Why I Chose to Get Arrested

A letter from Rev. Deborah Lee

Rev. Deborah Lee and three other PSR staff people were arrested in act of civil disobedience on May 26, 2009, following the California Supreme Court's decision to uphold a constitutional amendment that denies the full equality of same-sex couples under the law.

Rev. Deborah Lee and three other PSR staff people were arrested in act of civil disobedience on May 26, 2009, following the California Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a constitutional amendment that denies the full equality of same-sex couples under the law.

I wanted to thank so many people for your messages and for the encouragement and support over the civil disobedience last week. Now I know who to call, next time I’m in trouble or need to be bailed out! It was truly a humble privilege to stand there on behalf of so many of you who could not be arrested, but who shared my sentiment and convictions. I think of the many times when I wanted to, but couldn’t get arrested and of those who have stood on my behalf, in my lifetime and long before it.

Given all this, I’d like to say a little about why I chose to get arrested last week.

Before we marched down Market Street early that morning, there was a beautiful worship service held at St. Francis Lutheran Church in the Castro. Brother Lawrence, a dharma teacher in the Spirit Rock tradition, gave us an inspiring message in which he said “gay marriage is necessary, but insufficient,” meaning it is necessary to fight for the equality and full dignity of all people under the law as symbolized in this moment by marriage, AND that there is much, much more work of justice in this world we also must do. There are so many more situations where equal treatment and dignity evade us. Lives and communities in Richmond, California or among the poor sectors of the Philippines are not treated with equal justice, nor the full dignity that is afforded to others. The horrendous cuts being proposed in the new budget are not being shared equitably across the socio-economic strata of our society. Indigenous rights to land, acknowledging historical injustices & reparations, and an end to the state of permanent war spending so that we can have the funds to build and live the life we want for our friends, families and communities – based on access to healthcare, education, good jobs, transportation, culture and sustainability. These are just a few that ache my bones.

“It was necessary, but insufficient.” That’s my take on participating in the civil disobedience last Tuesday. As we were sitting in the holding pen, one of the other women asked out loud, “Why are we doing this again?” Yes, part of it is to create so much trouble, an administrative hassle for the City, to send a message to the courts, to the people, to be on record saying “No- that is not right. And we won’t stand for it.”

When the decision was rendered to uphold Prop.8, and I could see that there were hardly any Asian clergy there, I knew I needed to put my Asian face and Asian body on the line — at least for the Asian folks I saw in the crowd, or those who might see a newspaper clipping, to the white folk and other people of color, to know that there are API people who stand with you and support you. I needed to put my Christian collar and robe on the line and under arrest, too – because for most people who are against same-gender marriage, their (mis)understanding of Christianity is a top reason or justification. As a Christian clergyperson, I felt that it was so important for the world to see that some Christian clergy believe that this court decision is wrong. It didn’t matter if it was one or one hundred and sixty. Somebody needs to stand there and get arrested as a symbol that this is not right, to educate others that what was done was serious.

I wasn’t planning to, but let’s say the moment and the Spirit overcame me. It’s not the first time I have been intentionally arrested for civil disobedience. But it is the first time since becoming a mother, and it does make the decision more difficult. Who will pick the kids up after school? Will I be in jail overnight? How will I explain this to them? How will I comfort them so they won’t be scared? (Many thanks to my partner Michael and friend Lauren for being my practical outside support.)

Still, we were treated 100% better than most people who break the law. I couldn’t help thinking about Oscar Grant with all those armed police around us — and how he hadn’t even broken any law, just riding the BART train. We were certainly treated as a different (higher) class of prisoners/offenders. Not like those arrested for drug possession, selling, and a whole host of other crimes of poverty and this messed up economic/racialized system who don’t get treated the way we were, who languish for months upon months in jail without a court date, who are mostly poor and black or brown. How their parole terms are often so ridiculously impossible — “must continue legal employment” (which is almost impossible to find once you have a record — plus, in this economy?), “must not be outside after 8pm curfew” (including your own back or frontyard) for 5 years! Or you get sent back with a longer term.

In contrast, I was treated respectfully — no food or water, but at least we were allowed to pee (thank God).

And, of course, it was nothing like the Philippines or in so many other countries. I couldn’t help but think about the pastors and activists in the Philippines who are being arrested without trial, disappeared and even ambushed and assassinated by the Philippines military (nearly 1000 in the past 5 years) funded by the US War on Terror. Or the folks in Burma who cannot organize or gather at all inside their country. The only place had been the Buddhist temples, but when the monks protested in 2007 (the “Saffron Revolution”), many monks were jailed and killed. The people still wonder, where are the monks? What has happened to them? Our context and this situation was nothing at all like that.

Don’t focus too much on me, or the protesters, or even this letter. Focus on the many people who are hurt by this Supreme Court decision and by the countless homophobic/heterosexist things that happen everyday. Focus on the issues that never even get a protest organized or someone willing to get arrested for it.

Keep struggling, making noise, connecting the dots, taking a stand.

Love, Debbie