Sanctuary cities, sanctuary campuses, sanctuary churches-we’re hearing these terms a lot in the news lately with the current administration’s all out attacks on immigrant communities. Sanctuary is defined as a place of refuge or protection, traditionally within a religious space or building. Now as President Trump promises to “Make America Great Again” by criminalizing immigrants and banning people from many other countries, sanctuary is taking on new, expanded meaning.
Trump says “every American has the right to live in safety and peace,” and he claims that “law enforcement is the force between civilization and chaos.” Yet we know that for many communities of color, law enforcement itself can be experienced as a force of chaos and terror in the form of ICE agents detaining people in school, local police harassing and brutalizing Black and Brown kids, or National Guard tanks protecting private pipelines that threaten Native American land and water.
Earlier this month an undocumented transgender woman, Ms. Gonzalez, went to court in El Paso, Texas to seek protection from her abuser. She was immediately detained by ICE agents, adding to the long list of survivors of domestic violence whose calls for help are met with arrest, criminalization and further abuse.
To avoid this type of unjust detention, Jeanette Vizguerra, an undocumented mother, took refuge with her children in a Unitarian Church in Denver in February 2017. Vizguerra explained how she is being criminalized. “Supposedly, I am a criminal because I drove without a license, because I had expired stickers on my car, because I had false documents to work and put food on the table for my children.” By claiming sanctuary in the church, Vizguerra is standing up not only for herself but for millions of others in their fight against deportation.
Sometimes the campus, the city, the church, and the library can provide sanctuary, but too often institutions themselves fail to provide for people’s most basic needs for care and safety. Radical sanctuary goes beyond the official institutions to the way people are constantly finding and making all kinds of unofficial and unsanctioned sanctuaries for themselves and the people they care about. This is the kind of refuge we don’t frequently hear on the news but often do in songs, poems and spiritual spaces. Sanctuary is the space where both resilience and resistance are born, a feeling known by the heart.
We know that in women’s prisons people are continually struggling to create safe space-those places and relationships in which it becomes possible to carve out some breathing room from the overall violence of the institution and its agents. When Charisse Shumate and other women came together to resist inhuman health care in the women’s prisons and started CCWP, they were trying to create a space of healing and resistance. When one of our founding, formerly incarcerated members created our slogan “Caring Collectively for Women Prisoners,” she was picturing a space of mutual aid and support. More recently, women and trans people at CCWF and CIW have developed intentional space to support people who have attempted suicide, people who have overdosed, people who are living with mental health challenges, people who are serving LWOP sentences, people who are DV survivors.
Now more than ever we need to envision and nurture these forms of radical sanctuary and reject the criminalization of all our communities.
What does sanctuary mean for people in women’s prisons? What does it mean for people who are immigrants and face deportation after their sentences are served? Please send us your experience and ideas for creating sanctuary for yourself and others. Please write to CCWP, 1540 Market Street, Room 490, San Francisco, CA 94102, and we will publish your thoughts in the next issue of The Fire Inside. Also please feel free to visit our website at www.womenprisoners.org