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UUA president convicted in civil disobedience case

The Rev. Peter Morales guilty of misdemeanor in Ariz. protest of SB 1070; calls for federal investigation of Phoenix sheriff.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
8.8.11

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Peter Morales spoke to reporters (Dea Brayden)

UUA President Peter Morales, along with the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, addressed a television camera before his trial in Phoenix on the one-year anniversary of his arrest during a protest of Arizona’s anti-illegal immigration law. (Dea Brayden)

On the one-year anniversary of his civil disobedience action in Phoenix, Ariz., protesting Arizona’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants, Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales stood trial in the Maricopa County Justice Court. With him in the July 29 trial, which concluded August 1, were Salvador Reza, a lead organizer with the immigrant rights group Puente Arizona, and two others.

On Friday, August 5, all four defendants were found guilty on misdemeanor charges of failing to comply with a police officer.

One year earlier, 29 Unitarian Universalists, including eight ministers, were arrested in Phoenix along with other immigrant rights activists while protesting Arizona’s strict anti-illegal immigration law Senate Bill 1070. They were among 150 UUs, many from out of state, who came to Phoenix for actions in support of immigrant families on July 29, 2010, the day SB 1070 went into effect. Opponents of SB 1070 say it encourages racial profiling by police, although a federal judge issued an injunction that blocked several controversial provisions of the law.

UUs were among hundreds of people who swarmed into downtown streets on the law’s first day, blocking traffic at midday in the vicinity of the Fourth Avenue Jail and the offices of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio, who calls himself “America’s toughest sheriff,” planned a sweep of illegal immigrants and criminals for July 29, but had to delay the sweep when protesters blocked the jail’s entrance.

In January, the Phoenix Municipal Court dropped charges against 17 UUs and acquitted three other UUs who had been arrested for obstructing a public thoroughfare.

Morales and the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, minister of the UU Congregation of Phoenix and leader of the Arizona Immigration Ministry, were arrested with twelve others at the entrance of a county jail, where many of them had formed a human chain. Frederick-Gray stood trial on June 17. On August 2, Judge David Seyer found her and nine others guilty of willfully failing to comply with a police order.

In his trial, Morales took the witness stand in his own defense. He told the court that he came to Phoenix at the invitation of Arizona UU congregations and their partner groups, Puente and the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON), according to Sandy Weir, organizer of the Arizona Immigration Ministry, who attended the trial. Morales told the court that, although he originally had not planned to join the protest, he changed his mind when he found out that an appeals court had imposed a partial injunction against SB 1070, and that Sheriff Arpaio had announced his plans to conduct a sweep on immigrant neighborhoods on July 29, 2010.

During the protest, Morales and Reza stood near the north entrance to the Maricopa County Fourth Avenue Jail. They were charged with failure to obey a lawful order to disperse. During his testimony, Morales likened his action to people who gave shelter to runaway slaves in the 1850s.

On the day of the trial, Morales also sent a letter calling for the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to intervene in the actions of Arpaio. In the letter, addressed to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder, Morales requested “that the Department of Homeland Security immediately sever Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s access to immigration programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities. I also request that the Department of Justice conclude its ongoing investigation into abuses by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and bring Sheriff Arpaio to justice.”

Morales also wrote that he engaged in the protest in front of the jail to impede, “if only for one day[,] the Sheriff’s dehumanization of migrants, his raids on the barrios, and his campaign of terror.”

In an op-ed published in The Huffington Post the day before the trial, Morales wrote about his visit to the Arizona-Mexico border last year: “I think of . . . the children at a detention center there whose father had been taken away. I think of the thousands who have died in the desert. I think of the young undocumented adults I have met who came here as infants and now live in constant fear of being deported from the only country they have ever known. I can still see their faces. They haunt me.”

“When I think of the people who are suffering and dying as a result of our broken immigration system,” he continued, “I know I did the right thing a year ago.”

Following his conviction, Morales released the following statement on the UUA website:

My decision to engage in civil disobedience last July was rooted in my profound opposition to Arizona’s SB 1070 and to the inhumane practices of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

My conviction as a result of that civil disobedience in no way alters my commitment to opposing this legislation that targets and dehumanizes some of the most vulnerable among us.

We Unitarian Universalists will continue to stand on the side of love against this draconian legislation and the racism and anti-immigrant sentiment it represents, and we look forward to bringing our public witness to Phoenix in 2012 at our Justice General Assembly.

Morales, Reza, Frederick-Gray, and the other defendants convicted last week will be sentenced on August 23. The maximum sentence is up to four months in jail, a $750 fine, and two years of probation. The judge recommended a one-day jail term with one day’s credit for time already served and no probation.


Christopher L. Walton contributed reporting to this story. See sidebar for links to related resources.

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