I Witnessed the Horror of Border Militarization, and Vow to Fight It
I ‘ve just returned from the San Diego-Tijuana border where I had the honor of participating in “Love Knows No Borders” — an interfaith action sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and co-sponsored by a myriad of faith organizations from across the country. As a staffer for AFSC and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace (one of the many co-sponsoring organizations), I took a special pride in this interfaith mobilization, in which more than 400 people from across the country gathered to take a moral stand against our nation’s sacrilegious immigration system. I’m particularly gratified that the extensive media from our action could shine a light on the brutal reality at our increasingly militarized southern border.
The date of the action (December 10) was symbolically chosen to take place on the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and served as the kick off to a nationwide week of action that will conclude on December 18, International Migrant’s Day. The action set three basic demands before the US government: to respect people’s human right to migrate, to end the militarization of border communities, and to end the detention and deportation of immigrants.
Over the course of this past weekend, hundreds of participants streamed into San Diego for orientation and training. To conclude our preparation and as a precursor to the upcoming action, an interfaith service was held in the packed sanctuary of University Christian Church. As one of the Jewish leaders of the service, I noted that it was the eighth and final night of Hanukkah and invited the Jewish members of our delegation up to sing the blessings.
Before the lighting, I explained that the final night of Hanukkah is the night in which our light shines the brightest, and I pointed out the wonderful confluence of this Jewish festival with our interfaith action the following day. Rev. Tracie Blackmon, a United Church of Christ leader and prominent social justice activist, delivered one of the most powerful messages of the evening, properly placing the issue of immigrant justice within the context of US white supremacy.
Arrests at the Border
The next morning, we gathered at AFSC’s San Diego office and left in buses to Border Field State Park, located just north of the border with Tijuana. After a press conference, we marched west down the trail to the beach, then turned south and approached the border fence, which snaked across the beach and jutted several hundred feet into the water. As we got closer, we could see a tangle of barbed concertina wire laid out in front of the fence. Behind the wire stood a phalanx of heavily armed border police.
The action set three basic demands before the US government: to respect people’s human right to migrate, to end the militarization of border communities, and to end the detention and deportation of immigrants.
When we reached the edge of the wire, some of the clergy formed a semi-circle and offered blessings for the migrants. As the prayers were spoken aloud, the police used a megaphone to inform us that we were trespassing on federal property and that we needed to move to the back of the wire. I recited the Priestly Benediction in Hebrew and English (“May God bless you and keep you …”), doing my best to articulate the prayer between the voices of police barking out orders (a ceremonial first for me).
When our blessings were over, we went back to the other side of the barbed wire and those of us in front formed a line directly facing the guards. A policeman repeatedly told us to leave, adding that he did not want any violence — an ironic statement considering that he and the rest of the riot-gear clad border police wielded automatic weapons in front of our faces. We began to chant freedom chants and held the line, even as the police inched forward and started to push us back.
While we were careful not to touch any law enforcement officers, we continued to hold the line as the police pushed us forward. Eventually, protesters who did not yield were grabbed, pulled to the police side of the line and arrested. Most men were thrown to the ground and held down with their faces in the sand while their hands were bound together with plastic ties; women were generally allowed to kneel before they were led away from the beach to waiting police vans.
When we stood up to the line of armed border police, I couldn’t help but flash back to my very similar experience in Hebron.
As I continued to hold the line on the far west end of the front line, I noticed a commotion at the other end: Police had broken through the line and were chasing protesters down the beach. I saw one of our protest organizers, AFSC staffer Matt Leber, roughly thrown to the ground by at least five or six border police officers, handcuffed and led away. While Leber did not intend to take an arrest, this kind of intentional targeting of organizers is a common police tactic.
We learned later that Leber had been charged with felony assault against a federal officer. In video taken of the incident, however, you can see Leber (wearing the red T-shirt and backpack) guiding the protest when he is suddenly attacked, unprovoked, by the police who lunge at him and yank off his backpack. You can also see AFSC staffer Jacob Flowers (wearing the yellow vest) attempt to nonviolently de-escalate the situation by placing his body between Leber and the police before they throw him to the ground.
Shortly after Leber’s arrest, I dropped to my knees and was grabbed and pinned down by two border police officers. When it became clear that I wasn’t resisting, they allowed me to stand of my own accord and led me to the line of arrested protesters who were arrayed along a fence, waiting to be placed into police vans.
All told, 32 of us were arrested and charged with the misdemeanor of “nonconformity to the orders of a Federal Law Enforcement officer.” After we were cited and released, we learned that Leber had been charged with felony assault of a law enforcement officer. When a day went by with no further word, AFSC released a statement calling for his immediate release. To our collective relief, Leber was eventually let out later on Tuesday afternoon and the charges against him were dropped.
The True Meaning of Border Militarization
During our debrief, many noted the ferocity of the border guard’s response to our prayerful, nonviolent demonstration. Many of us — in particular the white, privileged members of our delegation — agreed that we had gained a deeper sense of empathy and solidarity with our migrant neighbors, a stronger understanding of the toxic effects of militarization on our border communities, and a more profound conviction than ever that we must all fight for a nation that receives immigrants with open hearts and open doors.
This experience also served to demonstrate what “militarization of the border” truly means. My friend and fellow Jewish Voice for Peace member Elaine Waxman put it well when she wrote about our experience on her Facebook page:
What has stuck with me most in the last 24 hours is a deeply uncomfortable sense of what that border surely looks like when the witnesses are gone, the journalists are not taking pictures, and the encounters are with migrants instead of documented (and often white) community leaders. Because what we saw yesterday looks like a police state.
Indeed, when we stood up to the line of armed border police, I couldn’t help but flash back to my very similar experience in a direct action with Youth Against Settlements during the summer of 2006 in Hebron. In both cases we faced heavily armed soldiers, the loud screaming of orders, and the use of the threat of violence to intimidate and deter those who do not yield to state control.
Clergy demonstrators hold the line at the San Diego-Tijuana border fence.
I also noticed another, more specific similarity between these two experiences. When I stood in front of the border guards on the beach, I noticed familiar tear gas canisters belted across their chests. I’d seen the same on soldiers throughout the West Bank and Gaza: silver cylinders with blue writing manufactured by Combined Tactical Systems in Jamestown, Pennsylvania.
Seeing those same canisters at the US-Mexico border reminded me of the multiple intersections between systems of state violence and corporate profit – and of the need for a movement that will expose and dismantle them once and for all.