Commentary Human Rights

Protests Never Felt Accessible to Me Until I Joined #JewsAgainstICE

Aurit Lazerus

By making space for both my possible contributions and restrictions, Never Again Action, the group behind the #JewsAgainstICE protests, made space for me.

Migrants who are fleeing terrible conditions need immediate protection from our federal government. As a Jewish person who has had a conscious awareness of the Holocaust since age 4, indifference to the human dignity of asylum seekers is literally the stuff of my nightmares.

Despite my conviction that something needs to be done, I have felt powerless. I fantasized about gathering people to swarm the detention facilities at the border. But I never got involved with direct actions because of my physical disabilities. I never attended a protest. My physical powerlessness translated into political powerlessness.

All this changed earlier this month. My best friend sent me a Facebook link to a video posted by Never Again Action. I burst into tears as I watched Jewish protesters singing in Elizabeth, New Jersey, outside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility. They were fiercely determined and peaceful, and I felt called to join them.

Never Again Action’s Facebook page showed a protest scheduled for the next day, July 2, in Central Falls, Rhode Island, only 14 minutes from my home. The group planned to disrupt ICE’s business as usual, thereby shutting down the agency. Intellectually, I knew migrants were being held all over the country, not just at the border, but plotting the route on the map stunned me. All the urgency to act that had been building up for years bubbled to my surface. I clicked on a link for more information and got to an intake form. This little piece of administrative magic cleared away the barriers, allowing me to jump right into activism.

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The form asked for two key pieces of information. First, to identify the type of involvement I could offer and second, to name my accessibility needs. The first did not assume I would put my body on the line, and the second did not assume I was able-bodied. I wrote about not being able to walk or stand for extended periods of time. I can’t sit in regular chairs without experiencing extreme pain. I can’t tolerate standing or moving in temperatures above 65 degrees. By making space for both my possible contributions and restrictions, Never Again Action made space for me.

After I filled out the form, I got an email inviting me to a training session before the direct action. I contacted the organizer with my accessibility concerns and got back an enthusiastic and nonjudgmental response that they needed help in other ways, such as making phone calls on behalf of arrested people. Freed from worrying about my limitations and welcomed to do what I could, I felt of a burst of energy. My paralysis began to dissolve!

The next day, I attended the training during my lunch break. The organizers were warm and focused. I was impressed at how adeptly they handled culture building: By having people articulate why they were there, identifying the values and specific goals of the organization, and teaching us a song in Hebrew, we were more prepared to function as a team, with a sense of group cohesion. I was relieved to learn that the approach was to resist peacefully without verbal or physical aggression against any officials. This resonated with me deeply because I don’t even like fighting metaphors, let alone actual fighting. Even when I had breast cancer at age 28, I relied on loving, protecting, and enduring to get me through the experience. I find nurturing to be a more potent method of engaging than, well, everything.

Two of the protest organizers were openly nonbinary, and I felt an appreciation for the loving and deeply compassionate atmosphere created by them. Part of creating a space that is comfortable for queer people is to identify and honor people’s boundaries. For example, organizers had name tags with their gender pronouns, making their preferences explicit. Being mindful of boundaries also included being mindful of the physical or psychological limitations we might each have. I didn’t have to educate anyone on how disability and accommodations work. They knew that already. I just had to be explicit about what I needed. It helped that one of the organizers had significant physical disabilities as well; I later learned they had written that wonderful intake form. The awareness of boundaries extended to our instructions for the day: During the protest, people should only do what they were comfortable doing.

Before the training, I had assumed anyone attending a protest could potentially be arrested. This is often true for activists of color, who are typically treated more violently by law enforcement officials than white-presenting people. However, I learned that if I did not block the path in front of the detention center, the police would not arrest me. I could take part in an upcoming direct action outside the ICE detention center without harming my already vulnerable body or turning my body into a liability that others would have to care for. When I left, my head was spinning with possibility; I was rewriting my narrative of how I could help protect immigrants.

The direct action against the Central Falls ICE detention facility started at 6 p.m.; my husband and I were able to get there at 8 p.m. Although I planned on doing only jail support, I attended the protest itself because my adrenaline was running too high to sit and wait.

Shortly after we arrived, someone handed us a sign that read, “Families Belong Outside of Cages.” My husband took it to hold over his head. Many of us dressed in white, the Jewish color for ritual atonement and grieving, and sang songs of peace in Hebrew and English, songs I had been singing my whole life, but now had a different power.

It wasn’t long before I ended up with a megaphone in my hand. I sang a verse that has given me goosebumps my whole life: “nations shall not raise swords against nations, and nations shall no longer learn to make war.” The song, “Lo Yisa Goy” (“Nations Shall Not Raise”), is from the Book of Isaiah. Since nationalism is at the heart of anti-immigration policies, I love the assertion that war and nationalism are learned behaviors that could be untaught.

My singing isn’t great, but I am confident and was comfortable taking the space needed for a crowd of people. People sang with me. I hoped those held in ICE’s custody could hear us and that they would feel less alone. I later learned they were banging and waving in their windows earlier in the protest. This still makes me sob.

I spent the next several hours supporting the people who put their bodies on the line and were arrested. I’m a clinical psychologist, and while waiting for people to be processed in jail, I remembered I had relevant expertise on trauma and adrenaline, and I offered debriefing. The night was intense and meaningful, and all of us waiting at the jail bonded emotionally.

Never Again Action’s philosophy of inclusion, which assumed people would have accessibility needs rather than able-bodiedness grew out of queer leadership. Lived otherness means that you have had the personal experience of being treated as an “other” in society because you are different enough to be at risk of marginalization. Knowing firsthand that there are many ways of being human, you create more opportunities not only for people to be different but also to contribute differently.

Lived otherness necessitates having to write your own script because society isn’t going to give you one that fits. Moreover, you then give other people the freedom to write their own scripts. With this permission, a person feels like a whole person rather than being defined by stigma.

I’d like to note that as a clinical psychologist, I specialize in working with queer people. I’m open with my patients about being straight and cis, and it’s important to me that they feel seen and celebrated as they are. With Never Again Action, I was on the other end of the nurturing dynamic, benefiting from an environment that strives to make all its participants feel welcome and whole just as they are. I was recognized as a person with a lot to contribute.

In Hebrew, the word for “peace” and “whole” have the same root meaning; in my mind, they’ve always been conceptually connected. At the action, we were all whole people at a profound level, with a shared goal of being kind to more humans. This is how I like to express my Judaism.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the values I experienced, of radical empathy and dignity, are the same values Never Again Action wants to ensure for immigrants. In fact, to varying degrees throughout history, Jews, queer people, disabled people, and immigrants have all experienced the pain and cost of living in a society not designed for their needs. We know what it’s like to feel vulnerable and scared; it’s not OK, and we are all tired of it.

Now, I feel less paralysis about getting involved in protests. I’ve joined Never Again Action and am working on a local organizational level. I can contribute in many more ways than I previously imagined: leading songs, organizing other mental health professionals, creating psychological resources, offering debriefing, emotionally supporting other protesters, and collaborating creatively with others. And that I can drive people who got arrested home because with air conditioning, I can help for hours!

And of course, none of this is about me. That I didn’t need to learn. I just needed to learn how I can serve a just and necessary cause.

Since the Central Falls protest, people from all over the country have committed to organizing anti-ICE protests at locations close to their homes, and thousands more have committed to attend. In the weeks and months ahead, hopefully more people can find a place for themselves in this movement. As I frequently tell my patients, once you realize that you are whole and complete as you are, you become more powerful.

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