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A Lot of Hope, and a Dash of Crazy

My heart was racing. The chairs, which had been placed in a large circle, were moved to the side of the town hall we were meeting in. Once they were cleared away, we took our places in two lines facing each other. I found myself across from my opponent – a sweet-faced woman with shoulder length grey hair who smiled at me kindly. We introduced ourselves, shook hands. Still shaky with nervous energy, I turned my attention to the Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation leader who was facilitating the activity. She directed us to stand face to face, a little closer to each other than was comfortable. As we shuffled into place, she reiterated the directions – the row on the right of the town hall would play the role of a border patrol agent, and those on the left would be checkpoint monitors. She reminded us that we know our rights – that we may document law enforcement acting in a public capacity, to videotape and take pictures of public servants. The border patrol agents cannot make arrests – they must call the country sheriff to do that. We are not interfering with traffic or their work, but are simply monitoring.

We held a minute of silence before beginning the hassle line role play, taking the time to engage with our characters, consider how we would begin. I breathed in deep, attempting to soothe my anxiety. It was remarkable how even the prospect of role playing this scenario could make me jittery. I’d always been an accommodating person, tending to follow and respect authority. Now, taking on the role of checkpoint monitor in this exercise, I worried about my ability to assert myself.

Begin. I raised my head to meet the eyes of my border patrol agent. I put out my hand and smiled.

“Hi, I don’t think we’ve met before. My name is Nadine. I’m going to be one of the checkpoint monitors here today.”

She reluctantly put out her hand and shook mine before requesting that I step back, explaining that she was concerned for my safety as there would be traffic passing through the checkpoint. I calmly explained that it was for this reason that monitors were wearing high visibility vests. I was confident in my ability to be safe, and her ability to control the traffic. And by the way, I don’t think I caught her name, would she please give me her name and agent number for the record.

“My name is on my badge,” came the terse, but polite response. She continued to politely reinforce the importance that I move further away down the street. I could feel myself growing frustrated. Is this how our conversation would continue to go? I’d say something, and she would repeat her position, and then I would repeat mine? How were we supposed to come to any sort of middle ground? I explained our role as monitors, how it was important for me to remain here, where I could do my job most effectively. Smiled again. Reiterated my understanding of her concern for my safety.

She attempted, again, to get me to move away. Irritated and wondering why she looked so calm when I could still feel my heart going a mile a minute, I nodded understandingly, and once again refused.

Before the conversation could continue, the activity was brought to a close. We debriefed the feelings on each side. The monitors reported feeling of anxiety, pounding hearts, anger, and disappointment in the lack of progress. The border patrol agents talked about anger and frustration, and how they were put on the defensive and struggled to maintain their authority. They also talked about uncertainty, and not knowing what to do when people don’t respond to their requests. I felt my heart return to a normal pace.

Myself, the other six CPT delegates and our three leaders were visiting with a group of about twenty-five community organizers preparing for a checkpoint monitoring action. This was the final major Sunday meeting before experiencing the real thing on Wednesday. As part of our CPT delegation, we were there to support the small town community as they pursued their request to have the nearby checkpoint removed. The town of Arivaca was home to about 700 people, and had experienced violations of their rights, harassment, and warrantless searches at this checkpoint, which locals must pass through often, if not daily. The checkpoint also has economic consequences for the small town as it deters visitors, reduces tourism, and diminishes property values significantly.

Border patrol sets up these types of checkpoints as a method of catching migrants. In fact, the only question they can legally ask individuals at a checkpoint is about their citizenship. However, there is no public information regarding the effectiveness of the checkpoint in achieving its purpose, and checkpoints such as these have increased the death rate of incoming migrants as they must journey further and longer in the hazardous desert conditions to avoid the border patrol checkpoints before they can meet a friend or contact who can pick them up and get them to safety. Checkpoints such as these are costly and have little proven effectiveness, other than increasing the militarization of the border and the small communities living within 100 miles of the border.

As a result, Arivacans decided it was time to do something about the checkpoint. They’d petitioned and communicated with border patrol, but when that approach revealed itself to be ineffective, they decided to go to the next level – introduce a checkpoint monitoring system, where they would have a team at the checkpoint two days a week, watching the border patrol, recording their activities, and generally holding the border patrol accountable. As a delegation, we were lucky to be in the Tucson area during the launch of this action, and invited to take part and offer support.

Which is exactly what we did on Wednesday, when we arrived at the checkpoint on Arivaca Road just slightly after 11am. The community organizers had already begun the set up. They had signs propped against the fence, the checkpoint monitors were in place, and various media outlets had set up to report on the action. Our group joined in, picking up signs, settling in with clipboards to take notes, even singing songs in solidarity.

The border patrol had quickly reacted to the action – they immediately began negotiations to have the checkpoint monitors move further away from the checkpoint station. They claimed to have a permit delineating the exact footage of where the monitors were allowed to be. Could they show it to us? No. It wasn’t here. It was in Pima County’s records. But they’d seen it, it did exist!

The checkpoint monitors refused to move, requested that the permit be shown to them. So the border patrol called the sheriff to deal with the protestors. After several more negotiations, the sheriff simply told the monitors to move to the other side of the road, where they would be less at risk in the event that some tried to charge the checkpoint and go through without stopping.

So the checkpoint monitors changed sides. And shortly after the sheriffs (and all their four vehicles) left, the border patrol again began to tell the monitors to move back, requesting thirty feet. The negotiation here lasted much of the afternoon, with the border patrol and checkpoint monitors running over conversations not so different from the one I’d experienced in our Sunday role play. It was here, perhaps, that I watched the most compelling scene of grassroots dialogue take place, as the six checkpoint monitor and a few other Arivacans circled together to discuss whether to move back the requested thirty feet. Each person was given room to speak their opinion, and time was spent reflecting on the nuances of their interactions with the border patrol. How strongly worded was the request to move back? If they refused, would they be risking detention and arrest? Were they prepared for that possibility?

Their lawyer was called, to request input, and a decision made – the checkpoint monitors would try, one more time, to get the border patrol to produce the permit they kept talking about, and would move back only if they were specifically ordered to. As the border patrol returned to the negotiations and the challenge was swayed, a fellow delegate tapped my elbow and suggested that I make good my escape from the checkpoint area. As a Canadian, things could get a little hairy for me if things heated up and arrest was threatened.

Calm, cool, and collected, I beat a hasty and inconspicuous retreat to the less heated group of protestors lending their moral support in song and chants. As I left, it was evident that the checkpoint monitors were being pushed back. Though they stood their ground for as long as they could, a line of border patrol formed in front of them, and soon the monitors were forced to pick up their equipment and move back to the spot that border patrol had already set up.

Though the border patrol had gained 30 feet that day, making it considerably harder for the checkpoint monitors to do their work, we left with a feeling of satisfaction. The monitors hadn’t been pushed back as far as they feared, and over all they’d led a successful action with plenty of media attention. And now they have some next steps to pursue, including getting their hands on the permit that border patrol referred to and never produced.

The checkpoint action was our last full day of the delegation, and it was good to end on such a strong note. Drinks at the nearby Cow Palace (a restaurant, though the name might lead you to believe otherwise) gave us all a chance to unwind and celebrate the day’s accomplishments before getting back on the highway to Tucson.

The CPT delegation ended before I could even begin to process all the lessons and experiences it had given to me. Ten days was probably barely enough to scratch the surface of all the effects of the border on the lives of people living the US and Mexico, even if my awareness has grown exponentially. Above all, the main feeling I’m left with is hope. Despite the harsh realities of migration and the immense challenges faced by those seeking justice in the borderlands, people haven’t given up. There are many groups and individuals working on either side of the border, doing their everyday acts of love and peace. Recently I’ve felt the burden of knowing that there are those in my life who see me as cute, naïve, and hopelessly romantic for believing that the work I am committing myself to has any impact on the world. There are stereotypes that go along with being an activist or a hippie, which are both labels that have been applied to me. But the radical notions of community and justice are ones that I firmly believe are rooted in the life and way demonstrated to us by Jesus, and I’m happy to commit myself to this work of creating a just world here on earth. The alternative of approaching injustice with a practical cynicism and little hope for change in the future simply doesn’t appeal.

And if people think I’m crazy, so be it. As I learned early on in the delegation,

“Those who bring an urgent message are most often dismissed as crazies.”

So maybe it’s time to start talking to some crazies. Could be we have something important to share. And maybe even a little bit of hope to go along with it.

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