flaps down?” a visitor asked. “They’re just mean,” the inmate said. “They pick on us.”
Complaints of cruel and unusual punishment have been lodged against the outdoor complex since it opened in 1993. In the desert heat, temperatures in the tents have reportedly reached into the 130s. Tent City has been condemned by numerous human rights organizations, including Amnesty International USA, which Schulz previously led. The U.S. Department of Justice is suing Arpaio and Maricopa County for civil rights violations, including what it said is the long-standing racial profiling of Latinos. “There is fundamentally no excuse for keeping people out in this heat,” said Schulz. “It is a violation of international standards and of fundamental human decency.”
Not all the inmates complained. One male inmate said, “It’s not the Holiday Inn, but I’m not suffering.” In the women’s facility, several prisoners said they liked working on the female chain gang. The group leaves the facility to pick up trash in the community. On Thursdays, a member of the chain gang said, they dig graves for the indigent.
As Arpaio walked through, many inmates approached him with postcards and asked him to sign them. They bear pictures of inmates and the tents, and have slogans on them such as “Hello from Sunny Arizona!” and “Keep America Beautiful!” above a picture of the female chain gang at work. Some inmates send the postcards home to their families. One man had his signed for his grandmother, who he said is a big fan of Tent City. A woman who will soon be released said she had hers signed as a personal reminder that she didn’t want to come back.
In the mess hall, Arpaio showed examples of the two meals a day that inmates are served. He unwrapped a “brunch,” which he said was served around 11 a.m. It contained slices of turkey, oranges, rolls, and cookies. A dinner plate was heaped with a brown gruel called soy lentil stew. Beside it were broccoli, applesauce, a roll, and cookies. Several dinner plates were laid on the metal tables, and Arpaio urged visitors to try the food. Morales and Arpaio each ate a forkful of stew.
After the tour, Arpaio and the delegation held a press conference outside the jail gates. “I am saddened and appalled that this kind of thing happens in my country. It is degrading and mean,” Morales said.
Black, leader of the 1.2 million-member UCC, said, “Over the years, I’ve visited inmates throughout the country. I’ve never seen anything like this. . . . It hurts me to think this has gone on as long as it has. More people should visit this place to see what is going on. I don’t think they would feel this is justice as we understand it.”
Takahashi Morris said, “As I looked in the eyes of the inmates, I couldn’t help thinking about my father’s family held in an internment camp in Poston, Arizona,” she said, referring to the Japanese internment camps during World War II. “They were also put in inhumane conditions in the name of safety.”
“No person should be housed in the heat of the desert in a tent,” said Frederick-Gray. “We have been asleep to allow Tent City to be here for twenty years.” She said the culture of cruelty that has allowed Tent City to exist has also led to unjust laws such as Arizona’s SB 1070. As she spoke, the faint sound of singing was building in the background, as protestors filed off school buses from the convention center, gathering for the candlelight vigil.
More than forty busloads of people from the convention center stretched out along Durango Street outside Tent City. Each bus had a chaplain aboard who led songs and reminded people of the peaceful nature of the event. Many stepped off their buses in the midst of dueling protests, with about 100 Arpaio supporters bearing American flags and “Way to Go, Joe” signs facing local protesters across the street with placards demanding “Arrest Arpaio” and “Shut Down Tent City.”
Organizers handed protesters postcards urging them to contact U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to lobby him to shut down Tent City and to sever the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office’s contract with Immigration Customs and Enforcement’s Secure Communities program.
Down Durango Street, drums and songs filled the night air. The folk duo emma’s revolution led the crowd in “Keep on Moving Forward,” in English and Spanish. Morales and Black were joined by the Rev. Dr. Warren Stewart, minister of the First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix, who asked a cheering crowd, “Are there any soldiers of justice out there?” Stewart said that a nearby county animal shelter does not leave its animals out in the heat all day and night like the prisoners in Tent City. “It is an ungodly, inhumane display of [Arpaio’s] insatiable arrogance,” he said.
Morales was visibly moved by the thousands of peaceful protesters. “Hold up those lights one more time,” he beckoned. “Those lights have to go back to Alabama, Missouri, Massachusetts, Oregon, California,” he urged.
Morales echoed his own words from the opening night celebration, when he said that Justice GA was just one chapter in the struggle for migrants’ rights. The “true test,” he said, will be what UUs are doing three months from now and five years from now in their congregations and communities. Will they keep their candles lit back home?
This article appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of UU World (pages 28–32). See below for links to expanded General Assembly coverage and related resources.
- 'Road to a different future' 2012 General Assembly
- Guide to 2012 General Assembly coverage
- Guide to 2012 General Assembly coverage By Christopher L. Walton, 7.10.12
- UUA General Assembly 2012. On-demand video, transcripts, official reports, and other resources from the Justice General Assembly in Phoenix, Ariz., June 20-24, 2012. (UUA.org)