By Aric Clark
We were seated in a circle, singing and praying, around a makeshift altar with a candle and some flowers as they came to arrest us. We were listening to stories about the men detained in the Sheridan, Oregon federal penitentiary. Stories of the immigrants and asylum seekers who had been detained in dehumanizing conditions for months without cause, without adequate legal representation, and without the ability to communicate with their families. The Sikh men who had come the the United States fleeing violence testified that they had been denied their turbans, fed beef, and refused any space or opportunity to say their prayers. Many of them lost hope while imprisoned. They contemplated suicide.
But one detainee, Albert from Cameroon, who had been released just the day before our circle gathered for sanctuary in the street, told us that hearing of our actions kept them going. “They haven’t forgotten us,” Albert said. Indeed, we were there to ensure that none of these men were forgotten. We were there to demand that Immigration Customs Enforcement “Let our people go!”
The Federal Protection Services officers gave the order for our group to disperse, but we remained seated praying. This action was organized by the Interfaith Movement for Immigrant and Refugee Justice (IMIRJ). We were 21 clergy of many faiths and hundreds of other supporters. This was part of a series of coordinated actions that have been going on in Oregon for months. We were the third and largest group of clergy to be arrested in August and all this sustained action is drawing media attention and pressure on ICE which is working. The detainees are receiving their rights and slowly but surely being released from Sheridan.
But the men in Sheridan are just a small portion of the many thousands of detainees around the country. Hundreds of children separated from their parents in the most barbaric aspect of this system have yet to be reunited with their families. We won’t be satisfied with the release of these detainees. We want an end to immigrant detention entirely. We want to abolish ICE.
I was arrested as I led the gathering singing “Peace, Salaam, Shalom.” I thought of my time in Palestine with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and how the walls, and prisons, an d militarized enforcement of racist and oppressive laws I saw there are mirrored here. I thought of the heroic protests of the village of Bil’in, and their garden of flowers planted in spent tear gas canisters manufactured in the United States. As the officers cuffed us with zipties and urged us into a police van I knew I was exactly where I needed to be.
The road to a just peace is long, but at times the signs are clear, and it is good to be able to walk it with confidence.