A Community Mobilizes: Flagstaff’s Repeal Coalition Rapidly Responds to ICE Raids Through Community Action

“We demand the repeal of all laws—federal, state, and local—that degrade and discriminate against undocumented individuals and that deny U.S. citizens their lawful rights. We demand that all human beings—with papers or without—be guaranteed access to work, housing, health care, education, legal protection, and other public benefits, as well as the right to organize.”

-The Repeal Coalition

The work that was happening this summer in Arizona and Phoenix, specifically, inspired me to become a part of a proactive movement. Pete and Luis’s piece, “The Political Situation in Arizona,” sparked my desire to come and do work here. “…The political terrain across the state is shifting, and the new rifts within the political class represent a ripe political moment’s emergence. It is these new possibilities, and the rapidity with which the situation is moving, that indicate the value and importance of Arizona right now.” I wanted to help be a part of something that was moving and that I felt was strategic.

Due to unexpected shifts in my personal health, I landed in Arizona a few months after I originally intended. As a result, it became apparent that my help would be more immediately useful in Flagstaff. Flagstaff’s Repeal Coalition was moving. The Repeal Coalition is a human rights organization dedicated to fighting for the repeal of all anti-immigrant laws. At the time, they were planning a rally that would be taking place three weeks from when I landed. The rally was intended to bring together the voices and stories of Flagstaff’s community by addressing the effects of racist anti-immigrant legislation on families and individuals. In the last few months the Repeal Coalition has been walking the streets and going door to door in targeted neighborhoods building the kind of relationships needed to resist policies and oppression that intentionally perpetuate a climate of fear. This report will be an overview of my experience in Flagstaff during the few weeks before and the few days after the Repeal Coalition’s immigrant rights rally.
Walking the streets of Sunnyside is where my work in Flag began. The strategy that Repeal takes on is one that engages community members in a discussion about the current political situation in Arizona. The idea is that this type of door knocking both forms a constituency of support and broadens networks of outreach simultaneously. While Repeal focuses most on building relationships for the long haul, the framework is one that attacks anti-immigrant legislation in the form of an alternative human rights agenda. Repeal’s door knocking strategy is one that attempts to destroy the limited debate around immigration by not only pre-emptively organizing opposition, but by acknowledging existing allies within a specific political space.
Door knocking instantly connected me to the faces of people most affected, most afraid, and most willing to share their stories. Getting a sense for what people are feeling and saying in their homes makes this work not only relevant in terms of being accountable to maintaining a purposeful struggle, but has stimulated my passion in a personal way. The stories I have heard directly provide meaning and direction for the most effective way to continue doing this kind of political work. Without these stories to shape our understanding of what is happening on the ground, the debate will be remain in the terrain of two camps. Our work entails helping to form a third pole in the debate by specifically speaking and acting based on the stories we are hearing through canvassing. My role was to help listen and build relationships in Flag to encourage a shift in the terms of debate while developing an analysis about what is happening on the ground.

Katie, Ashley, Jesus and I walked down Fourth Street. We are all Repeal members and walked side-by-side, taking up the entire street. Ashley and I speak conversational Spanish, Katie speaks none, and Jesus is a native Spanish speaker. We are heading north and see two men in jeans and t-shirts standing on the corner. I have been door knocking at this point for about two weeks. Door knocking for us entails going out in groups with at least two people and carrying with us information about what Repeal is, what we stand for, and what our plans are for future organizing. We also carry with us know your rights bust cards and a petition for those interested to sign. We use the petition mainly for us to keep a concrete database of our supporters in terms of leaders, activists, and followers, and to record their level of interest in our organization. This petition is also intended to be a symbol that shows our widespread network of outreach. When the time is right, we will bring this petition to City Council in a community effort to ask for the Repeal of all anti-immigrant laws. Our intention is to demand not only that the city council declare Flagstaff to be a sanctuary city within Arizona, but that Repeal (backed by our community) will hold the city accountable when and if our demands are not met. The potential here is for other cities (in Arizona especially) to adopt this method as one that builds a proactive political struggle and that works to shift more power into demands set through a polarizing human rights campaign.

With the petition in one hand and flyers in the other, the four of us begin our Sunday afternoon. A typical opening line for us sounds something in English like, “Hi my name is Jesus and this is Katie, Becca and Ashley. We are all from the Repeal Coalition—have you heard of us? Oh no? Well, we are a human rights organization fighting for the right for all people, regardless of documentation, to live, love and work wherever they please. Is this something you might be interested in talking to us about?” It’s not always that formal, but the general idea is to introduce ourselves and give a brief spiel about the work we are doing while trying to engage in a discussion about immigration and racism. We often bring up the sweeps taking place in Maricopa County (the Phoenix metropolitan area) as a way to start conversation. We try to offer enough background to give someone an idea of where we are coming from and why we are knocking on their door. A joke comes out real quick with these two as Jesus introduces us in Spanish and they smile and welcome us into their home while laughing, “ pensábamos que estan una ganga.” Jesus, Ashley and I laugh with them as Jesus translates to Katie, “They saw us walking down the street and thought we were in a gang.” We all laugh, now that we are on the same page. The home's residents introduce themselves to us as we enter their home.  We sit down in their living room, on perpendicular couches, and talk about what Repeal is.

“We are going door to door in your community to hear from you and your neighbors about what you think in terms of the possibility of ICE coming up to Flag and the idea that Flag could be the next Maricopa County? [Note: Flagstaff is about 140 miles north of Phoenix, in the mountains.] We have heard several rumors that ICE vehicles have been spotted driving around, not picking anybody up, but driving around the area.” That was the first story I heard when I arrived in Flag. It was about how over the last few months, children in local schools were dropping out at an increasingly rapid rate. Katie tells me, “People are too afraid to drive to the supermarket, to drive their kids to school, to even think about going to the hospital due to the fear. That internalized fear of deportation has limited people’s options.” My mind realizes how this deeply embedded culture of fear is distinguished not only by intentional exclusion from access to the public sphere for undocumented people, but that the color line is perpetually enforced because of Arizona’s anti-immigrant laws.

Moments later our conversation shifts to our host's story about how he crossed the border. He describes crossing with coyotes who kept him locked in a closet without food, water or clothing for a week as they waited for his family to send more money on his behalf. He explained that he had American money, but they wouldn’t accept it because they said it would be too difficult to exchange currencies. His roommate added that he knows people who were also tortured by coyotes. He told us that his friend who couldn’t pay had his fingernails removed, one by one. “The reality of crossing the militarized border is one that has forced an underground economy for human smuggling,” Jesus says to me as we are walking down the street, two blocks away at this point. I look at him, unsure how to respond. In my head I am thinking that I can barely stomach hearing about the torture and conditions that people face trying to cross the border. I rationalize my thoughts, “People are going to move to where there is work, to where they can feed their families and like he said, he can make the same amount working in one or two days in Flagstaff that he can make working for a whole week in Mexico.”

Jesus and I continued on that day, walking door to door. I couldn’t get our previous host's story off my mind. When we asked them about racial profiling they simply laughed. Our hour-long stay in his house was filled with the intensity of the subject and a personal exchange of experience that was surprisingly light. I am usually a little apprehensive about walking up to someone’s door and asking them what they think about the possibility of a raid—it seems like an intense conversation to delve into, but more often than not it turns instantly into a “This is what we were just talking about, or this is something that I talk about all the time with everyone I know.” Regardless of the skepticism and critique that Repeal received months ago from local activists, who said that this work would only bring unwanted attention to undocumented folks and that this is not something that “they” wanted or needed, I never heard anything like that while I was door knocking.
Door knocking opens the door to talk about the very issues that affect people’s daily lives the most. Most of the people we talked to expressed fear of the police, a fear of the possibility of ICE raids, and a general fear that was constant. I don’t know how this sounds to read on paper. For me, hearing this our first visit that day, and from over twenty other homes—including many women with children running around in the house who casually told me that they refused to go to grocery store because of their fear,—makes my heart drop. Needless to say, our hosts told us police harassment was routine and that it was worse here then it was in Mexico. They had both signed our petition and said they thought what we were doing needed to be done, that challenging racism and anti-immigrant laws was something they were on board with. I walked away deepening my analysis of the risks involved in crossing the border from Mexico to the US, the pressure that a global economy puts on the family structure, and why someone would want to fight for an alternative. I left thinking about the ironic break-up of a worker's family as a means for them to survive financially. Our host had concluded his story by pointing to a picture of his son posted on the wall. He said his son was home, with his wife, and that he was sending them money.

Walking the streets of Flagstaff was part of my day-to-day schedule. Each story informed me of what and how people are experiencing struggle in Arizona. Ou first host’s example is one that shows a connection between “the necessity to feed my family,” the risks he took to cross the border, and the consequences he faces as a criminalized person. I think it is here that we can begin to see that the migrant experience in Arizona cannot be coined as a “struggle to become white.” Undocumented individuals like him face federal, state and local levels of racial oppression as he is placed in a category not only where he is considered to be non white, but where denial of access to basic human rights maintains an intentional social order consistent with a heavily enforced color line.

This is where we must look for an opportunity to seize political space. It is here where connections must be made between those who are denied acceptance into civil society based on race. It is here that individuals and families are most vulnerable to being silenced and it is here that we can help ignite resistance by saying, as citizens and non-citizens, that we are not afraid and that we will not be silenced.
Repeal’s effort to seize political space is one that seeks to organize along the lines of unifying a strategy that challenges anti-immigrant legislation and other laws intended to uphold the color line. In the many months of strategy meetings, the Repeal Coalition has created an organizational structure with committees focusing its 15 to 30 consistent members on outreach, propaganda, follow-up, and scheduling and mapping. I joined the follow-up committee. In addition to keeping an updated spreadsheet of people whose doors we have already knocked on, follow-up entails staying in frequent contact with our allies. The majority of my work outside of door knocking was building and maintaining relationships with those who expressed interest in Repeal. We did this via phone calls and house meetings. As our networks of support grew in the time before our rally, we made sure to strengthen our existing connections.

One of the connections we made during this time was with the new formation of a Flagstaff Copwatch. Due to the ties that Repeal had made with members of the Taala Hooghan Info shop in the Sunnyside neighborhood (where Repeal’s meetings usually take place) the Info shop became an organizers’ nook. We had several Copwatch meetings in the few weeks before our rally. During those meetings we discussed rumors and fears of potential ICE raids and the possibility of working in collaboration with Repeal in the occasion that a rapid response via patrolling was needed. The group had literally just begun to think about strategy. We had Copwatch materials, space, donated cameras, no scanner and about five people. So we were small, but we were active in beginning to get the word out and starting outreach via putting up flyers.

About a week before our big rally, Arizona’s chapter of the ACLU put on a “Racial Profiling Forum” at Killip Elementary school in Sunnyside. Repeal saw this as a perfect opportunity to promote the November 19 rally, given the fact that we were allowed a slot to introduce ourselves as a co-sponsoring organization. George, from Repeal and MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanos de Aztlán), spoke on behalf of Repeal about our upcoming rally. The crowd of over 100 people included community, City Council members, lawyers, undercover cops, MEChA, Copwatch, Repeal Coalition members, and representatives from Northern Arizona’s Interfaith Council (NAIC). Because of the months that Repeal had spent making connections and working literally as a “coalition,” many of the faces we saw in the room we already knew, either from door knocking or planned meetings with organizations like NAIC and Copwatch and MEChA. When George shouted into the mike, “We are fighting for the right for all people to be able to live, love and work wherever they please,” the vibe shifted from a quiet room to one that was more way more vibrant. Everyone in the room clapped (Katie and I hooted a bunch) and the MC for the event called George back up to the stage to repeat the “action item” he had heard. “The rally we are having will be at St. Pius Catholic Church, on the corner of Cedar and Fourth Street, this Wednesday the 19th at 6:00 PM. It will be in Spanish and in English and childcare will be provided. Be there!” The MC for this event, King Downing, from the ACLU national campaign against racial profiling, also happened to be a Brooklyn Copwatch member. King Downing spoke to George and the rest of the audience when he said, “This is what we must be talking about when we talk about taking direct community action and holding the city’s ‘feet to the fire.’”

We were pumped after that event. Not only did George motivate a crowded room, but there was a feeling among the ten some Repeal members after the event that our position was well-received. We all felt that this event at the school publicly gave us an opportunity to say that knowing your rights must be a piece of fighting back against the police and ICE but that we want to continue organizing around these issues at next week’s rally. St. Pius’s priest Father Pat (a generally supportive and hugely influential community leader) invited us to give an announcement about the rally during Sunday’s Mass, in which we had the floor and an audience of over 300 people to hear about our event. We also made a connection while door knocking that led to a Repeal member giving an hour-long interview on Flagstaff’s Spanish radio station.
As we set up the chairs for the event and hung our “Ningun Ser Humano Es Illegal/ Repeal All Anti-Immigrant Laws” banner, I was excited to see how the event would turn out. The majority of Repeal’s most active members, including me, are very new to organizing. This made setting up for the event fun, as the majority of us channelled our anxious energy into making sure everything was as ready as possible. I think we all had different, but high, expectations about what would happen at this rally, especially those who had spent months and months planning for it. On one hand, we wanted it to be a safe space for people to be heard. We wanted the people whom we had been talking and working with to come together. On the other hand, we were hoping to come out of the meeting with a much larger group of members ready to take action and demand change. A worried mood set in around 6:15 when we announced that we would wait another 15 minutes for people to trickle in. Maybe it was more about dissatisfaction with numbers at first and the fact that the people we were hoping would start our testimonial section off had not yet arrived. At 6:30 we started the event. Over 100 people plus a full back room of children were there.

What if no one speaks? I was the point person for the follow-up committee and was responsible for making a list of four to five people to open the section for sharing testimonials. We had made a list of four, but only one person who we had checked in with and confirmed attendance had actually showed up. After Luis and Ashley used César Chávez’s clapping routine and introduced Repeal, they asked our one confirmed speaker if she wanted to give her testimonial. Sitting in the front row she replied, “I am really not feeling up for it, I am having a really bad tooth ache and I don’t want to speak now.” At this point we were about ten minutes into the event and my hands were dripping with sweat. But Luis broke the ice by telling his personal story. Over the course of the next hour, my sweating dwindled as more and more people shared their stories. My nervousness turned into my stomach cringing in a way that over the last few weeks has become more and more familiar. More people shared their fears and their stories. One woman next to me explained that her husband has been deported and she that she is alone and that she does not know why or what she can do. She says she doesn’t even know where he is. She is crying and so are the couple in front of me, who have just shared their story about refusing to take their sick child to the emergency room because they were afraid of getting pulled over and deported on the way.

This part of the meeting was emotional and it was unexpected for most of us, not necessarily because we were shocked at the stories people shared but because for many, it felt like this was the first real meeting the Repeal Coalition had ever had. I think it was in a sense, because it was the first time for so many people were in the same room talking about issues affecting all of us. It felt like the work was really beginning, not because we hadn’t been doing work up until this point, but because there was a general agreement that this was the work that we needed to be doing. It was as if this was a meeting to discuss the work that needed to be done. We concluded the first part of the rally with a chant, “Flagstaff escucha, estamos en la lucha!” (Flagstaff, listen, we’re in the struggle!) Then we got moving on the second part, which was on what people wanted to do politically and to introduce the Repeal resolution as a possible strategy. Taryn started us off: “When I hear a new account of oppression by the state, state authorized racism or racial profiling, I am fraught with fear and responsibility.” The room was silent. Taryn did not need a mike to make a speech that made me feel like I was a part of the civil rights movement. “We need to fight those who enforce the color line and tell us that white is all right but Black and brown, stay back!” When she spoke, the mood was inspiring.
Not that we were overall focused on getting our numbers up, but I don’t think we expected the space to be one focused as much on healing as it became. We thought it would be an action-packed event focused on how to get more house meetings, more people signed up for door knocking, and more people to bring Repeal’s resolution to the upcoming City Council meeting. It turned very quickly into a space where people expressed their fears that they will lose their loved ones, that they have lost their loved ones. It did not matter that we tried to move the rally into a plenary direction. Testimonials continued as a woman described the experience of a friend: “She called the cops because her husband was beating her. But she was undocumented, and the police ended up deporting her. Her child is still here.” There is violence in forced silence.

The rally ended. Almost nobody had noticed the hour and a half that had gone by, except our translator, who was exhausted. We all stood up and clapped in unison again, faster and faster until we were all shouting together.

The next morning we woke up to news that ICE was raiding Flagstaff. We were told to spread the news to everyone we knew. “Do not to open your door if ICE knocks, you only have to open your door if ICE has a warrant.” The phone chain began as we mobilized.  The news was shocking, and Repeal members instantly contacted each other about what was happening. We received a phone call that told us that at the local elementary school in Sunnyside, children were in the nurse’s office because they were sick from fear that their parents would be deported.
Panic set in. We asked what we could do to help and we developed a plan to help escort children home from school at the end of the day. We called everyone in Repeal and asked if they could meet us at the school. Larry Hendricks, a reporter for the local newspaper the Arizona Daily Sun, wrote an article about us: “About 40 people, organized by the Repeal Coalition of Flagstaff, gathered at Butler Avenue and Sawmill Road to hold signs and chant slogans protesting the arrests. Katie Sahrenbruch, a member of the coalition, said the organization was alerted to the raids by members of the community and took action. The reason: ‘To show solidarity with the community and to ensure that members of our community weren’t being deported and families weren’t being torn apart and that ICE raids in Flagstaff is something that won’t be tolerated,’ she said.”

We decided to plan a protest for that evening. We made banners that read, “Stop ICE Raids,” “No Human is Illegal,” and “Deport ICE.” In a few hours we had over 100 people show up in front of the county jail. We chanted, “We are not afraid!” “No more body snatchers! No more body snatchers!” (Malcolm came up with this one!) “ICE is on Thin ICE,” “What do WE want? Justice! When do we want it? NOW!” “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” among others. Afterward, Flagstaff Copwatch met at the Info shop and usual meetings of four people turned into over 30. People were standing—there wasn’t enough space for all of us. We ran through a Copwatch 101 training and split up into patrol teams. Copwatch patrolled Sunnyside for the next four days.

The night was long and most of us were running on sheer adrenalin. It might not have been the best idea to keep going, or to patrol with people who had never patrolled before. And without a scanner, it might have seemed like we were on a wild goose chase. We read in the paper that ICE would be in town until Sunday. It was Thursday night and we figured that we would remain out on the streets until they left. (As I am writing, two weeks later, ICE is still in Flagstaff.) Both the police and ICE knew we were out on the streets and the police even came up to us while we were patrolling to tell us that they were in no way were working with ICE. Clearly, this was a small victory. We helped pit two powerhouses, if even slightly, against each other. We were working to claim community ownership, we were working to protect the streets, and it was interesting to hear the police defend themselves this way. We refused to stand by and watch our communities destroyed and families split up. We refused to sleep (for many of us, literally) through a moment in which we felt we could stop a raid before it occurred.
We hardly slept. The infoshop became a home of sorts. “Hello, welcome back to the home base” is how I opened the door when someone came to the shop to give an update. We were equal parts pumped, scared, and motivated. We held an emergency planning meeting the next night to discuss what the next steps should be. Another action was decided for on Saturday on the corner of Fourth Street and Route 66 in Sunnyside. We organized it in order to make our solidarity to the community known and this statement clear: ICE is not welcome here. A member of the Repeal Coalition, said, “These agents have just come into our communities and have separated many families. We are here to help not just the Sunnyside community but all the communities in Flagstaff.” Flag continues to resist, to organize and to fight for a solution.

The work is ongoing. In addition to providing mutual aid to families under attack by ICE (offering rides, running errands, being escorts and doing counseling), Repeal has been providing legal aid to families under attack. We have been connecting families to lawyers and informing people of their rights. Ongoing work is still being done to plan for future rapid responses to ICE raids through phone trees, ICE watching and preventative action. House meetings are being arranged and community outreach is a constant component for the work to come. Repeal is also developing a media strategy. But even in the midst of the ICE raids, the basic political strategy for Repeal remains the same. The goal is to repeal the anti-immigration laws and get the resolution passed so that, “We (can) welcome humans of all nations to Arizona and pledge to respect their dignity and their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

I cannot reiterate enough: this work requires local and national support. If you are reading this, and you live in Arizona you should contact Flagstaff’s Repeal Coalition and speak to someone about how to build a Repeal Coalition in your city. Repeal’s example in Flagstaff is one that shows how to do political work that addresses the struggle in Arizona in a proactive way. This work not only demands political space and raises consciousness, it acts as a call for others to participate. This report is therefore a call for help and a call for action. In the last few weeks I have seen how much more work needs to be done. The time is now, the space is available, and we must move forward.

Becca is a member of the Repeal Coalition and Bring the Ruckus in Phoenix.