JVP Members Unite at School of the Americas Watch Convergence/Encuentro
Guest Post by Elaine Cohen, JVP Austin
It was just sunset on Friday night. Deborah (JVP Tucson), Beth (JVP Ithaca) and I (JVP Austin) were standing together in the middle of the hundreds who had gathered at the Eloy Detention Center. It was the first action of the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) Convergence/Encuentro.
I saw that candle light was popping up in the gathering. Suddenly, in front of us were a man and woman, in their 20’s, wearing Puente tee shirts. Puente (Bridge) was started in 2007 in Phoenix in response to the racist tactics of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the recently passed Arizona SB 1070.
They handed each of us a candle. The sun was setting in the distance but parts of the sky were dark enough to see a moon sliver and 1 or 2 stars. We three looked at each other as they lit our candles and we said the Barucha of the Shabbat candles. We explained to the people who handed us the candles that it was our Sabbath and that they had brought the candles at precisely the right moment. They stood respectfully while we three offered our prayer.
The SOAW organizers made a good choice in starting the four-day Convergence/Encuentro with a protest outside the infamous Eloy Detention Center. Eloy is run by the greedy Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and holds 1,800 men and women from Africa, Asia, and Central and South America.
It was here that I encountered many of the friends I knew from past Detention Protests. Right away I found Jan Meslin, who I first met at a CIVIC retreat and posts on the dire situation of Haitian refugees arriving in Tijuana. I spotted Sister Pam, who I knew from the South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias, Texas. She suddenly spotted me, turned around and said, “I knew I’d see you here,” and gave a fast hug. I saw Noel and Amy who I met in July at the New Sanctuary Movement’s (NSM) conference in Phoenix – more fast hugs. I was happy to find the Reverend Dr. Lyons, of the United Church of Christ in Arizona. We’d met at the Shadowrock Church in Phoenix, where the NSM’s conference was held. And there was Ken, just back from Costa Rica, who I knew from a shared border delegation of Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera. His civil disobedience at a past SOAW action earned him 6 months in prison.
Music came from the stage, set up on the back of a truck, across the road from Eloy. The Peace Poets, in from NYC, rocked the crowd, rapping in English and Spanish. I heard a woman say, “This is the biggest protest we’ve ever had here.” It seemed as least as big as the Dilley protest in spring of 2015. It felt like 700, though others said 500 and some, 1,000. What mattered to me, more than any number was the feeling of fierce opposition to the cruel, corrupt Immigration Detention system. In this crowd were those of us who visit and advocate for immigrants in Detention – from Atlanta through Texas, Arizona and California.
It was almost a year ago that Maria Luisa Rosales, the dynamic organizer from SOAW, passed through Austin. She was exploring the idea of moving the SOAW Convergence from Ft. Benning, Georgia, where it had been held since its inception, to the U.S./Mexico border. SOAW was started by Father Roy Bourgeois, in a small apartment close to the main gate of Fort Benning in 1990 to protest the ongoing human rights abuses committed by graduates of the School of the Americas military academy.
SOAW brought the Convergence to the US/Mexico border this year to draw connections between US Military domination in the Americas and the experience of immigrants crossing into US territory. This year, the SOAW Convergence was a bi-National event – starting in Eloy, to the north of Tucson, passing through Tucson, then south to Nogales, Arizona and finally Nogales, Sonora, Mexico.
Maria Luisa wanted to visit a Detention Center. So Peggy Morton, one of my colegas from the Hutto Visitation Program, and I planned to take her to Karnes. That morning, however, brought torrential rains and even a tornado – just at San Marcos, where we had to pass to get to Karnes. Sadly there is no scarcity of Detention Centers in Texas, so instead of going south to Karnes, where the GEO group runs a “Family” Detention Camp, we went north to the T. Don Hutto Detention Center. Hutto holds 512 women and is the Detention Center most visited by advocates in Austin. We successfully met with a woman that Peggy had been visiting.
As a person who feels strongly that it is important to draw connections between work for Palestinian freedom from the Israeli military and work to stop the violence at the US southern border, I was pleased that one of the most well attended workshops at the SOAW Convergence was given by Todd Miller, just back from Palestine/Israel, who spoke to those very connections. I wore my JVP tee shirt on Saturday – and as I went from activity to activity I was stopped many times by people who pointed to my shirt and held my gaze for a moment of recognition and agreement.
In reflecting upon my experience at the SOAW Convergence/Encuentro, I keep returning to the moments where I met with other people from JVP and realized that there are others who share my perception. Alan Wegman, of Albuquerque JVP and I shared the hour-long drive from Tucson to Nogales and then back, at the close of the evening. We had two great conversations and now the Albuquerque JVP is more real to me. Deborah Mayaan, of Tucson JVP, was a kind hostess whose work on the JVP portion of the Interfaith Service was steadfast.
I’m beginning to envision collaboration between JVP chapters in the southwest. I have a new sense of the national character of JVP; the Ithaca, Baltimore, Tucson and Albuquerque chapters now have faces to them. I hope reunite with them in Chicago in March for the National Member Meeting. The very fact that the Convergence/Encuentro fell during the Days of Awe offers me a hopeful sign of all the good that together we may do in the New Year.