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The World We Want: An Activist Dispatch From the SOA Watch Convergence

The human rights crisis worsens at the US-Mexico border, and US mainstream politics offer little hope for refugees and migrants.

Activists marching toward Border Patrol Checkpoint near Tubac, Arizona, (Photo: Steve Pavey)

No Checkpoints, No Fear

On October 9, 200 of us marched along the dusty highway between Nogales and Tucson toward the Border Patrol checkpoint just north of Tubac, Arizona. At the front, those of us prepared to risk arrest clutched painted crosses in our hands, each bearing the name of someone murdered by US-trained assassins or the militarized US-Mexico border. The desert sun beat mercilessly on our linked arms as we sang:

I see

I see

No immigration police

No checkpoints

No fear

The world we want is right here.

Crossing into the checkpoint area, we braced for the Border Patrol to approach and arrest us. That is what we had come for. But, to our surprise, they let us through peacefully — unlike the many Latinx and Indigenous travelers who are racially profiled and stopped at that checkpoint every day.

Temporarily confused, we huddled together to consult. The 20 of us bearing crosses then formed a line beside one traffic lane, linking arms and resuming our song as the rest supported from a distance. The adrenaline rushed through us as we prepared to make our stand. The word came quickly, passed along by a volunteer lawyer: We could either move now, or it would be federal felony charges.

The School of the Americas Watch

The event that led the 200 of us to march on that Arizona checkpoint was the 27th annual School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) protest.

Since 1990, SOAW has gathered protesters from across the country in Fort Benning, Georgia, to demonstrate against the School of the Americas, a military institute that has trained Latin American dictators and deathsquads for decades. Through the years, the SOAW movement has forced the school to change its name and modify its curriculum, and, this year, the school’s closure even made it into the Democratic Party’s platform.

With those victories in tow, SOAW organizers decided to move their annual event to the US/Mexico border (particularly the area of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora). They did so in order to broaden their event’s focus, highlighting the root causes of Latin American migration and the militarization of the US-Mexico border region — a process that has forced migrants to cross through more dangerous areas such as the Sonoran desert. As SOAW Founder Father Roy Bourgeois put it, this year’s encuentro would bring grassroots organizations together to build power for a “culture shift” around Latin America and immigration as a whole.

The first two days of the convergence, attended by around 1,000 participants, featured a protest at Eloy Detention Center, a notorious private prison for immigrant detainees; a binational march led by Veterans for Peace; a series of educational workshops on topics such as migrant disappearance, mass incarceration and the Colombian peace process; and a vigil for José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, the 16-year old killed by Border Patrol in 2012 while walking home on the Mexican side of the border.

What follows is a report from the third and final day of the convergence.

A Time for Action

The October 9 events began at the Nogales border wall with the traditional litany always read at SOAW gatherings: a list of people killed in Latin America by SOA-trained assassins. The names are sung in a high voice, and the crowd responds with a mournful “presente.” This year, the names of immigrants who died crossing the border were added to the litany.

A puppetista hummingbird crosses through the border fence. (Photo: Gus Bova)A puppetista hummingbird crosses through the border fence. (Photo: Gus Bova)

Following this, the puppetistas — street performers using large homemade puppets — performed a piece of street theater for the crowd. Sending cardboard hummingbirds through the border wall’s bars and touching cardboard hands on hundred foot poles above the fence, they rendered the border temporarily obsolete through their performance.

Finally, at about 1:30 in the afternoon, activists began organizing rides to head north toward the checkpoint between Nogales and Tucson. Throughout the weekend, people had been organizing for a direct action there — a continuation of the SOAW’s long tradition of civil disobedience.

Once there, we gathered forces beneath a highway overpass and divided into groups based on openness to risk. The “red” team, those willing to risk arrest, led the procession, bearing crosses with the names of those lost to war and the gaping desert. Led by Father Roy and long-time Border activist Carlota Wray, we headed for the checkpoint.

We sang:

We remember all the people

these checkpoints kill

We can feel their spirits

They are with us still.

Activists holding the line at Border Patrol checkpoint. (Photo: SOAW Facebook)Activists holding the line at Border Patrol checkpoint. (Photo: SOAW Facebook)

As we lined up, arm in arm, beside the checkpoint’s lanes of slow-moving traffic, our voices drowned out the Border Patrol’s commands. A constant stream of mostly Latinx drivers drove past our line, flashing us many fists, smiles, peace signs and furtive waves.

Our spirits high, we kept up constant chants and songs as our legal volunteers informed us that we would receive no more warnings and arrests were imminent. We glanced at one another for confirmation, and held the line. We would stay and reach as many people as we could with a message of resistance and hope:

Se ve (You can see it)

Se siente (You can feel it)

¡La gente está presente! (The People are here).

We stayed loud as a number of state police officers arrived and informed as that this was absolutely our final warning. We raised our voices higher.

In the end, however, they made no move to arrest. Instead, we were asked through our legal support team what the Border Patrol could do to make us simply leave. We consulted one another — activists ranging in age from their early 20s to their 70s — and came up with a decision.

“We will leave,” we responded, “if they leave first.”

We sang:

I see

I see

All my people walk free

No papers

No fences

Where every life is respected.

Holding the line for the next five hours, we reached hundreds of passing drivers, and watched as the state police backed down — packing up and going home. With the threat of arrest gone, we huddled and hatched another plan.

Gathering up the crosses we had put down (fearing that the police would consider them weapons), we called over the 40 or so activists who had hung around all day at a distance, supporting the crew that risked arrest.

Bolstered by their numbers, we bore our crosses toward the Border Patrol’s nearby office building, where we staged a die-in, blocking the entrance to their office. Some of us died, crosses in hand, representing the migrants lost in the militarized border zone, and others mourned our deaths in loud wails that drowned out the patrolmen’s complaints.

“This is what happens,” yelled one activist. “This is what these checkpoints cause every day.”

The World We Want

The School of the Americas Watch left Fort Benning in order to bring attention to the ongoing human rights crisis at the US-Mexico border. The convergence also shattered any simplistic or charitable solutions to the crisis.

US foreign policy, such as the 2009 US-backed coup in Honduras, is a root cause of the stream of refugees coming from Latin America to the United States. When these refugees arrive here — if they avoid a lonely death in the Sonoran Desert — we treat them as strangers and invaders — we lock them up in detention centers and frequently deport them back to their death.

We do this despite the fact that so many of them are Indigenous to these lands; we do this despite the fact that our economy is actually built on the hyper-exploitation of their sweat and blood; we do this despite the fact that it is mind-bogglingly expensive and drains our public coffers, leaving our own citizens desperate in this era of austerity without end.

Amidst all that, the SOAW convergence should leave us with this powerful lesson: We cannot trust any politician to take care of such problems for us. We will have to link arms at the grassroots level and start to solve them ourselves. We will have to converge more often and form stronger coalitions across all divisions and borders. We will have to earn the world we want.

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