“I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. A time comes when silence is betrayal,” Martin Luther King Jr in 1967 before his speech denouncing the Vietnam War.
Preparing for my trip to Homestead I thought I was probably more ready than anyone to go. For months I have been working remotely organizing and helping others plan their days witnessing. I had communicated with every single person who signed up to witness and I heard back from most of them about their experience. Charlie and I had been in intimate communication almost daily. Yet I was taken aback by the overwhelming emotions I felt pulling up and seeing the Witness Camp on the left and the children’s detention camp on the right. I was, in fact, not the least bit prepared.
After driving down from Miami with Dona (Dona generously drives people from Miami to Homestead if their plane arrives on Tuesdays or Thursdays. I was lucky that my first day was a Thursday and I got to drive with this amazing woman who I had helped so many others coordinate with) the first person I encountered was a fellow Mainer, Tina. This was our first in person meeting. Funny how life is. You meet a neighbor 1,500 miles away in a horrid place keeping children who after fleeing unimaginable violence and dramatic effects of climate change were taken from their families as they entered our country. And there we stood in deep embrace finally meeting each other. When I saw Charlie I was overcome with emotions and sobbed. I didn’t expect that at all. Yet the months of work and stories overcame me and won out. Like any good parent she said, “It’s ok; do it here. But don’t do it on the ladders.” Wise, wise words.
After a short tour of camp I began to help Tina put up a few more signs. I know full well the demands on those who witness daily. The toll of seeing the kids, fighting with Homeland Security guards about where they are legally allowed to stand, and maintaining camp is at the very least, overwhelming. So I helped where I knew I could, I helped with organizing camp. But we stopped when we heard the boys outside and walked down to the ladders. That was the second time I was surprised by my lack of preparation. I had seen many photos and videos of this exact scene. Yet when I climbed the ladders I was overcome again. I was staring the monster in his eye. The monster being the camp keeping these youngins here without their families for indefinite amount of time. Thankfully I was able to follow Charlie’s directions and control my tears until I climbed back down. The ever patient Tina again described what we were observing. Sleeping quarters on the left in the old dilapidated building, school and cafeteria in the tents. Many of the older boys we saw were playing soccer. Some were playing basketball. Some standing in the shade of the tents. Clearly not as many there as photos of the past had shown. #WherearetheChildren? Where did all the children go? At the height of this camp there were over 3,000 kids here. When I was there, mid-July, there were around 600. As I held up my heart sign and yelled “we love you” and “you are not alone” in both English and Spanish, I wondered, “Where did all the children go?” My stomach told me it was not to their families as those in charge would like us to believe. Let’s stop and think about that for a minute. As a retired school teacher I have quite a bit of experience witnessing children in lies. Not often, but enough to recognize it and it usually starts with the observation of patterns and behaviors. I instinctively pulled on those years of experiences to quickly come to the conclusion that it isn’t adding up.
We were standing outside a facility that is in such a remote place that it is incredibly difficult to get to unless you have a car. We were standing on ladders on a designated spot because if we were to cross the street we would get in deep trouble from Homeland Security. We were standing on ladders because when witnesses first started to witness the kids, those in charge built a fence so witnesses couldn’t see in. When witnesses brought and stood on step stools, those in charge made the fences higher. I’m assuming when witnesses arrived with even taller ladders, the operators gave up in futility. One small success for the determination of the witnesses. When press and congressional representatives first tried to tour this facility they were denied. They were denied entrance!!! Our tax money goes to this place yet our representatives in Congress were denied entry! It’s on federal property. Some say that is why they get away with this. Yet in my mind I’m thinking, “They are on federal property that our tax dollars supports yet our federal representatives can’t see inside?” They, those who make millions of dollars a day off of this place, claim they do all this for the safety of the kids. Hogwash. Then why are they holding the children for so long violating agreements such as the Flores Agreement which doesn’t allow this length of time of detention? Why do they feed the children unfamiliar Mexican food when they are from Central America? Why did it take witnesses yelling and screaming for weeks about guards having hats to protect them from this sun but the kids didn’t have hats, to finally get kids some hats? If you look back at early photos you will see guards with sun caps and kids with their sweatshirts over their heads. Why can’t they touch each other? Imagine no touch? We know the consequences of that. It is clearly documented the harmful effects of such policy. Why are shredders there each week? What are they hiding? Why are ultra sound machines there each week? Why don’t they let the Miami Dade public schools help with education when they have offered numerous times? Why did it take months to release a hurricane plan when they were asked numerous times? Where are the children?
While walking back to camp, a very loud siren rang. It scared the heck out of me. Tina explained this happens when lighting is in the area. Kids go inside. The siren and voice over a loud speaker telling everyone to go inside, continued. If I was scared I can only imagine how scary that was for the kids, especially those who don’t know English. With that large tour buses started arriving and Charlie, Marty (first witness of Homestead), and Tina grabbed signs and headed over to where the workers cross the street during shift changes. In the drenching rain with sirens blasting, we stood with our signs defying those working there to look away. Most did. The sirens continued, we got soaked, and we stood. Signs defiantly held high. I just followed what Charlie did. She’s very good at this.
After about 1 1/2 hours of shift change Tina and I walked the perimeter. Not all witnesses do this, nor is it recommended that witness do this, but Charlie and Tina do. It didn’t take me long to realize that this was not the safest thing in the book to do. The back part of camp is remote, unguarded, unprotected. I voiced my wish that these two fearless women never do this alone. I of course was brushed off. Aka, fearless. As we were walking, Tina was explaining what I was seeing. We came upon two things that were very unsettling, a bunch of full, black 50 gallon tanks that we did not know what was inside of them and a discarded pile of young children’s clothing. We documented both. But as Tina was pushing through the water that the clothing sat in there was a deep silence between us. It reminded me of when you come upon something sacred. Something deserving your full attention emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. We did not know exactly what we were witnessing but without even speaking words we both agreed it was the result of evil. Overcome with deep sadness we quietly walked back to camp together.
When it came time to take camp down I learned first hand how difficult this task is. We were exhausted, both emotionally and physically. The sun came out and the heat was overwhelming. At the end of the day the sun blasts down on camp making it ungodly hot and this task incredibly difficult. Help is needed with this daily task.
Since I was spending the night with my daughter, who lives a bit of a ways away, Marty drove me the 20 minutes or so to the train station. As I sat on the train, looking quite the mess I might add, I was once again overcome with such deep sadness. It persisted well into the night and made going again the next day difficult.
“I want to say, as clearly as I know how, that the humanity and the dignity of any person or people cannot in any way diminish the humanity and dignity of another person or another people.” Reverend Dr. William Barber II
Reflection on Friday’s events will follow shortly. I need a break.
With immense gratitude to Charlie, Tina, Marty, Dona, and all the witnesses who have come before me, I am humbled and bow to your beauty, strength, and courage. You inspire so so many of us to keep going.