THIS BLOG is NOW RETIRED

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

David Rovics: We Are Everywhere

To my fellow activists now struggling through life - let this be a reminder that you are not alone and that we desperately need you here. All the injustice, grief, war, and human suffering calls for us to stay and do everything we can about it - you can't help us anymore when you're gone. Don't give up the fight - your last shred of hope may just keep someone else alive, too.
BLOG POSTS

Friday, February 26, 2010

Defend Sanctuary and Samaritans: An American Tradition.

This is an awesome article from the Phoenix New Times (yes, the paper whose sidewalk I chalked not long ago) by Stephen Lemons. If Russ Pearce's racist bills continue to sail through this legislature and get signed into law, I may end up as a career criminal for more than littering. At least I'll be in good company - these folks are the real thing...

This is why Pearce and his henchmen (and sheep) all need to be defeated in November - if not sooner. They're already doing damage at a rapid clip, raping communities of their sovereignty and autonomy, and turning schools into hostile environments for teachers and undocumented children. If we don't play this his way, he'll make up whatever laws are necessary - or stiffen the penalties with new mandatory minimums - to prohibit whatever we're doing, so he can just have us all prosecuted or sued. Or both. 

This state is just the personal playground for men like him and their money, and their games cost lives. We have got to get them out of power.

This is a long article, but worth the entire read - the link to finish it is at the end.

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Phoenix New Times

Blood's Thicker Than Water: As Thousands Die in the Arizona Desert as a Result of U.S. Border Policy, an Army of Activists Intervenes

By Stephen Lemons

published: February 25, 2010

Gene Lefebvre remembers the day in late August 2008 when 20 to 25 Border Patrol agents, half of them on horseback, raided the Arivaca, Arizona campsite of No More Deaths, a group dedicated to providing humanitarian assistance to migrants in the desert. "They said they had tracked 10 migrants into our camp," says Lefebvre, a retired Presbyterian minister who helped co-found the organization in 2004. "There weren't 10 migrants, and there weren't the tracks."

No More Deaths did have a couple of migrants in the camp's medical tent, but there was nothing unusual about that. Migrants often showed up at the camp seeking first aid or water or food, sometimes getting directed there by local ranchers. The Border Patrol was and is aware of how NMD operates.

But though the migrants were later taken into custody, the Border Patrol seemed to be about something else that day: intimidation.

Lefebvre, in his 70s, was detained as the Border Patrol searched the five-acre site, called Byrd Camp, which is about an hour and a half southwest of Tucson. The site is named in honor of Arizona children's book author Byrd Baylor, who allows the hundreds of volunteers who come to the location each year to use her property as a base for their patrols, in which they leave water and food along the migrant trails that snake throughout the area.

After questioning those present, including a touring group of seminarians, the federal gendarmes thought they had their gotcha moment when they uncovered an old bale of marijuana in a nearby wash.

"It had weevils in it and was moldy," says Lefebvre, clearly relishing the recollection. "Some of the others started laughing when the Border Patrol said, 'Well, you've been using this, haven't you?'

"In the first place, we don't do [marijuana]," Lefebvre says with a chuckle. "In the second, this is old, moldy, yucky stuff. We have higher class than [to smoke] that."

There were storm clouds on the horizon that day; it looked as if a monsoon were about to break bad and turn the wash into raging torrent, preventing the feds from crossing back over. The clouds and the efforts of NMD's attorney, Margo Cowan, contacted by phone, encouraged the agents to leave.

But before they could beat an embarrassing retreat, they had words with John Fife, a tall, lean retired pastor who'd overseen Tucson's Southside Presbyterian Church for 35 years before his retirement in 2005. The church acts as NMD's headquarters.

Also one of No More Deaths' co-founders, Fife — who along with Lefebvre helped lead the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s — is not a man who suffers fools gladly.

"I said [to the Border Patrol supervisor], 'What is it you guys think you're doing?'" Fife says. "The supervisor says, 'You have to turn in everyone you run into who's an illegal out here.'

Fife shot back, "You better check with your chief because everyone of your sector chiefs has said that we are not required to contact you at all if we're giving food and water and medical aid to migrants."

The supervisor rode off in a huff. The next day, NMD fired off a letter of complaint to the Border Patrol and to the U.S. Attorney. Fife says the letter was never acknowledged.

The Border Patrol's 2008 raid was not an isolated incident. Since No More Deaths established itself as a presence in Tucson's vibrant social-justice community, it has butted heads with federal authorities annoyed by its work to put water in the desert and assert the human rights of the more than half a million people who cross illegally from Mexico into the United States each year.

NMD volunteers have been ticketed for littering by U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers working the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, and they've had their water poured out and their water bottles slashed by Border Patrol agents. They've been convicted in federal court by the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office, and in one case, two were arrested for transporting migrants, though the charges were ultimately dismissed.

Yet NMD is just one part of a vast resistance in southern Arizona that places human life and dignity above the dictates of American border policy. Think of NMD as the spear of a non-violent army that includes Samaritan patrols, advocacy groups (such as Derechos Humanos), water distributors (such as Humane Borders), and individuals working on the Tohono O'odham Nation.

The reaction of federal, local, and tribal authorities attempting to control the Arizona-Mexico border is not always hostile to groups who put out water and engage in other activities seen as pro-migrant. NMD leaders say many of their contacts with the Border Patrol, for instance, have been professional and often cordial.
Nevertheless, Fife, NMD's elder statesman, described the group's encounters with the Border Patrol, the federal government's heaviest presence in the desert, as "low-intensity conflict."

"It's a constant little push [and] push back out there," he says. "It depends on the agents, and on the circumstance."



In the calculus of southern Arizona's pro-migrant movement, No More Deaths is made up of people who like to camp out. They are hardcore hiking, Clif Bars-eating, GPS-addicted, four-wheel-driving geeks.

They're also known for getting arrested, ticketed, and convicted. And like conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War, they're generally proud and unapologetic, convinced of the rightness of their mission.

Part of it seems borne of the lefty enclave of Tucson itself, an über-crunchy college town where on any given night there's a vigil or a meeting for a group involved in the fight against U.S. border policy.

Consider it the metaphysical opposite of Maricopa County. In Tucson, the political stars are the likes of firebrand activist and Pima County legal defender Isabel Garcia or liberal Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva instead of far-right tribunes such as Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas or Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

As if further proof were needed: In the center of Tucson's downtown is not a statue to some obscure European explorer, but a 14-foot bronze sculpture of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa on horseback.
The Reverend John Fife is another of the town's icons, a man who's been dubbed Tucson's "most beloved felon." That's because Fife's the legendary co-founder of the Sanctuary Movement, which gave refuge to asylum-seekers from right-wing Central American states — such as El Salvador and Guatemala — empowered by U.S. foreign policy.

At the height of the movement, Southside Presbyterian, where Fife was pastor, was its epicenter, giving shelter to thousands of families and individuals fleeing Central American civil wars and death squads.
Then, as now, the federal government did not look kindly on Fife's activism. His church was infiltrated by the feds, and he — along with several other Sanctuary Movement activists — was tried and convicted for harboring, for aiding and abetting, and for conspiracy.

Fife received five years' probation, but the movement he helped spawn continued, more vocal than ever, and it turned into a black eye for the Reagan Administration. Years later, the U.S. government was forced to change its policy toward refugees from Central America.

In 2003, Fife and other local religious leaders and activists sought a way to address the escalating humanitarian crisis on the Arizona-Mexico border. As a result, NMD was founded in 2004. That year, the first official NMD desert excursion from Byrd Camp took place.

NMD was, in effect, a citizen response to U.S. border policy and the death and misery that policy has engendered.

In the mid-'90s, the federal government started walling off the border near San Diego and beefing up enforcement in El Paso. Later, urban border areas throughout Arizona, including cities such as Nogales, Yuma, and Douglas got their stretches of walls or fencing. Like a vise, border policy began squeezing mass migration into the arid, remote, and treacherous desert of southern Arizona.

The idea was that the desert formed a natural barrier to migrants, that its rugged terrain would dissuade crossers. The Border Patrol referred to the strategy as "prevention through deterrence." Critics called the policy "deterrence through death."

Estimates of the migrant death toll on the U.S.-Mexico border over the past 15 years range from about 3,800 to more than 5,600. (The Tucson group Derechos Humanos counts more than 1,900 human remains recovered in the Arizona desert over the past 10 years.) But most experts and activists believe many more have succumbed to the inhospitable elements and terrain.

In 2000, Humane Borders responded to the crisis with a network of 55-gallon water drums at stationary locations. In 2002, Fife helped start the Samaritan Patrol, now known simply as the Samaritans, or "the Sams." The Samaritans patrol daily with medics and Spanish-speakers, looking for those left behind in the desert by human smugglers not willing to wait for the sick, injured, or straggling.

Fife says No More Deaths was initially a coalition of existing organizations, with the singular goal of assertively providing humanitarian aid.

"The coalition was designed to push the envelope," Fife says, "to be more aggressive in establishing the right to provide aid and medical care out there.

"Then, in '05, when Daniel and Shanti were arrested by the Border Patrol, it scared some of the [members]," he said. "The coalition began to pull apart, so we said, 'Okay, No More Deaths needs to separate.'"

Daniel and Shanti are Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz, two college-age NMD volunteers. They became famous in the immigrant-rights community in 2005, when on patrol in Arivaca, they encountered three men in very bad physical shape.

It was July, and it had been more than 100 degrees every day for at least a month. Strauss later told Democracy Now host Amy Goodman that 78 migrants had died the week they encountered the men, who had been in the desert for four days, two without food and water.

"One had been vomiting, said he couldn't keep anything down," Strauss told the lefty Webcaster, whose online show is a must-watch for liberals. "He also reported finding blood in his stool over the past day, which is a very dangerous sign of internal problems and failure . . . All of them had blisters on their feet that kept them from walking."

Strauss and Sellz determined to get the men to a hospital in Tucson. On their way, the Border Patrol arrested them on charges of transporting and conspiring to transport illegal aliens. Their case became a cause célèbre in Tucson, where yard signs sprang up with the motto "Humanitarian Aid Is Never a Crime."

From around the world, postcards poured in to then-U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton's office demanding that he countermand the order to prosecute. Though the pair were indicted and faced up to 15 years in prison, they refused a plea deal. In 2006, a federal judge dismissed the charges, finding that there was no intention on their part to violate the law.

In 2007, the two young activists received the Oscar Romero Award, named for the Archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador, assassinated in 1980 on the orders of right-wing death-squad leader Roberto D'Aubisson. The award, given by Houston's Rothko Chapel, came with a monetary prize of $5,000 to each recipient. The pair donated half of the money to No More Deaths.

The Sellz-Strauss incident modified NMD's protocol. Only in the most dire, life-threatening circumstances would migrants be taken by car from the location where they are encountered, and only then after it is determined that an ambulance or the Border Patrol cannot make it in time to help. Balancing the protocol is a policy of giving migrants the option of refusing be evacuated or turned over to authorities, up until the point that they no longer are physically able to decide for themselves.

Still, hostile encounters between the Border Patrol and NMD members continue. NMD volunteers are threatened with arrest, and in one incident in December 2009, a Border Patrol agent verbally abused NMD volunteers as he emptied their jugs of water in front of them. Several NMD volunteers interviewed for this story accused the Border Patrol of slashing water bottles — though they admit there could be other culprits, such as ranchers, hunters, or even other federal agents.

For this story, the Border Patrol declined to answer questions related to No More Deaths or to the humanitarian crisis in the desert.


The Border Patrol is not the only federal agency with which No More Deaths has crossed swords: There is also the U.S. Department of the Interior, in the guise of Fish and Wildlife Service officials operating on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, a 118,000-acre stretch near Byrd Camp.

The refuge is home to such endangered species as masked bobwhite quail, and the cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl. Hunting of non-endangered species is allowed on 90 percent of the refuge, and the area is a favorite destination for bird-watchers and campers.

BANWR is also a major corridor for migrants. About 20,000 traversed it in 2009, according to Jose Viramontes, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman. About two migrant bodies a year are discovered in the refuge, Viramontes says.

For years, NMD volunteers have been leaving jugs of water on some of the refuge's 1,300 miles of migrant trails. Although Humane Borders operates three stationary sites on BANWR with two 55-gallon drums of water each — and Fish and Wildlife insists it plans to allow more sites — NMD argues that such stationary facilities aren't sufficient because the migrant trails shift. Also, some accuse the Border Patrol of staking out these sites, in hopes of nabbing their own endangered quarry.

The work NMD volunteers do on BANWR is similar to what they do in the desert surrounding Byrd Camp. They four-wheel-drive and hike to remote areas, follow the migrant trails, leave plastic gallon jugs of water at locations where they anticipate migrants will find them, pick up empties, and return.

Dan Millis was on such a trek in BANWR on February 22, 2008, with three other NMD volunteers, when a Fish and Wildlife officer admonished them for placing water jugs in the wild and ticketed Millis for "littering."
Rather than pay the $175 fine, Millis, with the help of Tucson attorney William Walker, challenged the ticket in federal court, risking a $5,000 fine and six months in prison.

Walker contested the charge by arguing that leaving out full, sealed water jugs to save lives is not littering, that the plastic containers only become litter once opened and discarded. On the stand, Millis argued that he and his group picked up more trash than they left. When he was cited, there were five crates of litter in the back of the truck he was driving.

The U.S. Attorney's Office countered that Millis would need a permit to leave such water on the refuge and cited a garbage problem — including cars abandoned by smugglers — on BANWR.

(Fish and Wildlife spokesman Viramontes estimates that more than 50 tons of trash is left on the refuge annually. With that much trash, some activists wonder why BANWR's managers are so concerned about a few water bottles.)

The decision by U.S. Magistrate Bernardo Velasco was a Pyrrhic victory for the government. Velasco found Millis guilty but gave him a suspended sentence. Nonetheless, Millis has appealed the verdict, and the matter is scheduled to be argued before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on March 2.

The Samaritans found themselves in a similar situation with federal authorities when Kathryn Ferguson, a Sams volunteer, was ticketed in early 2008 by a plainclothes Bureau of Land Management officer. During a confrontation in Arivaca, the officer shoved Ferguson, then handcuffed and cited her for "creating a nuisance." The U.S. Attorney at the time, Diane Humetewa, declined to prosecute.

Despite the incidents, No More Deaths volunteers continued leaving water jugs on BANWR in defiance of Fish and Wildlife's ticketing policy. In June 2009, a federal jury convicted NMD activist Walt Staton of a misdemeanor littering charge. Magistrate Jennifer Guerin sentenced Staton to 300 hours of community service and a year of probation.

A seminary student at the Claremont School of Theology in California, Staton briefly toyed with defying the community-service order, writing to the judge, "When a government fails to respect and protect human rights — or, worse, is itself a violator — it is the responsibility of citizens to act in defense of those rights."
Guerin threatened Staton with 25 days in custody, and Staton ultimately backed down, accepting the community service while appealing his conviction.

In July 2009, 13 humanitarians from NMD, Humane Borders, the Samaritans, the Catholic Church, and other organizations defied the BANWR ban by placing water on the refuge in full view of Fish and Wildlife officers. Their water was promptly confiscated, and they were all cited. Those ticketed included John Fife and Gene Lefebvre.

The day after the 13 were ticketed, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar contacted NMD, requesting that a delegation come to D.C. for a meeting. It included Lefebvre, who said he was impressed with Salazar.
"[Salazar] said he had compassion for the migrants who were dying in the desert and respect for the work we're doing, but that we would have to obey the law," Lefebvre says.

"After that, we got an invitation to meet with the [Fish and Wildlife] people in BANWR and their bosses from Albuquerque. So, obviously, the secretary arranged that."

Lefebvre says NMD is offering to partner with the agency to help it remove trash from the refuge. Recently, the Department of the Interior's regional director wrote to NMD attorney Margo Cowan expressing the department's "commitment to find a solution serving both parties."

A meeting between the two sides took place February 18 in Tucson, but no announcement has been made regarding an agreement. Officially, NMD has ceased leaving water on BANWR, but some of the group's activists continue to do so.



Though Walt Staton's flirt with imprisonment and the ticketing of the 13 activists have been the focus of recent media reports regarding the issue of leaving water for desert pilgrims, it's Millis' experience that offers a potent moral metaphor for NMD's work.

That's because two days before he was ticketed on BANWR, he discovered the body of Josseline Hernandez, a 14-year-old girl from El Salvador.

Josseline went missing two weeks earlier. She was on her way to California with her 10-year-old brother when she became sick and could no longer move with a group of migrants. She urged her little brother to go with the others, telling him she was the big sister and would be okay.

A missing-persons alert was sent by Derechos Humanos, an advocacy group that keeps stats on migrant deaths in the Border Patrol's deadly Tucson sector. Josseline's mother in Los Angeles had spoken with Derechos Humanos, sharing information about Josseline's situation from her brother, who had made it safely to L.A.

Some NMD members were actively looking for Josseline, but Millis was on another mission. He was seeking a shortcut to a spot where he wanted to drop off a supply bin full of food, a spot where he knew migrants were likely to find the provisions.

In a rocky canyon, wet from recent winter downpours, Millis and three other NMD volunteers found the girl. She was dead, her face unrecognizable but her body still intact.

"She had taken her shoes off," Millis says. "I saw her shoes first. They were bright green, so you couldn't miss them. Her feet were, like, in a puddle. There had been rain, so there was a little bit of water flowing through the canyon.

"She probably had some horrible blisters [on her feet], like everyone has when they come across. We know she fell behind. She had been sick, and she was vomiting [according to her brother], and she had taken her jacket off . . . and placed it on the rock next to her."

Pima County sheriff's deputies were called. When they turned over the body, they could see the word "Hollywood" on her sweat pants, one of the identifiers Derechos Humanos had used in its alert. The official cause of death was exposure to the elements.

Deeply affected by the discovery, Millis was further motivated to leave water in the desert. He was angered when the Fish and Wildlife Service stopped him a couple of days later to ticket him for littering on BANWR.

"To go out and try to do something about [deaths like Josseline's] made me feel better," Millis says. "To be accosted by authorities of the federal government, the same government that's making these stupid laws and pushing people out here in the first place, was too much for me."

Like many activists, Millis blames the feds for creating a situation that's caused migrants from Mexico to go through the remotest of desert, where bodies might never be found. Ironically, the former schoolteacher and convicted litterer now works for the Sierra Club, which also opposes the walls and other barriers erected along the 370-mile Arizona-Mexico border.

Josseline Hernandez has become the unofficial patron saint of No More Deaths. Religious groups and reporters often make pilgrimages to the canyon where a shrine to Josseline has been erected.

Prayer cards bearing the image of the slender young girl in a candle-filled church are sometimes given out. And her tale inspired Tucson Weekly reporter Margaret Regan's new book, The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona-Mexico Borderlands.

Josseline's is one of many stories that help fuel No More Deaths. Another is that of Lucresia Dominguez, a mother of two who was abandoned by her coyote guides when she fell ill. Her 15-year-old son stayed behind with her but eventually left her side to seek help, wandering lost in the desert until he was found by the Border Patrol and repatriated back to Mexico.

NMD joined Dominguez's father, Cesareo, in a search for the missing woman's body, guided only by the recollections of his grandson, barred from re-entering the United States for lack of a visa. Before he found her body, Dominguez's dad discovered three more migrant corpses in the desert.

At a service for his daughter in Tucson, the distraught father praised No More Deaths volunteers.

"I thank God," he told a reporter for the Arizona Daily Star, "that . . . I found all these people who helped me and never left me, not even for a minute."

His daughter's story became the stuff of legend. It was retold as part of the independent film 7 Soles, which wove together several such accounts for a drama about duplicitous coyotes guiding a group of migrants toward a Phoenix drop-house. Screenings of the film in Phoenix and Tucson raised money for the organization.

Each NMD volunteer has his or her own personal cache of tragic experiences.

Laura Ilardo, a high school social worker who leads Phoenix's NMD chapter, still shivers at the thought of a "rape tree" she saw while on patrol in Arivaca. The tree was hung with a woman's garments, left as trophies, and the woman's backpack was spilled out onto the earth. It is a common enough sight in southern Arizona, where it is believed that most women who cross are sexually assaulted by their coyote guides.

Another time, in 2005, Ilardo came across a pregnant woman guided by two men. The woman had a bad sprain, and the men had stayed to help her walk as the rest of their party went ahead. Ilardo was raised Catholic but does not consider herself a practicing member of the faith. Still, the encounter with the woman had religious echoes for her.

"It definitely felt like the birth story of Jesus," llardo says. "It brought that home for me, though she didn't have [a donkey], obviously. They were just walking."

Because of strict NMD rules, she and other volunteers did not transport the woman (because her injuries were not life threatening), so they guided her to Byrd Camp. Because her helpers were not ill, they did not enter the camp; only the pregnant woman was allowed in.

Her sprain was treated, and she was given her options: She could turn herself over to the Border Patrol or she could continue on after she had rested and the swelling had gone down.

The woman chose to keep walking.



Because of the citations NMD humanitarians are battling in federal court, No More Deaths' activities hark back to the civil disobedience practiced in the 1960s by anti-war activists.

NMD humanitarians prefer the term "civil initiative," a concept devised in the 1980s by John Fife's fellow Sanctuary Movement leader, Jim Corbett. The principle is discussed at length in NMD's resource book, handed out to all prospective NMD volunteers.

The handbook defines civil initiative as "the right and responsibility of civil organizations to protect and directly assist victims of human rights violations when the government is the violator."

In other words, as the definition contends, "Humanitarian aid is never a crime." No More Deaths members do not regard leaving water in the desert as an offense, any more than they regard any of the migrant-friendly activities they engage in as criminal.

NMD's civil initiative is a call to action, one that draws volunteers from all over the United States, Canada, and Europe to participate in the group's efforts to assist migrants crossing the desert or assist those who have already crossed, been captured, and deported...

(much more to go - link here to finish)

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