“We Who Believe in Freedom”
Rev. Greg Ward
August 15, 2010
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula

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When I breathe in…
I breathe in peace…

When I breathe out…
I breathe out love…


That’s what we sang…


When I breathe in…
I breathe in Peace… 


We started with about 60 of us…


When I breathe out…
I breathe out love…


We marched in and blocked in the intersection at 1st and Washington… We sat down on pads to protect us from the 140 degree pavement.  We locked arms and faced outward…


When I breathe in…
I breathe in peace…


The Phoenix police – in riot gear – marched in on us…




When I breathe out…
I breathe out love…




They were two or three hundred strong…




When I breathe in…
I breathe out peace… 


…but as the swell of officers came within 20 feet, four or five reporters with camera crews swooped in.  They looked for those of us with clergy collars on and stuck microphones in our faces…




When I breathe out…
I breathe out love… 


“Are you clergy?” 




“You are not Latino.”




“Why are you here?”


“When the law – and the people who enforce it – are guided by racism and practicing hatred and discrimination, someone has to stand up for justice.”


“There are hundreds of officers in riot gear who are going to arrest you.  Aren’t you afraid?”


“Yes, I’m afraid.  But I’m more afraid of what this country becomes if we let those same officers arrest people because of the color of our skin and perpetuate fear and division.  When parents are taken from their children and deported based on fear, someone has to stand on the side of Love.”




There were orange shirts all around me. They all said the same thing.  “Standing on the Side of Love.”  To me that gave me the assurance I was surrounded by Unitarian Universalists.  To the people of Phoenix – and others – who came to protest, it was different.  They didn’t know what a Unitarian Universalist was.  To them, we were just the “Love people.” 




We took over the corner of 1st and Washington because that’s where the Well’s Fargo building was.  That’s where Sheriff Joe Arpaio had his floor of plush offices.  The law – SB 1070 – had gone into effect that morning and Arpaio made a point on the prior evening’s newscast saying he’d ordered massive sweeps of the city to pick up, detain and deport any undocumented workers he could find.  We wanted to make a point of our own: that xenophobia was not the answer to this country’s immigration problems.  And those who stood in fear, did not stand alone.




An hour earlier, most of us were standing in a circle around the Phoenix in the city center.  Volunteers of the Ruckus Society and the Catalyst Project and Puente – the local Latino rights organization – were briefing us on what would happen next. They had all helped organize the training the day before.  They made sure we had all turned in paperwork with our contact information so that they could track us in jail.  They had us write the phone number of legal services – provided by Puente – in indelible ink on our arm – because of the likelihood that all our possessions and papers would be taken from us.  They made sure we all had ‘outside partners’ – contacts on the outside who would take care of details – move cars, check out of hotels if we were in jail for a while.  Hold our cell phone.  Call loved ones.   I had three outside partners – actually, ten if you account for the actual value of Carol Collin.




“Are you ready?” they asked.


“Wait!” came a voice.  It was Jorge Mursuli – A cuban activist with Democracia in Miami.


“I just wanted to say that I didn’t know, at first, if I wanted to join you getting arrested…  …If getting arrested would make any difference…  But when I look around at all of the non-Latinos here who are this committed and this organized - - It has really shown me that I need to be part of this group.  And I just want to say ‘thank you.’”


That was the prayer that stayed with me as we marched into the intersection.  It strengthened me as we linked arms and held our 100 ft banner that said, “Arizona Human Rights.” 




It kept me grounded nearly two hours later when the police moved in to arrest us. And while they did, we kept singing.


When I breathe in…

I breathe in peace…




They came up to us, one by one, and let us know we were about to be arrested. They said that if did not resist they would be gentle.  They were.  And we continued to sing.


When I breathe out…

I breathe out love…




Whenever they arrested anyone wearing a collar, the crowd chanted, “Arrest Arpaio, not the clergy.”  And we continued to sing.


When I breathe in…

I breathe in peace…




One by one, they handcuffed us and led us away. 




It took forty-five minutes for them to get to all of us. 




With each person they led away, the chant became fainter and fainter.  Still, those that remained continued to sing.


When I breathe out…

I breathe out love…




I was the last person to be arrested.  “I’m placing you under arrest for obstructing a thoroughfare.”  And as I stood to be arrested and stopped singing, that was the end of our chant.  And everything seemed ominously silent among the thousand people watching.


When we got to the transport trucks, I was frisked and handcuffed. 




They took a Polaroid picture which they sealed inside a plastic bag with my citation.




The only possession I kept was my “Non-Compliance” ID –which contained only my name and birthdate – in solidarity with those who could not produce documentation. 


Jorge Mursuli was my paddy-wagon-partner.  As soon as they closed the double reinforced doors it got very hot and sweaty inside the cage.  Since our hands were tied behind our back we had to keep pressing our faces against one another’s body to keep our glasses from falling off our face.


Maricopa county jail was only four blocks away, but it took twenty minutes to get there. 




Another group of protesters were blocking the entrance, forcing the transport trucks to take an alternative route. 


When they stopped and opened the doors we were in the underground garage of the jail.   We were placed against the wall just in time to see thirty officers in riot gear –




 including shields and AK-47s storming past us on their way to the entrance of the garage. 




When the metal door opened the sound of drums pounding and people yelling could be heard.  One by one, those protestors who were blocking the jail – about twenty in number - joined us.  They included Susan Frederick Gray –




  minister of the Phoenix church who issued the call to come to Phoenix and Peter Morales – the president of the UUA. 




We might have cheered their arrival had it not been for three officers who dragged a young Latino protestor past us as he screamed, “I’m not resisting arrest!  I’m NOT resisting arrest!”  An uneasy quiet fell over group.


 Names were shouted and groups of five were gathered and escorted into the jail where we encountered two things - a wave of air conditioning and the pandemonia of an over-crowded booking room. 




I was led past an officer who looked at my shirt (which read, WE WILL NOT COMPLY) and smirked:


“You’re complying now, aint ya?”




With a couple of other men, I was placed in a holding cell.   Several other men, mostly Hispanic, looked up as we entered.  Their eyes turned to my collar. 


“They arrested a priest?  Are you really a priest?”




“What did you do?”


I explained.  Fellow protestors chimed in. They seemed dumfounded as to why a bunch of white people – from as far away as Miami – would come all this way to get arrested.  Which led to a short explanation of Unitarian Universalism – which no one had ever heard of nor could quite make sense of.




That holding room had built-in concrete benches for 10 people to sit.  Since there were 15 or more of us, we had to take turns.  It was hot, stuffy and smelly.  There was 3 ft. cinder block wall on one end of the cell which didn’t quite conceal a toilet and overhanging drinking fountain.


Over the course of the next two hours the one steel door opened and closed. Names were shouted and people were taken away or dropped off.  At times it seemed like people were moved randomly so as to purposely confuse everyone.  Equally disorienting was the fact there were no clocks, no windows to the outside revealing the sun and bright neon lighting everywhere.


But one thing became surprisingly clear over the next 27 hours: everyone I met in jail that day had a story. 

Before this experience, I thought there was something strikingly – even inherently - different between me and people in jail. Now, I can say that the biggest general difference I observed was the color of my skin. 




And the number of chances our lives afforded us.  Because the stories I heard were my stories.  They were about the people they loved.  The sense of obligation they felt to provide food and housing and a decent life for their children.  The sense of desperation that led to bad choices.  Their worry.  Their sense of powerlessness.  


After several hours in that holding cell my shoulders ached from being handcuffed behind my back.  Some inmates were cuffed in front and one of my more seasoned prison pals showed me how to contort my hand free and recuff myself in the front.


After more a couple hours I got my first feeling of being forgotten – lost in the system.  I mentioned this to the next guard who came in to take a prisoner away and in a few more minutes he called my name led me to a nurse who got my medical history and then to a place where my fingerprints and mugshot were taken. 




But as I was walking to stand in front of the camera, an officer came up and told me he had to remove my collar.  He looked a little awkward and sheepish as he reached for it and then appeared surprised when he discovered it was just a scrap of white paper plate I cut out early that morning.


“That’s all there is to it?” he asked.


“That and a lot of love,” I said. 


He didn’t respond. 


From there a group of six of us were called into a room, frisked and our shoes sent through an x-ray machine.  We were told to stand against the wall and shut up which I soon learned was the default expectation any time we were outside a holding cell.


The next cell we were put in was down a long corridor.  It had larger concrete benches but with metal bars affixed every two feet to prevent you from lying down. The same half wall and toilet in the back. But this room had three phones. 


 We immediately called the number on our arms to talk to legal services.  They took our information.  Next, I tried to call Liz. When she answered a recording started which said, “this is a collect call through the Maricopa County jail from prisoner, GREG WARD – to accept the call, please have your credit card ready and call…  I hung up.   When I called back, learned that Liz had to authorize a $25 deposit. That gave us about 10 minutes.


She told me that everyone had called her. All three of my outside contacts.  Legal services from Puente.  The UU district executive.  And the TV station.  None of them knew whether I was eligible for bail. 


An officer unlocked the door holding plastic bags of food which he tossed to us. 


Each bag had two pieces of bread, a small cup of sugary peanut butter, vending machine cookies, a dried up orange and Kool-Aide.  Sheriff Arpaio… 




 …prides himself on feeding his prisoners for less than $0.87/day. 

“Can we get bail,” someone asked. 


“You’re not going to court until tomorrow at 10.  Get comfy.”


That’s when I felt my countenance fall. Though my conviction for why I were there never waivered, it’s hard to convey the impact that such disorientation, separation and contempt treatment have on the human psyche.  And even though I knew we were right and that there were others who cared, it’s hard not to feel alone.  Or forgotten.


I was transferred to a different cell a few more times.  Each separation left me wondering and worrying for those remaining behind.  And each time I reunited with people I’d seen before it was a happy reunion.  New stories were shared and that brought comfort.  I felt this not only with my fellow protestors but with those brought in for armed burglary, aggravated assault, or drunk and disorderly alike.   Everybody’s humanness became more important than their charges.  A sense of solidarity formed among us and contrasted the general fear and contempt felt around the guards. 


At one point in the evening Sheriff Joe Arpaio… 



…walked past our cell. Seeing all the yellow shirts in a tank next to ours he entered.  It was clear he was there to gloat and taunt the protestors. Those who were there reported later the suffocating feeling of having all the space in their cell suddenly taken up with his ego. 


That induced even more questions in me whether our actions could possibly have any impact on such a megalomaniac – or the city which supports such a man.  I heard later that when he visited the women in a different section they refused to talk to him – just sang.  And as he stood outside the door, one of the women made the sign of a heart and pointed at him.




With disbelief, he pointed to himself and then dismissed her affirmation with a shrug. 


We were fingerprinted one more time and then taken out into the hall where we were handcuffed in rows of two….




…with seven other prisoners and taken upstairs.  There, we were told to strip down and put our clothes in a bag.  We were given prison stripes to wear – along with pink boxer shorts




– Joe Arpaio’s trademark way of humiliating prisoners – along with pink socks and slippers – and marched up to cells just big enough for two people.




There were thin mattresses on which to sleep.  And thin pink blankets.  My cell mate was a young protestor attending ASU in Tuscon.  After a little conversation we tried to sleep.  But he suddenly became anxious and started to hyperventilate.  Using a button on the wall he called the guard who answered over the intercom.  He told them he had general anxiety disorder and claustrophobia and didn’t have his medication. 


“This isn’t supposed to be the Ritz-Carlton,” the guard snapped back before consenting to come escort him to medical.    After nearly an hour he returned, nearly in tears, where he reported that the nurse just yelled at him before sending him back.  We talked.  I sang. 


When I breathe in…

I breathe in peace…


When I breathe out…

I breathe out love…


I led him through some guided meditation and a little yoga and eventually we fell asleep.


In the morning the doors opened automatically and a guard came by and tossed another bag of food identical to the night before.  Again, handcuffed in groups of eight we marched downstairs to another cell to await our time before the judge.


When the door to the courtroom opened, we saw that the women were already inside.  




There was an audible gasp when they saw us enter in our stripes.  None of them had been required to change clothes.



Eventually, court appointed attorneys came over to us individually and asked us if we wanted to plead guilty or not guilty. Confusion ensued.  We all thought we were going to have a lawyer from Puente legal services represent us.  We were told he was at the jail and trying to get into the courtroom but was detained. 


“Look, we just need to know what you want to plead,” he whispered with some exasperation.   The judge pounded her gavel and ordered silence or she would send us all back to our cells.  That’s when I felt most scared.  And alone.  And forgotten. 


Just then I overheard a different lawyer – the one from Puente – explaining that there was a plan to delay our plea and hope the judge would release us on our own recognizance.   When my name was called the judge asked if I understood my charges.  


The prosecutor claimed that because I was ‘transient’ (I was arrested with my “I will not comply” ID card) the court should require 500.00 bail.  The public defender laughed and said, “he’s with the church and plans to come back for the trial.”


“PCD-ROR” the judge shouted to the woman scribbling at the table.  A rush of relief fell over me knowing that meant I would be released on my own recognizance. 


From there we were re-chained and led back to where we were given back our street clothes whereupon we were taken into a cell that said, ‘RELEASE.’  There was a little relief in knowing we were going home.  But also some sadness of leaving those people with whom we’d developed such a feeling of solidarity. Those who made the time bearable and kept us from feeling alone.


One by one they called our names and we were led down a hall and put in groups of five.  I was in the second group.  They fingerprinted us again and returned to us what they confiscated on our arrest.  As my group waited the first group was led away and disappeared through a door. 


A few seconds later we were all startled when an enormous cheer – several hundred strong – erupted from the direction where the first group had gone. Everyone – even the officers – stopped and looked.  Some of them even smiled. And I realized we had not been forgotten. We had never been alone.


As the cheers were heard smiles appeared on the faces of my fellow protestors.  They appeared among the other prisoners – even among the officers.  And that’s when it hit my – just how absurd all this pretense of division, humiliation and contempt really was.  And yet, how real it was.


A few seconds later, we were led down the hall and to the door.  When we opened it, the cheers erupted again – for us. 




I found out that many of them had been there all night – waiting…




…praying, singing.   A group of over fifty…  




…watched us in court from closed circuit TV and had been working with lawyers non-stop to make sure we made it through. 


They shouted, ‘we love you,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘we’re proud of you.’  And that made a world of difference. 


In twenty seven hours, I learned more about racism, classism, and institutionalized oppression than I learned in all my years of seminary.  And I also learned more about faith, hope and the true power of a religious community when values – and people’s lives – are on the line. 




We did not change the fact that thousands of people remain trapped in that system. 




People trying desperately to keep their families together… people who provide most of the exploited labor force corporations of this country count on to keep their prices low.   People who are, everyday, arrested, detained, tried, convicted and deported – and who have no one waiting, no one praying and no one cheering for their release.  That’s why we did this.




When I got back one of my respected colleagues on the chat line questioned the purpose and value of our demonstration. They said that protesting and getting arrested can do more harm than good – invoking the contempt of those communities.  She pointed to a very powerful sermon which another minister delivered and encouraged us to use our time writing more sermons like that instead.


I’m glad I got to preach this sermon and tell you about my experiences.  I hope it’s powerful.  I hope it brings about change.  But I know if you asked me… having had several hundred people waiting, praying, singing and petitioning for my freedom, which I’d rather have – those people, or their sermons.  I’d take the people. 


I’d take the people.  I’d take you. 


To the Glory of Life.



We Who Believe in Freedom