General Synod 2019, Day 4

A Reflection by Thomas Mitchell

On Monday, the General Synod delayed the start of its afternoon plenary session, so that delegates could participate in a march to the Milwaukee ICE office to protest against current immigration policies. The protest and rally were organized in coordination with Voces de la Frontera, a Wisconsin immigrant rights organization, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America among others. More than 500 delegates participated in the march and rally that took place over roughly 90 minutes. Although the protest was spurred by recent reports about the conditions of the facilities where immigrants, particularly children, are being held, this protest held other significance for me. I thought about my friends who live their lives without proper authorizations or “papers.” I thought about the reality that I was able to get on a plane and fly to Milwaukee with little fear that I’d be subject to any extra scrutiny or security. My immigrant friends don’t have that privilege.

I and the other delegates spent 90 minutes marching and chanting up and down the sidewalk outside of an ICE office without real fear of interference from law enforcement. My immigrant doesn’t have that privilege.

For myself, and most of the other delegates, the march was a spur of the moment decision, motivated by news reports and the groupthink of a motion made in the synod— it was an addition to a schedule that was changed to accommodate the protest. My immigrant friends don’t have the privilege of scheduling a convenient time for them to advocate for the protection of their fundamental rights as human beings.

In addition to these more personal thoughts, I was also struck by the image of our protest. A mostly white group of protestors covered the sidewalks in front of the ICE building. Throughout the protest, there were only five (5) police officers present. Anyone who has participated in protests that include crowds of mostly black or brown people knows that that lack is police presence is an exception rather than the norm. (The City of Memphis had as many officers guarding the statue of a Confederate general at the height of the #TakeEmDown901 protests).

When the group of ministers who’d prepared to be arrest began to enter the street, we all believed that the police were moving in to arrest them. They weren’t. Instead, they directed traffic around them and blocked off the street. This is not a privilege afforded to groups of black and brown protestors.

All of this is to say that I pray this moment does not become performative in retrospect. Joining a protest march in a city that is not your own, that was designed to accommodate your schedule, supported by your General and Associate Ministers, and without any real fear of police intervention is, in the grand scheme of things, a fairly low-bar to reach. My hope is that delegates will return to their congregations and discern the ways that they can bear witness to and advocate with those most affected by these policies. I think Rev. Amy Butler of Riverside Church in New York provides a good instruction here, calling upon members to have the courage and grace “risk something big for the sake of something good.”