UUA leaders respond to General Assembly security concerns

UUA leaders respond to General Assembly security concerns

Federal security measures at the Port of Fort Lauderdale raise concerns for 2008 General Assembly.
Donald E. Skinner


Unitarian Universalist Association officers and staff are developing a plan to respond to concerns about security arrangements at the June 2008 General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The concerns, first raised at the UUA’s Board of Trustees meeting in October, are that racial profiling incidents could arise at GA because the convention center requires a higher level of security and more identification than has been required at previous GAs.

General Assembly is the UUA’s annual gathering of congregational leaders. It is held in a different city each year and draws from 4,000 to 7,000 people. The 2008 GA will be held June 25-29 at the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center. Because the convention center is inside the perimeter of the Port of Fort Lauderdale, everyone 18 and older entering the convention center is required to show a government-issued photo identification card.

For most people that will be a driver’s license or a passport. Those under 18 will only be required to have a convention badge, but convention center security guidelines also say that “minors without identification, who present no obvious threat, will be admitted on a case-by-case basis.”

That raises concerns that youth of color might be racially profiled and excluded, bringing back memories of GA 2005 in Fort Worth, Texas, where several profiling incidents occurred in hotels and the convention center.

A memorandum this week from GA Planning Committee Chair Beth McGregor, UUA Moderator Gini Courter, and UUA President William Sinkford outlined the problem and steps that UUA leaders hope will improve the situation. The memo, addressed to the UUA Board of Trustees and the GA Planning Committee, noted that the convention center security creates “the possibility of an unfriendly environment for youth, particularly youth of color, and the problems inherent in using a site that is not open to those not eligible for government-issued identification.”

The memo outlines the following steps the UUA will take to minimize problems:

  • UUs serving as chaplains will be present at the pedestrian entrance to the convention center to assist with any problems.

  • Talks will continue between UUA staff and the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.

  • UUA staff will meet early in 2008 with representatives of UU groups that could potentially be affected by the restrictions in Fort Lauderdale.

  • A portion of a plenary session at GA will focus, as the memo stated, on “the painful reality that the conditions in our nation and in our world result in such attention to security that our basic freedoms are compromised.”

Update 12.21.07: The UUA has also published answers to frequently asked questions about security at the 2008 General Assembly and distributed an open letter to all UU congregations.

UUA staff members Jan Sneegas, director of General Assembly and Conference Services, and the Rev. Darrick Jackson, assistant Youth Ministries director, visited Fort Lauderdale in mid-November to assess the situation in light of concerns about the security measures. They met with security staff from the convention center and later by telephone with representatives of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.

Sneegas said in an interview this week that the sheriff’s office staff was very responsive to UUA concerns. “We were assured that convention center staff and the sheriff’s office were appreciative of our concerns about access and security measures,” she said. “They were very reassuring about the issue of youth, and they seemed very sensitive to issues of diversity. Their job is to help us provide a safe and secure meeting. They’re not there for the intention of excluding our people.”

Convention attendees will arrive at the convention center in three ways—by car, as pedestrians, or on shuttle buses. Shuttle bus drivers will check for identification, she said, rather than all bus riders being checked at a security checkpoint, although random bus checks are possible.

Sneegas said she recognizes the need for the additional security at the port. “It’s a federal regulation to provide security to a vulnerable part of our geography, the port,” she said. “No one is arguing the need for security. What makes this a complicated situation is that the convention center lies within the perimeter of the port. If the convention center were on the other side of the city there would not be an issue.“

At the same time, Sneegas acknowledged, incidents may happen. “Sometimes people are in situations where miscommunication occurs,” she said, “or there is a strong feeling that a particular action is not appropriate and they might express views in ways that are not within prescribed boundaries.” She said convention personnel have agreed to be in contact immediately with UUA staff if a situation arises at a checkpoint.

The Rev. Darrick Jackson, a young adult of color, said knowing the UUA will have chaplains at the pedestrian gate to the center eases his fears. “We’re going to tell youth to bring their student IDs,” he said. “And to be respectful of security guards.”

Jackson said he walked through an entry gate in November to see what it was like. “I showed my ID, and they asked me where I was going. It took 15 seconds. There are no x-rays or computer checks.”

He said that before meeting with convention center staff in November he was concerned about the language in the statement that security personnel would admit minors without identification on a case-by-case basis if they pose “no obvious threat.” But he was reassured when staff explained that this means “no visible weapon and no physical or verbally threatening demeanor. They were very responsive to our questions, and I think they will work with us,” he said.

The Rev. José Ballester, one of three people of color on the Board of Trustees and cominister of First UU Church in Houston, Texas, is worried about teenagers and especially youth of color. He is worried about what might happen if youth challenge a security guard or are seen as possible suspects. Ballester is also concerned about UUs who have records from being arrested during protests. “I’m just concerned something could go wrong and someone overreacts.”

“Unless you’ve gone through being seen and treated as the ‘other,’” he said, “you don’t fully appreciate what could possibly happen.” Ballester was on the special review commission that considered the incidents at the Fort Worth GA. He said the issue of security in Fort Lauderdale will come before the Board of Trustees again in January.

Moving or canceling General Assembly is not an option, the memo this week noted: “Canceling already-signed contracts with Fort Lauderdale facilities would result in a financial loss to the Association of at least $800,000; finding another site for the 2008 GA that satisfied our justice requirements for accessibility and a green GA and that included the financial safeguards we negotiated in Fort Lauderdale would be impossible at this late date. The option of canceling GA is precluded by UUA by-laws.”

The memo states: “We have come to feel that the conditions in Fort Lauderdale provide us with an opportunity to shine a light on the issues that concern us and to use the situation as a teaching moment: What is it that we, as religious people, are called to say at this time and in this place? What privilege do we enjoy that is denied to others?”

Sneegas said that when they originally booked the convention center, the GA Planning Committee was told that the checkpoints would be gone in time for the event. “Unfortunately, this is a matter concerning national security,” she said.

All GA information and registration materials will include reminders to attendees to prepare for the security check, Sneegas said.

The UU Ministers Association is also considering the security situation. Its Executive Committee will meet in January to determine what steps would be appropriate not only for ministers but for GA as a whole.

The Rev. Randolph Becker is arrangements chair for Ministry Days, a three-day meeting of ministers that takes place immediately before GA. The possibility exists, he said, that Ministry Days could be moved to a location out of the convention center.

Becker said that he is personally troubled by having to pass through security to attend a religious meeting or worship. “I am one of those who will not subject [themselves] to an ID check to worship or practice my faith,” he said, “and will stand in solidarity with those who will be excluded by these checkpoints.”

Becker, minister of the UU Fellowship of Key West, said some people “may not be able or willing to proceed through ID screening because of immigration, gender identity, or economic issues. Others could be detained because of profiling around issues of race, age, and national origin.”

The Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs, cominister of Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, Minn., and president of the UUMA, urged careful consideration. “Would it be effective or prophetic for UUs to stand against security measures that protect the Port of Fort Lauderdale?” said Eller-Isaacs. “I know that I want that port protected because there’s a lack of security overall in shipping. The security requirements of the port are a legitimate concern. So are the civil liberties of human beings.”

He added, “It’s not going to be helpful to blame the administration or the planning committee. This is an opportunity to think deeply about our own values, and to show up.”

He believes protests at GA against the convention center or its security staff would not be helpful. “We are living in a world in which security requirements have changed,” he said. “It’s a situation that calls for forbearance and clarity.”

He noted that Ministry Days has sometimes been held away from the GA convention center and said that could be arranged without great difficulty if that is the decision that is made. Another possibility might be to move worship services outside the restricted area. “UUA bylaws do say that we make every effort to make GA accessible to everyone,” he said. “The question of citizenship, for example, should not be a cause for restricting attendance at worship.”

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