Summer Quarterly 2018
Through the Prism of Nonviolence
By John Heid
The chambers of the Evo A. DeConcini US District Courthouse in Tucson Arizona have borne witness to innumerable immigration-related trials—for decades. Each day’s court docket is posted prominently on a large screen near the grand entrance, just beyond the metal detectors. Most of the case names are Latino/a. Those individuals slated for a separate so-called “Streamline Court,” which criminalizes, incarcerates, and then deports hundreds of people weekly, are not listed. This federal courthouse is a deportation mill.
The past month, however, courtroom visitors to DeConcini witnessed two different types of immigration related cases. These offer a wider lens into status of law, justice and conscience in the US-Mexico borderlands.
In October 2012, US Border Patrol agent Lonnie Swartz fired 10 bullets through the international border fence into the back of José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, a 16 year old, who was walking down a city street in Nogales, in the Mexican state of Sonora. On April 23 this year, Agent Swartz was found not guilty of 2nd degree murder.
Weeks later, Scott Warren, a humanitarian aid volunteer from Ajo, Arizona was in the same federal courthouse facing two counts of “harboring” and one of conspiracy to transport/harbor, all felonies, for providing food, water and clothing to two men who turned up in Ajo weary, hungry and cold after walking several days and nights in the desert. Mr. Warren is looking at 20 years in prison. His guests were deported.
One courthouse, two faces of justice. Murder gets a pass and compassion goes on trial. The juxtaposition of these cases lays bare the dissonance of law in the borderlands.
I attended one of Mr. Warren’s recent pre-trail hearings where he and his attorneys argued for dismissal of all charges based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993. The act says the “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”
Mr. Warren testified for nearly two hours, articulating his spiritual belief in the inherent worth of every human being and his responsibility to provide life-saving care to anyone in need. He also spoke of having recovered the bodies of 16 people who had died of dehydration/exposure over his six years of walking desert trails. He testified, “My duty of conscience drives me to show up, to be present to the suffering. Living and dead.”
Mr. Warren’s testimony included reflections on the “soul of the desert.” He holds sacred the Sonoran Desert even as it is being turned into a vast graveyard. And too he recognizes an inherent sacredness in the personal items people leave behind, or die with … hand sown tortilla cloths, rosaries, photographs, blankets, silverware, dolls…
Mr. Warren’s attorneys argued that under RFRA “…his conduct cannot legally constitute a crime because the government cannot prosecute any individual for exercising his/her sincerely held religious beliefs….” Even US Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently said, “[I]n the United States, the free exercise of religion is not a mere policy preference to be traded against other policy preferences.”
The cross-examination by the federal prosecutors exposed a wide, familiar crevasse in ideology: conscience vs. the law. After Mr. Warren’s moving spiritual testimony, the barrage of vapid “yes” or “no” questions from prosecutors rattled off the courtroom walls like ball bearings in a tin pan. Unable to refute Mr. Warren’s soul sharing, the prosecutors took aim with a “Why didn’t you just call 911?” form of rebuttal. Justice was reduced to the level of television game show banality.
Trials, for me, are a litmus test of the health or illness of society. This particular courthouse is rife with examples of the later.
Scott Warren’s testimony is a cry in the wilderness, a breath of fresh air in the belly of the proverbial beast. As his testimony echoed off the chamber walls I couldn’t help but ponder what else these walls have absorbed, sounds that a court recorder will never write, nor a transcript ever reveal: The chain gang shuffle of shackled men and women marched in and out of Streamline Court. The deafening silence when the jury foreperson announced that Agent Lonnie Swartz was “not guilty” of the murder of José Antonio Elena Rodríguez—not to mention the gasps and sobs that followed.
Walls hold stories in stone. What happens in court echoes off these walls, and across the country and the hemisphere. These are the unseen border walls. Here the fist of US immigration policy is hidden in a silk glove. What can bring down these walls and the ideologies that prop them up? When will the weight of injustice be too much for them to bear?
There is plenty more in store for the Evo. A. DeConcini Courthouse this year. Magistrate Judge Bernardo Velasco will rule on Scott Warren’s motion for dismissal in late June. Meanwhile, eight humanitarian aid workers, including Mr. Warren, await prosecution for the crime of placing water, food, and other life-saving supplies on public lands where high numbers of human remains have been recovered. What will the vaunted walls of DeConcini hear next?
—A long-time peace activist, John Heid works with the group No More Deaths in Ajo, Arizona
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Through the Prism of Nonviolence
By John Heid
For years I have felt an edgy tug, like a rip tide, drawing me closer to La Frontera, the US-Mexico border and its wall, the great divide. Last June I finally gave in. I packed my books and sourdough starter and headed two and a half hours west of Tucson to a copper mining community-gone-bust, Ajo, Arizona. It is quintessential small town America, southwestern style.
Ajo has one zip code, one stop light, one grocery store, three gas stations, and three coffee shops. Add to that a mechanic’s garage, two hardware stores, a library, and three private clubs. There is no Walmart, no McDonald’s, no local police department, no hospital, and never a traffic jam except on winter weekends when tourists travel main street—headed to the beaches of the Sea of Cortez, an hour and a half south.
Javelinas, also known as Collared Peccary or skunk pig, roam the streets at night, and coyotes stroll the sidewalks by day. We can see the Milky Way from the historic, palm tree-lined plaza, downtown. Yes, there is little light pollution and few clouds here.
Residents south of the checkpoints live in a state of low-intensity occupation, a form of psychological warfare and a strategy designed to keep people subliminally on edge. Towers equipped with rotating cameras, ground sensors, helicopter fly-overs, and the dull hum of drones remind us that we are being watched—all of us. The escalating number of military personnel and the increase in unmarked government vehicles add to the specter of surveillance.
For most people however, Ajo is, and has been, a place to pass through, or overwinter. The town is situated squarely in a region that has been an historic crossroad for indigenous peoples in a network that stretched from present day Mexico to Utah and from the Pacific coast to New Mexico. Now, as then, the year-round residents are a fraction of the number of those who pass through. Each winter our population more than doubles with the arrival of mostly retired, mostly northern US residents in their recreational vehicles or to their second home. Add to that figure the high volume of tourists we see every winter weekend bound for the beaches of Puerto Peñasco, in Sonora, Mexico.
With the ever expanding militarization of the US-Mexico border, we have also witnessed a veritable odyssey of people from the south traversing the harsh Sonoran desert terrain and walking through or around town. To one degree or another these passersby all experience “the shadow.” For northern tourists, it is a potential wrinkle in their vacation, like a long wait at the checkpoint. For our neighbors to the south, it’s another story entirely. The shadow, for many of them, is the shadow of death. Nearby Cabeza Prieta is the most lethal National Wildlife Refuge in the country, and neighboring Organ Pipe, the deadliest National Monument. The number of recovered human remains on these federal lands accounts for a significant percentage of the overall fatalities in the entire Tucson Sector of the border.
It is not uncommon for people crossing by night from the south, to slip past the public campsites of vacationing northerners at Organ Pipe. One seeking reunion, the other recreating together. Herein lies a slice of the pathos and paradox of life in the shadow.
Every wall casts a shadow. Our nation’s immigration policies and enforcement have constructed hundreds of miles of border wall, and there’s a vigorous push for more. Take warning from those of us who live on the nation’s rim: the shadow is always longer, darker, and more insidious than the object that casts it—concrete, wrought iron, or racism.
—John Heid works with the group No More Deaths in Ajo, Arizona.
By JOHN HEID
When I was 13 my mother announced to me: “I want you to meet your elderly Aunt Mary before she dies.” Without further discussion mother sent me off to Glassport, Penn. for a weekend visit. I’d never met Aunt Mary, and all I knew was that she didn’t speak a lick of English—and I no Polish. I was not fired up about spending the weekend with her. Following mother’s orders none the less, off I went on the Greyhound for three days that keep coming to mind every time the burning matter of immigration flares up.
I fell into the rabbit hole of culture shock meeting the Ruthkowski side of my otherwise very German family. These folks were a passel of blood relatives who spoke differently, kept their homes differently, and cooked differently than in my house. And I had the time of my life, language barriers notwithstanding. We were family, tho’ culturally miles apart. Without saying a word of English, Aunt Mary opened windows in my mind, and widened, if just a bit, my view of what America looks like.
Flash forward a couple decades to Baltimore in the mid ‘80s. I was serving 6 months in a federal halfway house on the far east side of the city. Every inmate was required to work outside the facility and I was granted permission to do my work hours as a volunteer at Viva House, the Catholic Worker several miles across town. Four days a week I would peddle across the city on my bicycle through neighborhoods I never knew existed, let alone been in. I recall hearing language after language flowing through the open windows into the sultry, summery streets of Baltimore as I passed by. And the fragrances coming from the kitchens linger in my taste buds. Each neighborhood unique. One city. Many cultures. Side by side.
Every time I see somebody wearing a cap that reads “Make America Great Again” a tidal wave of questions arise. What is America? Who is American? Who am I looking at? Where am I looking? And when, if ever, was it great? When wasn’t it?
For starters the term “America” is an incomplete, specious, and culturally challenged moniker for the United States. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, writes in An Indigenous Peoples’ History Of The United States: “I refrain from using ‘America’ and ‘American’ when referring to the United States and its citizens. Those blatantly imperialistic terms annoy people in the rest of the Western Hemisphere, who are, after all, also Americans.”
The Earth has just gone full circle around the sun since the last US presidential election. I call 2017 the year of the looking glass, which culminates years of navel gazing. The deep rifts in the core values of our nation have been exposed. They are in our face. The comeuppance was inevitable. These differences didn’t happen overnight, any more than earthquakes do. The tectonic plates of sociological structures move slowly, often imperceptibly. Voices at the edge have been warning us for decades—even longer, from the beginning. Our history celebrates and haunts us; mostly from the closet. Now we’re face to face with ourselves. The emperor’s clothes lie scattered on the ground, alongside ours. And our national wounds are exposed to the light of day.
“We are very cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame and so ugly.” —James Baldwin, “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist: Some Notes,” The Cross of Redemption
I believe that self-education is a worthy first step to unraveling our national identity crisis. Or better said, we need to undo the single course menu of US history we’ve been spoon fed from the get go. In his 1963 “A Talk to Teachers,” James Baldwin wrote: “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has said about it.”
A worthy remedial education course could begin with Ms. Dunbar-Ortiz’s Indigenous Peoples’ History, Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States, Kim E. Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States. Not to mention Howard Zinn’s masterpiece A People’s History of the United States.
Then comes the disciple of critical listening. And to whom shall we listen? How about First Nations people for openers? Those who were here before the conquest, before there was a United States. In An Indigenous Peoples’ History, Willie Johns, from Brighton Seminole Reservation in Florida says, “We are here to educate, not forgive. We are here to enlighten, not accuse.”
In poetic form Langston Hughes weighs in: “Say, who are you that mumbles in the back? And who are you that draws your veil across the stars? / I am the poor white fooled and pushed apart, / I am the negro bearing slavery’s scars. / I am the red man [sic] driven from the land, / I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek– / And finding the same old stupid plan / Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak. / Let America Be America Again” (an excerpt)
The task of remembering rounds out the prescription for our identity dilemma. Angela Davis reminds us, “We live in a society of an imposed forgetfulness, a society that depends on public amnesia.”
Re-membering is, after all, simply putting together the myriad stories of all those who inhabit this land thereby exposing and breaking through the cycle of cultural amnesia.
Where do we go from here? There are no quick fixes. No one-size-fits-all legislation. A change in Administrations in and of itself does not interrupt the status quo of colonization and its subsequent repression. Revolution? Isn’t that what got us here in the first place? Perhaps, what is needed is a revolution of heart, as Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker said.
“O let America be America again– / The land that never has been yet– / And yet must be–the land where every man [sic] is free. / The land that’s mine–the poor man’s [sic], Indians, Negroes, ME” —Langston Hughes
I can imagine my beloved Aunt Mary smiling over a platter of steaming homemade pierogis smothered in buttered onions saying, “Eat and you will eventually understand.” #####