This 84-year-old Philly rabbi's arrest went viral. Here's his handbook for protesting ICE - Generocity Philly


Jul. 11, 2018 12:55 pm

This 84-year-old Philly rabbi’s arrest went viral. Here’s his handbook for protesting ICE

Longtime activist Rabbi Arthur Waskow on why his group of older activists took to nonviolent civil disobedience against the Trump administration's policy of separating immigrant families at the U.S. border.

Rabbi Arthus Waskow speaking to officers before his arrest.

(Screenshot via

This is a guest post by The Shalom Center cofounder Rabbi Arthur Waskow. A version of this letter originally appeared here.
Dear friends,

Many of you were stirred by the story of our nonviolent civil disobedience action confronting ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. Many have written to ask how you could make a difference in your own communities about the Trumpist attacks on refugees and immigrants, especially at the southern border and especially against families — sending little children to prison camps.

So I am writing to describe how our action emerged, how we organized it and what the results were.


The story begins on June 20. Someone I had known in the ‘60s in a different city called me to ask whether I would be interested in a possible direct action challenging ICE. I said I was. He said he had been talking with a few other people who were veterans of the movement to end the U.S. war against Vietnam, and they too were interested.

We worked out a date when six and 10 of these people could gather, and we met. Most of the people were new to [my partner] Phyllis and me, and we were clear about the need to ask how the people in the room whom we did know could vouch for the people we didn’t know. They did.

When we were set, a couple of people reviewed some ideas about what we could do to keep alive the issue of brutal treatment of refugees and immigrants. After Trump had issued the executive order [to end family separation], some of us wondered whether the energy around the issue would now die out.

We hoped to focus public attention on ICE and its galloping efforts, especially in Philadelphia, to pursue and deport thousands of immigrants and asylum claimants.

Phyllis, with great energy, said that the children ripped away from their parents were already being deeply traumatized and that for her the most immediate demand is for the children at once to be reunited with their families. It was already clear that Trump’s executive order did not address that question at all, and she was burning with the need to end the devastation and traumatization of these families.

Most of the people in the room agreed. So then we focused on choosing a specific action to do. We decided that on Friday, June 29, we would block the entrances to the Philadelphia office of ICE. We chose that date because we knew that the next day was the time set for a large rally far from any governmental building.

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We hoped to focus public attention on ICE and its galloping efforts, especially in Philadelphia, to pursue and deport thousands of immigrants and asylum claimants. We agreed to meet again to do some detailed planning on the Wednesday evening before that Friday.

And we agreed to keep the action a surprise, fearing that if ICE got wind of it, they would figure out some way of preventing the action from happening at all. So we agreed not to write or talk about it in public, yet inviting friends of ours to the Wednesday meeting, if we trusted them to keep the plan confidential.

On Wednesday evening, a dozen of us met. There was nosherei — snacks to nibble on. It helped reduce the tension. But there was still plenty of nervousness. Some new people had come, and we had to build an ew a sense of confidence in each other.

And there was one major worry about risk: Might ICE define our obstruction of the entrance as a federal crime with a heavy penalty, or would the Philadelphia police define it as a sidewalk obstruction with far less danger? Did we need a whole program of songs, chants and speeches? What about liaison with the press, with the police?

We began blocking ICE’s doorway just as workers were trying to enter. For two hours, the police did not interfere.

After a two-hour meeting, we had tasks and missions pinned down for everyone who intended to take part. Some said they would risk arrest, some said they would not. One of us volunteered to create a program of chants, songs and speeches. Another volunteered to arrange for someone from a progressive law firm to be on the scene. Another, to write a press release and work with someone else to alert the local media.

After the meeting ended, I still felt nervous. We were just getting to know each other. Would everyone really follow through on her or his assignment?

Everybody did. On Friday morning, every task we had imagined was being fulfilled by at least one of us. Sixty people showed up. Our journalist contact had roused some media, and then a member of the Philadelphia City Council showed up to join the protest [Helen Gym]; she called more media contacts, who appeared in response. A helicopter — press or police? we never found out — hovered over the scene, and one group of immigrants-rights organizers appeared when they tracked it and found out what was happening.

We began blocking ICE’s doorway just as workers were trying to enter. For two hours, the police did not interfere.  Intermittently among chants and songs, some of us spoke to the crowd.

I spoke about three concerns:

  • Attacking children was a cruel and barbaric way to deter refugees — people seeking refuge — from coming to file perfectly legal applications for asylum from terrible violence in their home countries.
  • Attacking children is so basic an affront to the deep biological  instincts and cultural and religious values of almost all human beings that ruining the lives of children is a way of asserting that their families are subhuman. That path leads to genocide.
  • Our discovery of this cruel practice at the border was like a lightning flash, lighting up the dark places in American history when enslaved families were ripped apart; when Native communities had their children kidnapped by governmental officials to smash their culture and substitute “American” culture; and now, by Trumpist hatred for brown-skinned people who speak Spanish. (Thousands of American citizens died after the Puerto Rico hurricane, unaided by the U.S. government because of that hatred.)

But lightning flashes last only for an instant; our job is to keep shining the light as we all absorb the truth it reveals.

One of us had written, and now read, a litany of “Did you know?” about the way in which the U.S. government in the 1980s had violently damaged several Central American societies, leading to the violent chaos that was sending frightened refugees north. We chanted: “Light up the truth: Did you know?” before each report of that history.

After two hours, the police finally gave us three warnings to disperse.

Just before they arrested us, I spoke to them. There is a video of what I said. [Editor’s note: The below videos have 2.71 million and 309,000 views on Twitter.] I share it as a way of saying that wherever possible, we should treat even the police who are arresting us as potential supporters of our understanding that the real criminals are in the White House:

When I said to the officers that giving the orders that resulted in ripping a nursing baby from the mother’s breast was a crime far, far worse than our “refusal to disperse,” I saw one policewoman’s eyes tear up.


So, what can any and all of us do? You can do basically what we did. ICE has become the arms and legs of White House cruelty. With people you know and trust, plus people they know and trust, plan an action at the ICE office near you. Around the country, some actions have blocked entrances; some have “occupied” ICE offices. Doing these actions keeps “shining the light of truth.”

There is a real cruelty being ordered by the White House and carried out by ICE and some other enforcement agencies.

I do not want to minimize the difficulties that may arise. As I said, for us, the officers were respectful and gentle. Maybe that was because we were all over 70. Maybe it was because we blocked the doorway, whereas a group in Philadelphia a week later occupied the office as well as blocking the entrance and was physically corralled by the police using their bikes as mobile barricades, roughly pushed and roughly arrested. Maybe it was because I spoke to the police with both respect and challenge. Maybe, for reasons unknown to us, their orders from the top were different.

The point is that there are no guarantees of respect and gentleness. Yet since there is a real cruelty being ordered by the White House and carried out by ICE and some other enforcement agencies, and since that cruelty has already tormented and traumatized children and their parents, we need to stay engaged.

Not yet are the children with their families. That is unacceptable.

We need to keep saying, “NO! This will not pass! Stop arresting asylum seekers, stop deporting law-abiding immigrants, stop turning ICE into a terrorizing force, stop throwing immigrants out of the U.S. Army for no reason except their place of birth!”

Find your local ICE office here.

Call your trustworthy friends. Start your own resistance. Chant: “We see children separated; this will not be tolerated!”

To help you even more to create your own actions, here at The Shalom Center we have set up a small collection of items from the ICE action at which we were arrested: our press release, a “Did you know?” list about the history of social chaos in some Central American countries, the program we used of chants and songs. We offer it to you as a model, a handbook, to use and modify if you find it helpful in your own situation.

With blessings of light that reveals the truth,



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