How a middle-aged professor came to participate in a civil disobedience action to stop a deportation bus
As I woke at 5:30 in the morning to get dressed I remembered all the instructions: no contacts in case the cops use pepper mace; no shoe laces, lacy accessories or jewelry that will be removed in jail; be prepared for a strip search and to have your glasses removed while you are detained. The apprehension had made me wake up every hour the night before. As I wondered what lay ahead of me on the day ahead, I reflected on how I had arrived at this point, committed to participate in a collective action against deportations that would most certainly lead to my arrest. Risking arrest was not part of the life picture that I, a 48 year old university professor, had ever experienced or visualized for myself. I had always been a “good immigrant” and stayed within the law. But not risking arrest would mean not doing enough to stop one of the greatest injustices this country is experiencing today. How could I continue to write and teach about the horrific consequences of detaining and deporting almost 2 million people and not be willing to lay my body down?
On November 19th, at 11 am, six of us stopped a bus leaving the Broadview Detention Center to the airport to deport several undocumented immigrants. We were all attached to each other with cvc pipes, a tactic that can prolong the work of police officers by hours. Six of us created a circle in front of the bus and two groups of three used pipes to attach themselves to the two front tires. Aiming to surprise and disrupt, civil disobedience acts always carry risks. As we started forming our circle an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer pushed three of our group to the ground and onlookers had to intervene to stop him. The two groups under the tires had already attached themselves when the bus driver tried to drive again, and they had to quickly detach themselves to avoid being run over.
We finally settled in, surrounded by a group of supporters, chanting “Not one more: stop deportations.” This time we knew two of the men who were in the bus, Octavio and Brigido. Many of the youth present had worked on Octavio’s anti-deportation campaign, and two of the young women in my circle cried when they saw Maria, Octavio’s mother, break down after having just said good-bye to her son. Later, we learned that the detainees in the bus had started stomping their feet on the bus walls to communicate with us. They also told their relatives they had felt supported, seeing that so many people cared.
By the time the police approached us the doubts I had felt in morning seemed a distant memory. As the officers laughed and mocked us I thought of the pain and tears of Elvira Arellano and Flor Crisostomo, two women I had met seven years ago who had sought sanctuary to remain in this country. As they sawed the pipe that connected me to Arianna, an undocumented friend and fellow protestor, I thought of her everyday struggles to afford an education and her unfailing courage when she was arrested in a previous civil disobedience. And yet now she was here, once again, ready to take the risk. As they lifted me up and handcuffed me tightly I thought of a woman I met in a Tijuana shelter, who only two hours earlier had been driving her kids to school in San Diego, and had seen her life fall apart the minute she was detained. Who will pick my children up from school? she had asked me in tears. I remembered my frustration because there was nothing I could do.
But now, I thought, as I waited in the police van, I was doing something about it. As a scholar researching the immigrant movement I had experienced years of frustration in the face of injustice, unable to help, to alleviate, to do anything beyond writing about it. Today I was offering all of myself, my body and my freedom. For once, I was not doing something FOR them; I was doing something WITH them and the remaining eleven million undocumented, who have lived, worked, loved, and built a life in this country. I realized at this moment that my fear, while valid, was only a small taste of what they had experienced throughout their lives. Today, if only for a few hours, I had joined them in fear and in resistance. Lifted by their courage and spirit, I was overcome, at the moment of arrest, with an extraordinary sense of peace.
Some might ask why a professor of political science would pursue –and seek persuade others to pursue—civil disobedience to change immigration policy. Let me clarify that laying my body down, sitting and later lying on a concrete street to stop a bus was never a first choice of action for me or any of the other people who have engaged in civil disobedience since the spring of 2010. While I risk a misdemeanor, the other five people in my circle, who are undocumented, always face the risk of possible deportation. So why assume this risk instead of advocating, lobbying, writing to congressional representatives, and marching? All these strategies have been pursued repeatedly, for the past seven years. But despite the fact that the majority of Americans want to see some form of legalization, Congress has been unable to pass any legislation, while the President has not pursued an executive order to stop the deportation of undocumented immigrants who have not committed any crime. And while we wait families continue to be broken apart every day. Civil disobedience is a last resort strategy when nothing else has worked. It aims to surprise, disrupt, challenge policies at the very site where they are implemented, and above, all to keep the issue alive. By engaging in non-violent actions and laying down our bodies we push the state to reveal the force that enables its immoral actions. Like the civil disobedience that took place in the U.S. civil rights movement, these actions are an effect of democracy gone wrong. Civil disobedience is ultimately about the power and life-force of community when democracy has failed to deliver.
As we await our court date in January, I feel prepared to face the consequences and I have no regrets, except perhaps for wishing I could do more. While I am quite a bit older than most of the youth who engage in these actions, I don’t believe that youth should be the only ones to assume this responsibility. As an educator I have supported undocumented youth facing deportation, and concurrently engaging in educational struggles, tuition challenges, and political struggle for immigrant rights. For me, engaging in this action was a continuation of the support and accompaniment I have tried to provide them for years. My highest hope is that my example will encourage others like me to accompany the youth in these actions and become more involved in whatever capacity they can. The responsibility lies in all of us, of every age, sexuality, nationality, race and ability.
Amalia Pallares is Associate Professor of Political Science and Latin American and Latino Studies and Director of the Latin American and Latino Studies Program.