Photo by Grant Durr on Unsplash

This is the fifth installment of the series Protecting Protest: We Need All Hands on Deck, published in partnership with the Protect Dissent Network. Writers examine how the constitutional right to protest is being threatened and why we must fight to protect it. Analyzing what anti-protest legislation signals for the future of the country and our democracy, contributors address what we must do to defeat these attempts to repress our voices and reverse progress.

I was introduced to the power of collective action during a protest on the streets of Phoenix, AZ, in 2010. After years of marches and sit-ins demanding legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants, that protest marked a crescendo in a series of turbulent political moments—the failure of the DREAM Act in Congress and the passage of Arizona’s immigration status check law, SB1070.

As an undocumented person, it was important for me to find a way for myself, my family, and my community to not only gain legal status, but to also reclaim our humanity from a system that had rendered us unworthy and disposable. Organizing with other impacted people fed my soul, and protesting gave me a taste of possibility—it allowed me to feel the power of community.

Now, more than a decade later, I haven’t stopped protesting harm in all its forms, from police violence and deportations to the many ways that local elected officials have tried to steamroll marginalized people for their personal gain.

Unfortunately, my commitment to using my voice has come with a price.

In 2020, I was arrested—along with over 100 other demonstrators—under false felony charges while protesting police violence and the murders of George Floyd and Dion Johnson, a Black man murdered by an Arizona trooper on the same day that Minneapolis police killed Floyd. We were all taken to a Maricopa County jail and processed, which included being interviewed by immigration agents. A couple of hours after we were arrested, a local judge dismissed the charges, saying that there was no probable cause for our arrest, and most of us were released.

But I remained locked up, along with other immigrants like myself. Despite having temporary protection from deportation through DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, I was transferred to ICE and nearly deported from the United States. Thanks to collective action from my community, I was released on my own recognizance with an ankle monitor.

Court records would later prove that members of the Phoenix Police Department and Maricopa County Attorney’s Office aggressively targeted activists who were protesting police violence in the summer and fall of 2020. They gave false statements, invented fictional gangs, and made coordinated, politically motivated prosecutions of protesters to punish them and silence future dissent.

I ended up suing Sheriff Paul Penzone and winning a settlement. But the long-term impacts of the arrest have remained with me. I was scared to attend more protests that year and lived with flashbacks of the police drawing weapons on me during the arrest.

This ordeal made me realize that protesting can be complicated for Black and Brown people. Although protest is a useful and visible tool for holding powerful people accountable, people of color and immigrants like me face relentless backlash from politicians and other elected officials when we demand better conditions for ourselves and our communities. For instance, following the mass demonstrations for immigration reform in 2010, Arizona and many other states introduced draconian anti-immigrant bills such as SB-1070, which criminalizes undocumented immigrants and empowers law enforcement to arrest and detain anyone who cannot prove their immigration status on the spot.

Speaking truth to power has always been especially dangerous for people of color, but backlashes and scapegoating did not stop the farmworker organizers or student activists fighting for labor and civil rights in the 1960s—and it won’t stop us.

I remember the hope we carried as we marched for immigration reform in 2010. Coming home to see footage from other protests around the country was exhilarating. I remember hearing people talk about attending the historic immigration reform protests that drew millions in 2006, and I felt like I too was getting a chance to experience history. The people power I’d read about was palpable, and I thought we could win.

But we didn’t win. It was disappointing, but losing the fight for legalization and the DREAM Act, a bill that would have created a pathway for permanent residency for millions of people like me who came to this country as children, didn’t extinguish my fire; instead, it sparked my resolve to keep fighting. We know that we must maneuver around every roadblock that politicians put up by going harder and smarter in our organizing strategies.

What scares me now is that elected officials like Sheriff Paul Penzone are pulling out all the stops to silence us into compliance. They are trying to erase the most vulnerable among us by deporting us and giving impunity to police officers who kill us, and they are doing everything they can to stop us from exercising our right to protest. Since 2017, Arizona legislators have introduced seven anti-protest bills to try to classify protest—including the peaceful one where I was arrested—as a class 4 felony punishable with up to three years in prison. They have also attempted to increase fines for participating in “unlawful assembly,” which could mean just two people “intending to engage in a riot.” But who determines the conditions that constitute a riot? They do. This means that what we deem a protest can be deliberately misclassified as a riot.

Authoritarian attacks on protestors and civic action and engagement are the latest in right-wing politicians’ arsenal of intimidation tactics. Growing up in close and personal proximity to so many unjust systems—from immigration detention and deportation to criminal (in)justice and the school-to-prison pipeline—I know that these systems aren’t separate entities. The collaboration between law and immigration enforcement is responsible for so much harm that has taken place in immigrant communities around the country. Similarly, the collaborative relationship between departments of education and law enforcement is responsible for funneling Black and Brown students into the criminal (in)justice system. In short, these unjust systems together form a massive machine programmed to destroy the will of people of color.

The truth is that the legislators and elected officials who are trying to enact these new anti-protest laws are afraid of our collective power, and they will do whatever it takes to annihilate us. This country has a long history of trying to erase and sideline us through incarceration and deportation. Now, elected officials have added censorship to the mix as they attempt to destroy the foundation of our democracy.

We have defeated many of these anti-protest bills, but we haven’t always been successful against the onslaught of anti-immigrant bills that we’ve contended with for almost 20 years. The same can be said of the unjust law enforcement practices that continue to kill our loved ones and rip our families apart.

The system-based machine we are up against has never been in our favor. Yet, we have maintained our dignity and resilience through courage, organizing, and community. Our fight for democracy, personal freedoms, and the right to use our voices has never been short, but it remains grounded in our humanity. The only thing that will defeat this machine is people power. We’ve always had the power of community and collaboration in our favor. To win, we must continue to cultivate it.