I began this blog in May 2009 following the death of Marcia Powell at Perryville State Prison in Goodyear, Arizona. It is not intended to prescribe the path that leads to freedom from the prison industrial complex.

Rather, these are just my observations in arguably the most racist, fascist, militaristic state in the nation at a critical time in history for a number of intersecting liberation movements. From Indigenous resistance to genocidal practices, to the fight over laws like SB1070 and the ban on Ethnic Studies, Arizona is at the center of many battles for human rights, and thus the struggle for prison abolition as well - for none are free until all are. I retired the blog in APRIL 2013.

Visit me now at Arizona Prison Watch or Survivors of Prison Violence-AZ

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Humanitarian Aid Is Never a Crime...except in Arizona

The DeConcini Court House in Tucson was easy to find this morning: A bunch of old hippies and people of faith with sandals, flowing skirts, graying beards and ponytails, and a few signs were standing around at 8:45am as I drove by. As I approached after parking I noticed a couple of Native Americans in traditional dress - I believe they were Tohono O'odham - smudging the place and blessing Walt Staton. Then, of course, the whole group broke into "We Shall Not Be Moved". That set the stage for the sentencing at 9am.

Walt was sentenced today to one year of unsupervised probation - during which time he's banished from the wildlife refuge - 300 hours of community service picking up litter on public land, and a $25 fee for leaving a jug of water in the desert to try to save a life. More specifically, his punishment was for knowingly leaving "litter" in the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge - never mind that he was taking out a bag full of garbage when he was actually ticketed.

Arlo Guthrie would appreciate this story.

That there were 60-70 NMD supporters there was no surprise; they gave us a bigger courtroom and still couldn't fit us all in, partly because so many people came from the wildlife refuge and the US Attorney's office. I wasn't expecting that: about 10 Fish and Wildlife officers were there in uniform. And they had no fewer than six US Marshals on hand in case we got too rowdy or left our water bottles behind.

I don't know quite what I expected, having never been to a NMD event or meeting, but I've never seen a more peaceful, spiritual, centered, supportive group of activists - which is saying a lot. There was a sense of comradery and intimacy among those I suspected were NMD members that I've only experienced a couple of times in my life, both times with people I'd fought alongside for a period of time. You can tell in the whispers and waves across the courtroom, in the hugs and laughter before and after, and in the collective embrace of solidarity. I was one of a few strangers there, but people smiled, joked, and introduced themselves to me as we waited for things to get underway; I felt enveloped by good will. Some activist groups are dysfunctional and consequently ineffective; this is one healthy bunch of people, however. Grounded. Mature. Not the expected descriptors for a bunch of baby boomers and their siblings, but it's the best I can come up with.

At least 20 folks who couldn't fit in the court room waited outside for an hour to find out the results; we all let loose in the hallway after the hearing was over to applaud when Walt came out, and got chased out of the building because we made so much noise. We were exceptionally well-behaved in court, however.

Both of the attorneys went on far too long, but Walt's statement to the court was quite eloquent. He began with noting there was another migrant death in the desert this weekend. He asserted that he believed leaving water out was the right thing to do, and that he didn't regard it as littering even though an NMD member had recently been convicted for the same thing. He reaffirmed that human life is the most fundamentally important factor here - which the judge said was elevating his priorities and goals above those of others (like the staff at the refuge). Really, he somehow managed to stick to his principles - which caused him to protest the $175 ticket in the first place - while being humble and not pissing off Judge Guerin.

Having missed the trial itself, I found the judge hard to read - little expression, no nodding, occasional pointed challenges to the defense when both Walt and his attorney were addressing her. Yet when she sentenced Walt it was apparent that she had already decided what to do - she even did her own research into environmental groups in California (where Claremont School of Theology is) that he could do his community service with. The prosecution was asking for a $5,000 fine and five years of probation. Can you imagine that - after having the government spend some $50,000 on this trial (according to Walt's attorney), the US District Attorney then wanted to monitor him for his humanitarian crimes for five years - presumably so he can be imprisoned (at a cost to taxpayers of somewhere over $50/day) should he leave a jug of water in the desert again. Talk about clogging up the system with pettiness.

I'm not sure how Walt would have fared today if some dialogue about this issue hadn't been started between NMD and the Department of the Interior already. Apparently Ken Salazar called NMD himself to set up a meeting after 13 more NMD volunteers were ticketed in the refuge. NMD has proposed an understanding whereby they could continue to leave water out for migrants as long as they took out twice as much garbage as they bring in - which they do already. And Walt is leaving for seminary next week, so he was able to duck the question of whether or not he would be littering in the desert again.

Perhaps if NMD and the Department of the Interior can come to an agreement soon, the other humanitarian litterbugs will get a break, and NMD can be more effective moving about the refuge. It could really be a win-win for all. And though migrant arrests are down this year, the desert deaths are way up. So, if anyone is inclined to write a nice letter to the Secretary of the Interior about how vital No More Deaths is - not just to migrants, but to the soul of our community - it probably wouldn't hurt.

Blessings, Walt, and wishes for a safe, fulfilling journey. That goes for the whole NMD crowd.

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