Handcuffs, Hangman and Jesus: Reflections on My Arrest at the SB 1070 Protests in Phoenix

I have lived in Peru and in Spain under Fascism. Yet I found the situation in Arizona appalling and deeply disturbing in ways I did not anticipate.
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This is how ethnic cleansing gets started. It comes disguised as law enforcement, as a firm hand protecting social order during chaotic times. Ethnic cleansing is founded upon fear. It requires turning an ethnic or racial group into "the other." "They" are taking over. "They" are different and will destroy our way of life. The process ends, always, in violence. Below is a brief portrait of the early stages of ethnic cleansing in Arizona. And, make no mistake, we are all Arizona.

On July 29, I engaged in civil disobedience in Phoenix as part of the Day of Non-Compliance protest against SB 1070, Arizona's harsh anti-immigrant law. I was called to bear witness to my faith's ideals of compassion and the inherent worth and dignity of all people.

Let me share with you pieces of my brief experience as an inmate in Arizona's infamous Maricopa County Jail. My 14 hours in custody constituted a profoundly disturbing experience -- but not in the ways I had anticipated. I wish I could share visual images of my time in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's jail, but, of course, they took my camera first thing. Here, then, are some verbal snapshots, followed by some disturbing reflections.

Snapshot 1: The Arrest

Around noon on Thursday, after more than an hour of blocking the entrance to the Maricopa County Jail, the inevitable happened. The big metal door behind us opened, revealing scores of battle-clad deputies. I wondered what had taken them so long. Now it was clear. They needed time to put on all their riot equipment in order to arrest a bunch of peaceful protesters.

"You are under arrest," he said. Because I was standing behind the protesters who had linked themselves together, I was the first one arrested. One of the protesters tied together as part of a human chain was the Rev. Susan Frederick Gray, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix. I had been standing directly behind Susan and beside Salvador Reza, a local human rights activist.

As I walked meekly beside the deputy, he grabbed my upper arm and raised it to where my shoulder hurt. There was no reason. I am a portly 63-year-old who, alas, is no longer a physical threat to anyone. After handcuffing me and taking everything out of my pockets, they told me to sit on the concrete sidewalk inside the small indoor parking area.

The handcuffs were the first indication of the difference between the Phoenix city police and the county sheriff's force. Those arrested by the Phoenix police had handcuffs that were like a flat belt. The handcuffs used by the sheriff's deputies had sharp edges designed to gouge into our wrists. A small matter, but telling.

Shortly after I was handcuffed three deputies came by shoving a young Latino who had been one of the group blocking the entrance. The young man shouted over and over, "I am not resisting arrest." I saw him later when we were in the same holding cell. His face had scrapes and his back had numerous ugly bruises. He said they took him to a room, threw him on the floor and kicked him. Except for a few tokens, this is an overwhelmingly white anglo sheriff's department.

It must have been 100 degrees. We sat there for more than two hours. A gentle member of the staff brought water from time to time. About 50 deputies (many of them portlier than I!) stood around. The administrator in me was appalled at the inefficiency and waste.

Snapshot 2: Charges, Fingerprints, Mug Shots and Using the Toilet

It took the sheriff's department more than five hours to get from the arrest to actually doing intake. Imagine your worst experience at a DMV office. Multiply it by your worst experience at a post office. This, amazingly enough, is the bureaucracy of the sheriff's department.

In an odd way, the staff seem as much prisoners of this system as those in custody. They work in a windowless space. They stare at computers, though they rarely actually enter anything. They seem numb, cold, and hardened. What must it do to the human soul to be part of such an abusive system?

When my name was finally called to be photographed, I asked to use the toilet. A deputy pointed me to it. I asked that my handcuffs be removed. They refused. I leave the rest to your imagination. At least I was allowed to relieve myself. Later I heard from women prisoners that they were not allowed to use the toilet.

Snapshot 3: Toilet-Paper Pillows

One never stops learning. It never occurred to me to use a roll of toilet paper as a pillow. It was one of the ways you could tell those who had been here before from us first timers. You lie on your side on the concrete and use the roll of toilet paper as a pillow. I was too alert to sleep. Others snored through much of the evening.

As few as three and up to 20 of us at a time were put into a holding cell. They kept moving us around for no apparent reason. And they kept losing track of us. A guard, always surly, would open the cell door and ask for "Juan Garcia" or "Jim Jones," only to discover that he was not in our cell. This must have happened 15 or 20 times.

We protesters were mixed with guys picked up on drug charges, parole violations, and such. All of these guys had been inside a number of times before. One poor chap had been arrested for parole violation but had no idea what he was alleged to have done. Another went on about how orange peel, carefully cut and dried, made an excellent marijuana substitute in a pinch. He was high on something, though I suspect it was not thick-skinned oranges.

Snapshot 4: Tic-tac-toe, Hangman, a Bar of Soap and Jesus

Just as toilet paper became a pillow, soap became chalk. One of the young prisoners pocketed a motel-sized bar of soap and struck up a game of tic-tac-toe on the cell floor. When interest in that waned, he started a game of "hangman" (the elementary school game of guessing a word by guessing letters).

The words were obscure and the hangman had additional gender specific body parts. I was invited to play. The word I had to guess had five letters. I was running out of body parts and had "_ E S _ S". Tension mounted. Divine intervention saved the day. It hit me: the word was J E S U S. Imagine a head of a religious association not getting Jesus! My honor was saved.

Eventually, around 2:30 a.m. on Friday morning, I was released. At every step of the way the process appeared to be delayed as much as possible.

Snapshot 5: A Second Arrest for Sal

Late that afternoon we get word that Salvador Reza, the local organizer and head of the organization called Puente ("Bridge"), was arrested again. Sal was arrested as he was observing from across the street an act of civil disobedience at Joe Arpaio's infamous "Tent City."

After a night going through the same process again, Sal was released. Even the prosecutor admitted that there was no probable cause for his arrest. It was harassment, pure and simple.


I was a journalist before entering seminary to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. I like to think of myself as less naïve than many of my colleagues. I have lived in Peru and in Spain under Fascism. Yet I found the situation in Arizona appalling and deeply disturbing in ways I did not anticipate.

I am honestly surprised that such systematic denial of basic civil rights (the beating, the arrest for no cause, the denial of use of toilet facilities, the targeting of Latinos) can go on openly in a major American city. This is not a nutty sheriff and a handful of deputies in a small town. This is a law enforcement body in a major urban area.

And I wonder at the absence of forces that are supposed to defend the rights of the helpless. Why in the world has our federal Justice Department not taken action? How much evidence do they need? Where, for that matter, are the usual champions of civil liberties like the ACLU?

Other states are considering copycat legislation based on Arizona's SB 1070. Republicans are advocating a constitutional change that would deny citizenship to children born in the U. S. if their parents are not citizens.

We are witnessing the early stages of ethnic cleansing. Todos somos Arizona.

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