I talked a bit about the Charm City Kitty Club, that queer theater group I’m in, a few weeks ago (https://one-baltimore.org/2019/06/11/one-baltimore-6-pride/). Each of our shows features a variety of artists from our community, interspersed with short scenes around a theme. Back in the late winter, through our usual messy but productive collective creative process, we’d decided that our next show, the one at the end of June, would be about walls. We called it “Claws Up, Walls Down.”
We do cabaret in order to have fun and express ourselves, but, as a group ethic, we also strive to say things that are relevant and that matter to us, to be honest and real. As such, if we were going to tackle the topic of walls in 2019, we knew we’d have to really commit ourselves to doing it justice. We approached it from as many angles as possible, collaborating on a script that in the end covered everything from gentrification to Stonewall to emotional boundaries. I’m really, really proud of it.
I had the honor of drafting the Stonewall skit. In it, modern day reporters travel back in time and interview protesters who are heading to support their friends against the police. I played one of the protesters, innocently exclaiming “wow, so you’re really saying everything is perfect in the future?” upon hearing of the gains we’ve made as a community. This made Kris’s reporter character break and admit that, no, things are very, very not perfect. The skit ends with an admonition from ’69 to ’19 to keep fighting.
The other skit I wrote was a press conference with Lord Walltimore, head of Wahlco Development (shout out to The Bell Foundry). He has a plan to wall in the community gardens for profit, but is hustled off-stage by protesters shouting “Grow flowers, not corporate powers!”
So, that gives you a sense of where my head was at a couple of weeks ago, when the show was days from opening and Opal and I had just decided to go on a road trip to the border for Independence Day. With rehearsals, I had almost no time whatsoever to plan. Opal was busy too. We laid down the basic logistics for our trip, booked a room for two nights, but other than that we were flying pretty blind.
Why the urgency? Well, like I explained before we left (https://one-baltimore.org/2019/06/25/one-baltimore-8-freedom/), on the one hand it was an emotional reaction to the news coming out of Texas about the horrible mistreatment of refugee children, and on the other hand it very clearly connected to the work we’d been doing, the causes on which we’d been spending our time here at home. We left feeling hopeful, nervous, wired, and very much under-prepared.
Driving for a day and a half through middle America without really stopping except when we had to was… well, it was a trip. For several states in a row, nearly every gas station sold bumper stickers promoting building the damn wall, shooting people, Space Force (fucking Space Force??), and, bizarrely, unicorns (I suppose, for the ladies). As two small-ish, gender non-conforming city-folk, we were tense. But the trip passed without incident, and the sky on the plains was breath-taking.
Along the way, we did some research. Friends had given us various leads. I spoke at length with a woman who had volunteered at Annunciation House, a shelter for migrants in El Paso who are being released to US sponsors but who need short-term lodging and care. I also connected with Zackary Sholem Berger, a doctor and JHU professor who had himself been involved with the JHU Sit-In, and who turned us on to #CitizenPresence, a crowd-funded movement to bring people to the infamous child detention center in Clint, Texas, which, along with El Paso, we’d settled on as our destination.
Our first stop was at our lodgings in New Mexico. It was stunningly beautiful there, the land layered from desert to tundra to crags to forested mountains. At night, the milky way spilled across a broad sky bursting with stars.
In our small room, we made a sign and a banner. The sign said “Baltimore for Border Justice”, with a red circle with a line through it around the “ICE” part at the end. The banner we made from a large trans pride flag, on which we printed “Rest in Power, Johana Medina Leon”, in honor of a trans woman from El Salvador who died from lack of simple medical care after a month in ICE custody.
First, we went down to El Paso, to Annunciation House. We didn’t know what we’d find. The website for the House said that all volunteers would need to commit for at least two weeks, speak at least a little Spanish, and submit to a background check in advance. On the other hand, my contact had described a chaotic situation, hundreds of families continually arriving and continually in need of things as simple as running to the laundromat or picking up formula, where anyone could make a difference. Complicating the situation further, we read that things had abruptly changed while we were in transit, with the majority of families now being held on the Mexico side of the border
We weren’t sure at first that we’d arrived. The building was hiding in plain sight, the windows covered, no signs or markings of any kind on the doors. I called the number on the website, and a young volunteer came out. She was pleased to see us, but apologetic that they couldn’t use our help right now.
She confirmed what we’d seen about the sudden drop-off in arrivals. She said that all they really needed at the moment was money (https://annunciationhouse.org/support/house-needs/), but encouraged us to email the volunteer coordinator if we planned to come back. We gave her a wad of cash and went on our way.
Next, we tried to go to the nearby Santa Fe bridge, where migrants are being caged in the desert for weeks at a time. I’d read that a concerned citizen had walked up and actually managed to talk to some of the people there for a good fifteen minutes before being shuffled off by border agents (www.texasmonthly.com/news/border-patrol-outdoor-detention-migrants-el-paso/amp/). Maybe we could do the same.
It wasn’t to be. Google maps tried to take us down a closed road, and in attempting to turn around, we ended up accidentally going the wrong way down a one-way street for a block, and were immediately stopped by the El Paso police. I babbled away at them sheepishly, and they let us off with a warning, but we were spooked. We got some great Mexican food, and then headed down to Clint.
The highway from El Paso to Clint, about a half hour to the southeast, winds along the Rio Grande. It was odd to look to the right and see the city of Juarez across the river, the mountains rising above it. Another world so close, walled off from our own.
Clint was a dusty little town, as ordinary as any of the others through which we’d passed. We got to the detention center around 7pm, the start time of a rally we’d learned about along the way. Again, we weren’t sure at first that we were in the right place. All we could see from the road was a very long fence topped with barbed wire, with beige privacy screening blocking the view beyond.
We parked on the street nearby and contemplated the large compound before us, then walked up. A sign at the front entrance showed us that we were indeed in the right place, though we were the only ones there. We took a couple pictures to mark our presence.
Just then, more people started arriving, fifteen or twenty in total. Opal attached the banner for Johana to the fence, and I stood by the road with my sign alongside others with their own. A number of people gave us those small, supportive honks as they passed. A few blasted longer, less friendly honks at us, with the occasional middle finger or shout.
We chatted with the folks around us. People had come from Philly, DC, New York, Denver, Seattle, fellow city dwellers who’d driven or flown here to the desert for the same reasons we had. There was a small crew present from the New York Times. You can see our backs in one of the pix that goes with their subsequent article, “Hungry, Scared and Sick: Inside the Migrant Detention Center in Clint, Tex.” (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/07/06/us/migrants-border-patrol-clint.html).
A border patrol bus passed in front of us, carrying five or six teenage boys. It turned the far corner of the compound and went to a gate, taking them inside. We all hurried to the fence, peering between the screens, and chanted “Estamos con los niños” — we are with the children. It hurt to know that it wasn’t really true, that nothing we were doing would take them away from this place.
Zack, the doctor and professor whom I mentioned earlier, gathered us up in a circle and read poetry into a small pink megaphone. At that point, some people had left, and there were only a dozen of us still on site. It struck me that, of the group, a full quarter of us were from Baltimore.
I sat before the banner for Johana and chanted the mourner’s Kaddish, the ancient Jewish prayer for the dead. And then the most striking thing happened. A young Latinx person came up to us. He said he’d stopped because he saw the flag of our people, something he’d never expected to see here. He’d read Johana’s story on his phone after pulling over, and wanted to stand with us for a minute.
The whole trip felt worth it for that moment. To give hope, solace, and support to one sibling.
With night falling, we headed back to New Mexico. Under the stars, we talked about what we were doing here, what it meant. We got philosophical. As a trans feminine and a trans masculine person, we represented a crossing of gender borders that in other times and places had been considered sacred, indispensable. As opponents of the intersecting discriminatory systems that rule our lives, we fought against the walls and borders of redlining and jails back home, barriers just as deadly and hateful as the ones we’d come to confront here.
Baltimore for Border Justice — in that moment, the phrase seemed to encapsulate the purpose of our very lives, everything we cared about from the most personal to the most universal (and after all, didn’t I start One Baltimore by talking about the border between the city and the county?). We decided to give the name to a new org, possibly to be incorporated as a non-profit, one we’d build upon our return. BFBJ would center the plight of the undocumented, the most deeply oppressed in the time of Trump, but would also focus on racial and gender justice, on mobility and accessibility, on liberation for all.
The next morning, before beginning the drive home, we detoured to the White Sands desert, a strange and magical place that hurt my eyes but revived my spirit. Opal had been there once before, many years ago, and we found a twisted but vigorous tree that she’d sat under then, the place she goes in her mind’s eye when she meditates.
Now we’re back. Now the real work begins, and we’re far from alone. Two nights after returning, we went to Real Talk Tho, The Real News Network’s monthly community conversation, this time focused on immigration policy (will be posted here at some point: https://therealnews.com/real-talk-tho). There we heard a lot of intense and useful things, and gained new local contacts and information. The following night, we went to the 310th #WestWednesday (protest/rally for Tyrone West and other victims of police brutality) to find Tawanda Jones talking about our journey, and encouraging us to come up to the mic to share more about it (thank you!!).
We have a lot of groundwork to lay, a lot of planning to do. One of our first big goals is to get a van and return to the border with a larger crew, with the mission of building awareness and solidarity. If you’d like to join us, chip in, be part of a benefit show, etc., you know where to find me.
We’re also looking more into what we can do here, maybe providing meals and rides to recently arrived migrants at the Greyhound station. If you have a little time, one way you can help right now, no special skills required, is by offering basic court support to detainees going through the legal system. Sanctuary Streets Baltimore is organizing this, sign up at http://www.shorturl.at/kEH69.
Special thanks to those who made this first trip possible!! Before we’d ever heard of a project like #CitizenPresence that’s helping pay people’s way, Jo, Bonnie, J.D., and Shanna sent us money for gas. Charles baked cookies for us, and Dusty helped get us on the road when car trouble seemed about to derail us. Miriam and Alice gave us valuable connections that served as our roadmap. Bethany gave us a bed on the way home, a true life-saver. Thank you, thank you.
Watch this space for more. We’re never giving in, we’re never giving up. We will all be free.
#OneBaltimore #BaltimoreForBorderJustice #BFBJ #FreeKeithDavisJr #JusticeForTyroneWest #WeAreAllSiblings
Cultural Event of the Week: Man, I sure do love all the weird, immersive shit The Peale Center’s been hosting lately, especially the stuff by Submersive Productions, LLC. “Altar Ego is a completely self-contained 45-60 minute multi-sensory experience for a group of up to five people. You are invited to a unique house party to learn more about your “model citizen” Vietnamese-American neighbor, and explore the boundaries between home and not home. There may be ghosts. (Actualized by Kim Le)”. 7/17, 7/20, 7/21.
Green Event of the Week: On Wednesday, 7/17 at 6:30pm, the National Aquarium is hosting a lecture on youth climate activism by the high-school aged co-founder of Zero Hour, with other young organizers and activists from around the country in attendance. Rad! $15 non-members, $10 members.
Song of the Week: “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” by K’naan, Snow Tha Product, Riz MC, and Residente
Somos como las plantas que crecen sin agua / Sin pasaporte Americano / Porque la mitad de gringolandia / Es terreno Mexicano / Hay que ser bien hijo e puta / Nosotros les sembramos el árbol y ellos se comen la fruta / Somos los que cruzaron / Aquí vinimos a buscar el oro que nos robaron