immigration

The Case for Civil Disobedience


One of the 18 Jewish activists arrested in Boston for protesting the South Bay migrant detention center wonders what it will take to shut down ICE and close these modern-day concentration camps.



On July 2, I was one of 18 Jews arrested in Boston for shutting down the South Bay Detention Center, and one of over 100 people arrested across the country protesting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the migrant detention camps at the border. This was part of a national mobilization calling attention to the fact that Never Again Is Now. We called on our ancestry as Jews to say that we know we can’t wait until it’s too late to fight injustice of this magnitude. We also know that vigils, marches, and spreading the word alone did not stop the Holocaust and they alone will not close these modern-day concentration camps. We grew up hearing “Never Again” and committing civil disobedience is our way of saying it now.

We are living in dire times. The detention camps at the border, and the inhumane treatment of migrants across the country are part of a larger rise in the xenophobic and white supremacist violence and rhetoric, long present in the United States. We also know that due to climate change, these systems are likely to worsen. Because of extreme weather events, resource scarcity, and the violent conflict climate disaster will inevitably bring, we will see more climate refugees, and more need for free movement.

These days I often ask myself, “Am I doing enough?” I don’t think living in shame is helpful, but it’s a fair question—Am I doing enough? Are we doing enough? The reality is, it is going to take so much more than consciousness-raising alone to close the camps and stop the crises we are facing.

For me, risking arrest wasn’t actually much of a risk at all. Being in jail for seven hours was not exactly pleasant, but from the moment I decided to participate in this action, to my court hearing the next morning, July 3, I knew that people were following what was happening to me, and were working behind the scenes to ensure a favorable outcome in court. I knew I could call out of work without fear of losing my job or suffering from loss of income. I knew that I would not become trapped in a horribly unjust criminal justice system and that my long-term consequences from this would be minimal, if I had any at all. This all proved true when District Attorney Rachael Rollins decided not to prosecute, and dismissed all our charges before arraignment.

Risk looks different for each of us based on our identities and experiences, but if we are serious about stopping ICE, closing the camps, and fighting the many systems of oppression this country is powered by, we all need to take them. For me, and for everyone with the privilege to do so, that needs to mean putting our bodies on the line. For others maybe it means sacrificing time or money. Maybe for some people, the biggest risk they can take right now is to push their friends and families in the direction of justice.

We need to think creatively about what meaningful disruption of “business as usual” actually looks like. By not allowing daily life to operate as “business as usual,” we can disrupt the complacency and systems that allow people to ignore the human rights crisis at our border. If they don’t want to look at it, we will force them. Maybe that looks like all of us calling out of work en masse and occupying ICE detention centers for as long as we can; maybe it means standing on train tracks and blocking public transportation over and over again until we win. Maybe we take immigrants into our homes, or found and build churches where they can seek sanctuary. It may mean things we haven’t even imagined yet, but in this moment, escalated risk is the baseline for taking action.

Disruption works. Vigils alone did not end slavery, but the underground railroad helped 100,000 enslaved people escape. Marches alone do not stop climate change, but the Unist’ot’en people have stopped fossil fuel companies from destroying their unceded territory by living in the path of several proposed pipelines for almost ten years. We cannot wait for the laws to catch up to what is just and we cannot count on politicians, or nonprofits, or lobbyists or anyone to do this work for us. As the Jewish text Pirkei Avot, Wisdom of the Fathers, states, “It is not [our] duty to finish the work, but neither are [we] at liberty to neglect it” (2:16). We must take direct action because when we take power into our own hands, we become powerful. 

In our protest, we invoked the Holocaust to show the severity of this crisis, but we can also look to the Holocaust for examples of effective responses. In the Netherlands, only 10 percent of the non-Jewish population was involved in Holocaust Resistance, but when students were asked to sign loyalty pledges to the Nazis, over three-quarters of them refused and joined the Dutch Resistance. I think there are two important lessons we can learn from this. First, that it took a smaller act of non-compliance, refusing to sign the loyalty pledge, to embolden greater action like hiding and smuggling Jews. Second, opposition mostly happened along the lines of pre-existing relationships. The students were able to provide meaningful support because they were already organized into well-connected networks.

My ability to risk arrest was made possible by the trust and love I felt with the Never Again Is Now Action organizers and the other 17 people who were arrested. I often look at the world and feel hopeless, but I don’t think the opposite of hopelessness needs to be hope. I think instead it can be love. Singing each other’s names as our arms were pinned behind our backs and we were loaded one by one into the police wagon, I felt so much love. Love for each other, love for our ancestors, love for the world as we dream it could be.

The author being arrested.

When I say we need to ground our movements in love, I don’t say it just to sound nice. I say it to mean we must love each other so fiercely that we are able to take the risks this moment demands. We must love each other so fiercely that we refuse to let each other down. We need to practice our commitment through actions like those we took this week so that next time we are able to take even bigger risks. When I say we need to ground our movements in love, I mean we need to be like the Dutch students and build the networks now that will support us through what will be a long and painful fight.

So I think “Are we doing enough?” is the wrong question because the answer will always be no. Too many people have already died, too many families have already been separated, too many people have already experienced unthinkable trauma. What we can ask instead is “How can we do more?”

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