Religious witness at Tent City

As I write this, Unitarian Universalists and local allies are holding a protest rally, or “religious witness,” at Maricopa County’s infamous Tent City. The local temperature is 101 degrees (38 C.) right now, at nine o’clock at night: that’s the kind of temperatures prisoners have to endure during the long summer months at Tent City, which is part of the reason why many people consider Tent City prison to be cruel and unusual punishment, and inhumane.

The Web site for 3TV Phoenix News interviewed Sheriff Joe Arpaio yesterday, and reported: “‘They’re not going to stop me with their little demonstration,’ said Arpaio.” This is a true statement: the voters of Maricopa County have kept Arpaio in office for the past two decades, and a couple of thousand people protesting at Tent City is unlikely to influence the electorate.

I decided not to attend the religious witness at Tent City tonight. I’m not doing well with the heat, I’m trying to get another article written for the GA blog, I’m past tired. But I’m also wondering how this is religious witness action is going to make much of a difference. I hope our presence heartens our local allies; I hope it makes us feel less powerless ourselves. But on the other hand, Joe Arpaio loves this kind of controversy: it gets him press coverage, and gives him additional publicity for his nasty agenda.

I’m watching live streamed video from OPHKMickey — here’s a screen shot showing people streaming in to the protest site:

Update 11:00 p.m.:

A newly-posted video on 3TV Phoenix News shows Sheriff Joe Arpaio at a microphone flanked by Rev. Peter Morales and Rev. Bill Schulz. Arpaio says exactly what you’d think he’d say: “[unintelligible] for people to come in here from out of state, think they’re going to tell this sheriff how to run his operation.” No one likes outsiders telling them what to do, and Arpaio is obviously milking that for all it’s worth.


We were walking down by the Comerica Theatre in Phoenix when we saw two middle-aged men, both white, riding bikes in circles on the sidewalk. One of them was riding a Dahon folding bike with 20 inch wheels. Carol has been looking at Dahons on Craigslist, so she asked the man how he liked the bike. The other man rode towards some people walking towards the theatre and asked if they wanted tickets, and then I noticed the man we were talking to had tickets in his hand. He knew a lot about bikes, and, like Carol, he regularly checks Craigslist for used bikes. The two of them compared notes on bikes they had seen for sale recently. He advised Carol not to get a Dahon, because they’re poorly made.

We got to talking about Phoenix, and the man on the bike said there just wasn’t much going on in downtown Phoenix. Restaurants, for example — he grew up in Portland, Oregon, where within a few blocks he had an unbelievable number of choices of restaurants, but in Phoenix there aren’t so many choices, and many of them are chain stores. I asked if there was any kind of bike culture, and he said there was not. not only that, but he said cars had no respect for bicyclists, and he had had more than a few close calls. What about jobs? we asked. His friend rode up at that point, and said most of the jobs in Phoenix were service jobs, paying seven-fifty or eleven dollars an hour.

Someone walked up looking for tickets, and the other man turned away to talk with them. The first man said he had come to Phoenix in the late 1990s, and he gave the impression that he wished he had never left Portland. One thing about Phoenix, he said, was that even though wages are low it was cheap to live here. But that meant it was hard to move anywhere else, hard to save up enough money to move away. You could feel stuck here, he said.

But he did like monsoon season. We asked what that was like. He said that it came in July and August, and you’d look up at the sky and see dark clouds moving in, and soon they’d cover the sky, and then there would be thunder and lightning everywhere, heavy rain, water running a half inch deep on the streets, then in thirty minutes it would all be over. He said it was worth seeing, and it was something he’d never seen in Portland.

Then some more people walked up looking for tickets, so we said good bye, nice talking to you, and went on our way.

Downtown Phoenix

Once it got cool enough to go out for a walk, Carol and I strolled over to find Lawn Gnome bookstore on 3rd St. between Roosevelt and Garfield. Along the way, we stopped at Bodega 420, a neighborhood store that carries a little bit of everything: locally produced food, canned food, ice cream, loose tobacco, condoms, playing cards, etc. We chatted with the owner, Adrian Fontes, a lawyer who runs the store in his spare time.

Adrian on the front porch of Bodega 420.

Adrian told us about the art fair that takes place on first Fridays next to his shop: artists, music, food trucks. He took us to the front porch of Bodega 420 and pointed out JoBot Coffee, some art galleries near by, the new apartment complex going up down the street, and Lawn Gnome Books. Adrian, whose family dates back over three hundred years in Arizona, said he lived for many years in Denver, and told us it was hard to leave there to return to Arizona. But now he’s excited to be in Phoenix: everyone’s from somewhere else, the city isn’t set in its ways, there’s room to innovate.

We wandered down the block to Lawn Gnome Books. I found a used copy of short stories by Joanna Russ, and Carol found The Hobo Diet, a book by someone who lived as a homeless man for five weeks in Las Vegas. Carol started talking with Billie Speece, one of the people who worked at the bookstore.

Billie in Lawn Gnome Books.

Among many other projects, Billie runs letter writing workshops at the bookstore. Years ago, Carol had been part of the Letter Exchange, and she and Billie talked about rubber stamps and mail art. Billie showed us some of the envelopes she makes from recycled paper, stitching the seams with embroidery thread. She said she is part of the Letter Writers Alliance; she added that recently AARP contacted her about her workshops.

I bought one of the handmade journals Billie sews together, using paper taken from damaged books, paper that has one side blank. One of the pages in the handmade journal I bought reads in part: “I wish Gertrude were here…. I wish she could see the man God is building on her foundation.” Another page reads: “Foods high in vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.” Carol just said, “What are you going to do with your journal?” I said I didn’t know; maybe I’ll just keep it.

Photo credits: Carol Steinfeld

Sonoran Desert

We drove into Arizona towards Phoenix along Interstate 10. We knew we had entered the Sonoran Desert when we saw giant saguaro cacti along the side of the highway. A roadrunner ran quickly across the highway in front of us, moving so fast I didn’t have time to touch the brakes before it was lost in the brush on the other side. The Sonoran Desert is a beautiful place.

Halfway Phoenix from the California border, the sprawl began to replace the desert: tract houses, malls, light industrial buildings, the occasional agricultural field, a golf course here and there.

In large part because of its beauty and lushness, more Arizonans live in the Sonoran Desert than in any other geographic region of the state: more than three-fourths of our total of four million people. This crush of bodies, with the pressures they impose on the desert’s modest resources, is the state’s most ominous problem. — Lawrence Cheek, Arizona (Compass Travel Guides, 1995), pp. 34-35.