I visit Washington, DC quite often – I grew up there and much of my family lives there. But the trip I took on Jan 16, 2018 was different from any of my previous visits. Last week, I went DC to be part of an action for Dreamers, put together by Bend the Arc, a national Jewish organization that works for social justice.
On Tuesday afternoon, all of the participants in the planned action met at the Friends Meeting House in NW Washington. There were over 130 Jews from all around the country (12 different states). The only person I knew going into the room was Anna Rubin, one of JCUA’s Community Organizers. She had invited me to attend with her to represent Chicago. It felt like going to summer camp…traveling to a new place with all new people for a new adventure. And then we started singing songs and it really became Jewish summer camp.
There were introductions and they had different exercises for us to do that helped us learn about what we would be doing. In the first exercise I met a retired school teacher from Massachusetts. She became involved in immigrant rights after she realized one of her students was undocumented and she wanted to try to help the student gain status.
Then we started learning about our action. The action was going to take place in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building. We formed teams for different aspects of the protest. Anna and I volunteered for the “banner unfurling” team. We practiced quickly unfurling our banner which read “Pass the Dream Act Now.” Demonstrating in a Federal Building is not legal so we had to decide Tuesday night if we would risk arrest the next day. There was a legal briefing about what to expect from an arrest. It was good to know the legal ramifications and there were many, many questions for the attorney. By the time it was over we were all excited and felt well prepared.
We met Wednesday morning at a Lutheran Church two blocks from the Capitol. There were bagels, coffee, more instructions, and some really inspiring speeches by Stosh Cotler, Executive Director of Bend the Arc and Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Then it started to feel like a yoga class. We all set an intention and did some breathing exercises. I had been thinking about yoga because I had not slept well that night and was having some anxiety about being handcuffed. I am a serious yogi and have really tight shoulders, so I decided to think of being handcuffed as a chance to work on opening my heart!
After a few more run-thrus of our plan, we formed a line, three abreast, and walked over to Russell. I walked next to a woman from San Francisco named Nicoll. She works for Jewish social justice groups in SF and was excited to be on the East Coast for some demonstrating!
We made it through security, and found our way to the rotunda. There were lots of police, I guess they knew we were coming. There were also a lot of cameras! Once we got the signal, we unfurled the banners and started singing (Olam Chesed Yibanah, We Shall Not Be Moved, and Ozi V’zimrat Yah). After a few minutes a policeman with a bullhorn gave us our first warning to stop. That was our cue to sit down with the banner we had unfurled. The rotunda is all marble so it was quite loud with the singing. Then there was another warning to stop. But we kept singing and then Stosh made a short speech. The third warning came. We were told they would start arresting people after three warnings and they did. However we kept singing. I saw Anna being handcuffed and realized this was for real. A few minutes later a policeman tapped me on the shoulder and told me to stop or I would be arrested. I didn’t stop so he said I should stand up. I stood up and was handcuffed. Then he turned me around and I saw for the first time that the rotunda was full of young people in orange caps. The Dreamers! Someone said “look, they are supporting us, support them.” Wow, that was really beautiful. Many of them had tears in their eyes, then I had tears in mine.
The policeman walked me out of the rotunda into a long hallway and where there were even more Dreamers lining the hallway. We ended up going down an elevator and went outside. At this point we were all frisked. We were being loaded onto a bus. I am not sure how long it took but we eventually left the Capitol and drove for about 10 minutes, stopping at a warehouse. They then took us off one at a time. This time we were really thoroughly frisked. We then went inside the warehouse and were told to sit on metal chairs, men on one side and women on the other. I saw Anna and Nicoll on the womens side which was reassuring.
I ended up sitting next to a guy from New York named Jeff. He was a great companion for the next several hours. A very smart and entertaining guy who made me feel almost conservative in my political views (I had always thought I was liberal!). It seemed like another hour before everyone else was finally brought into the space. Then the processing began. They took pictures of each of us with the officer who arrested us. Then we went to a table where another officer read us our rights and asked us a few questions. It was hard to tell what the process was. Some people left fairly quickly but I was not released for a while longer. It was 3:30 pm by the time I had my handcuffs cut off and was outside of the warehouse. A member of the “Jail Support” team was waiting for me. He excitedly told me that our action had been very successful. Several Senators who had been on the fence were now demanding that the Dreamers be included in any budget talks! The press coverage had been great for our action and it absolutely helped bring more attention to the cause!
The next morning we were back at the Friends Meeting House for a debriefing. There were several Dreamers at the meeting and they spoke about how great it was for them to realize other people supported them and the work they had been doing for weeks in DC with United We Dream. Once again it was very emotional as they shared their stories.
I went down to DC last week because I was frustrated by the current administration and the idea of taking action sounded good.The purpose of the trip was to show that the American Jewish Community stands with Dreamers and we have not forgotten that the Dreamers are Americans and must be treated as such. Bonding over this concept with strangers who became friends reminded me that, as Stosh told us Wednesday morning, no matter how much the opposition tries to divide us, WE ARE ONE!
P.S. It is now a week later. When the government shut down it seemed like congress was finally paying attention to the Dreamers. Now the government is back open and it is not clear what congress will do. It certainly is frustrating ….but also makes me realize how important it is to persist. Thankfully we have organizations in place to help remind us what to do. Thank you to all the staff at Bend the Arc for planning and executing the action on January 17, 2018. Bravo! And thanks to JCUA and especially Anna Rubin for being there to remind me to keep working for a better and more just world.