By Rabbi David Cooper
It was a state-wide phone call of PICO clergy. Question? In order to have a significant protest for immigrants’ rights, can we have a substantial showing of clergy and lay folk at the detention center near the California-Mexico border? When? Starting on Friday – and this was Wednesday! No way could I go on such short notice. But I listened as Rev. Ben McBride, co-chair of PICO California, spoke of how important this action was, how necessary it was – especially after Trump’s executive order that was designed to lower the opposition to his zero-tolerance policy on border crossing. I thought a Jewish voice at the action was necessary.
Rabbi Dev said to be sure to maintain a presence on social media. I consulted with Maya Joshua at the office on tweeting and live streaming.
Rabbi Amy Eilberg, old friend and comrade, who is now the Jewish community person for PICO in Northern California was also going. We conferred on how to bring Shabbat into the interfaith space on Friday night and Saturday.
So on Friday the 22nd, I took the PICO bus from San Francisco that departed after a prayer gathering on the sidewalk outside St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in the Mission. Our arrival was delayed due to a flat tire that took a long time to get repaired, When we arrived at Our Lady Mount Carmel Catholic Church in San Ysidro it was just as a post-dinner prayer session was ending and the training for civil disobedience was beginning.
I elected to be available for arrest.
After a tough night sleeping on the church floor and a modest breakfast, we headed to Friendship Park right on the border. This had once been an open space for US and Mexican citizens to mingle together. But a border wall was constructed in 1994. Now people on the two sides of the border can only talk through a thick mesh fence during just two two-hour periods on the weekend. We were there at such a time and saw a few people speaking through the barrier.
At an orientation back the church we had a prayer session. I led the assembly in the prayer Ozi v-Zimrat Yah (“Yah is my strength and my song”) and then we took cars and buses to a designated spot near the Otay Mesa Detention Center. It is much larger and more intimidating than our local West County Detention Center. OMDC is surrounded by high wire fences topped of by rolls of barbed wire. One has to pass through a guarded locked gate before you can reach the entrance to the building itself. We parked on a field about a half mile from this entrance and hiked in together. Somewhere between 1000 and 2000 people converged on the entrance. As we walked we chanted. At two points we were asked to go completely silent, and we could hear those confined calling to us from the inside. Shouts of love and support in Spanish were called back to them by the crowd.
A short distance away, on the shoulder, a flat bed truck with sound amplification served as a stage. It was for an interfaith service we held right there. I was asked to speak.
I said to the effect: “The sign I’m wearing says, ‘This is what theology looks like.’ We are here because of how each of us hears the divine voice calling us.” I explained how the Torah demands that when people come to live with you in your land, that you are to treat them well, to leave them unmolested, and to love them as yourself. I added “This was written over 2500 years ago. It’s time the United States caught up with the Torah!” Loud cheers. I then decided that a short Hebrew prayer song was needed and I explained that the Shema meant that God was one, but that since we are all a “chip off the old divine block,” that we too must see ourselves as one. I asked that all who knew the Shema to chant its six words with me. One could hear voices throughout the crowd chanting the verse thus demonstrating the substantial Jewish presence. And after all, it was Shabbat and this plus our “leg-prayer” would have to be our Shabbat service.
Those electing to do civil disobedience and risking arrest gathered at the gate to block it. Time passed. The sheriff’s representative tried to get us to move away by claiming that a group of visitors could not leave through our gate while we were present. We reaffirmed that we were nonviolent and that we certainly would not block any people visiting those incarcerated from leaving. Finally the deputy relented and visitors left and some actually joined our support crowd beyond the gates.
We were told of a problem the sheriff’s office was having. For the large number of folk doing CD, the officers would have to bring in a bus or two which would take a long time, or they could bring in a van quickly to take 10 of us and quickly process. The leadership asked for guidance and a consensus from the CD group. We were not very concerned about the extra time. But after considering several issues and also calculating the cost to PICO of our bail (in the low five-figure range), we decides the arrest of ten representatives would be effective enough. But who? The group should contain people of different religious groupings and include African-Americans, Latinx, younger and older folk. I and Rabbi Chaim Schneider, a friend from Santa Cruz, were the Jewish part. With the other eight, we awaited the quick arrival of the van. But didn’t come.
We then learned that a completely different group that did not share our discipline of nonviolent resistance had set down to block the access road to the Center. The arrest van could not get through. After almost an hour, and a report of a physical altercation at that other action, we decided as a collective that we would not stay for the protracted period before we could be arrested and we did not want our arrests to be seen as part of the other group’s action. We had already driven our point home and left having accomplished our purpose along with the thousands of others demonstrating along other borders that day.
In the face of the continued incarceration by Trump’s policies of so many people simply seeking to save their lives or to escape intolerable conditions at home—largely the result of the effects of US imperialist activities—we need to step forward and do what we can to resist. It is what our history and our compassions call us to do.
Check the Kehilla and my Facebook page for the videos I took during the day of the action. Also, the most accurate report in the press is from the Times of San Diego. See No Estas Solo article. The J Weekly says as of this writing that they will cover this action as well.