A Conversation with Noah Rubin-Blose //
Background: On November 23rd, 2018 Samuel Oliver-Bruno, an immigrant from Mexico who had been living in sanctuary at CityWell church for 11 months, was arrested by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) during a trap appointment at a U.S. Immigration Services office in Morrisville, North Carolina. 28 people of the many who had accompanied Samuel to his appointment as a mobile sanctuary unit – including members of Samuel’s family, CityWell church, and the wider community – were charged with obstructing the ICE van with Samuel inside. At the time of his arrest, Samuel and his family had lived in the U.S. for over twenty years. Samuel was deported to Mexico less than a week later.
Streetside Converations (SC): Tell us a little about yourself and how you came to be at Samuel’s immigration appointment?
Noah: I am a lifelong North Carolinian. I live in Hillsborough and have been in the Durham and Hillsborough area for my whole life, and have been involved in social justice work since I was in high school. I knew various folks that had gone to bring dinner to Samuel, to stay at the church, who go to CityWell. I had often received notifications from community groups about undocumented people going to appointments with ICE or USCIS [United States Citizenship and Immigration Services] and needing support — ‘show up and support,’ this sort of thing — and I hadn’t been able to come. When I heard about Samuel’s appointment I said, “Oh, I’m actually free that day, I can go, I really want to show up.” I think like a lot of people, I expected that I was just going there to witness, and that through our accompaniment… I really believed we would keep each other safe. We thought that just through our accompaniment, through there being 50-75 people there, that that would be enough community support that Samuel would be able to do the appointment and then return back to the physical church safely.
SC: It’s really interesting to me that you used the word “accompaniment,” because that’s not a way that we tend to use that word in English, but in Spanish—I don’t know if you speak Spanish—but certainly “acompañar” that’s used in that sense.
Noah: Some of the work that I did in high school, in the late 90’s and early 2000’s was with Witness for Peace. I’m Jewish, but it’s a Christian-based organization that brings folks from the U.S. to Latin America to see the impact of U.S. foreign policy and then to come back and try to shift those policies. They do use a framework of accompaniment, as one piece of faith-based nonviolence. For me this is about wanting folks that have more privilege and whose lives are seen as more valued to use that privilege to support and be with folks whose lives are not being valued.
SC: Absolutely, and it makes sense that that word might have been used in that context. Was this your first act of civil disobedience, or is this something you have a lot of experience with at this point? And in either case, did you prepare — or, how do you prepare for that?
Noah: This is the second time I’ve been arrested for civil disobedience. I have participated in a lot of protests, many of them un-permitted, so technically civil disobedience, but not where there was a planned arrest, and in some cases where there were people who were arrested but I wasn’t one of them.
The other time that I was arrested was similar to this; actually, it was very rapid response, and the day before it happened I didn’t necessarily think I was going to be getting arrested. It was the day after HB2 [North Carolina’s “Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act”] passed through the General Assembly and then the governor signed it. And I participated in an action where five of us chained ourselves together in the middle of the street in front of the governor’s mansion as part of a broader action; there were also people rallying all around. The action was planned by a group of queer and trans people of color, the NC Queer TrouBLMakers.
It’s funny because some of the work I do is with a group called Ready the Ground Training Team, and we work with communities and individuals to prepare for direct action. We talk about direct action in relation to campaign organizing, so we talk about actions fitting into a broader strategic plan, and often we’re workshopping actions that have very much been planned weeks or even months in advance as part of an escalation strategy. So it’s interesting that in the actions that I myself have actually participated in that’s not what has been the case. You know, it’s been really that I was just very moved in my heart by something, these terrible things that happen. This anti-trans, anti-worker bill passing which affected me directly, that I also understood, “This is a time that I’m being directly affected by a legislature that is doing so many horrible things to communities all the time. And this is my point of intervention against that entire system.” And then with this, you know, I showed up just to be there that day, and once they immediately took Samuel, I just thought to myself, “Well, I’m not moving now. This is not a moment for me, as a white person, as a U.S. citizen, to move away from this place of direct action and trying to stop the violence of ICE.” So that hasn’t actually spoken to your question of how do you prepare, which I think is a great question…
SC: What I hear you saying is that sometimes you don’t prepare, but then maybe in a moment you’ve done the mental preparation to be able to make that choice quickly when needed.
Noah: Yeah… I would love to see many, many more people feeling able to participate in direct action. And I do think that how we prepare ourselves for that is by reflecting on what’s our stake in social justice work, and what are the places where we feel a strong pull where we’re willing to put our bodies on the line, and that that might be different things for different people. So being able to reflect on that, and just kind of have a sense. And sometimes we won’t know until the moment actually comes up. But just doing that kind of reflection can be helpful. And also just—it is a traumatic experience to interact with police and prisons, I think, for anyone who has to go through the criminal injustice system through being arrested. For me, it’s been really important to just acknowledge that and to do things like practice breathing, and practice centering myself, and being in my body, before and also after, and also reach out to community and find support for being able to let that experience move through my body.
SC: I wasn’t there, and I regret not having been motivated enough to be there, because I can’t say I didn’t know, and I’m grateful for those who were, and who did decide in advance to show. So I’m grateful for that. Is there anything you want to add on either what happened, or what happened afterwards? I know I was watching the story blow up in larger and larger news outlets, and I was kind of hoping it would become more of a social media or national discussion point. And at least as far as I was aware, I don’t think it reached much of a national discussion, even though it was certainly in national papers. I’m also not on Facebook very often anymore… So I don’t know what your thoughts on that were?
Noah: I draw a distinction between civil disobedience and direct action. Direct action often is civil disobedience, but I think of civil disobedience as breaking the law in service of a higher law, or in service of values. And that can look like a lot of things—it can look like a protest in the street, it can look like Moral Monday. But direct action, specifically, is intervening directly with our bodies towards the world that we want, so not just marching down a random street or maybe a street where we’ll get the most media attention, but directly putting our bodies in front of a van that’s trying to deport somebody, or going into a city council and taking it over and creating a peoples’ city council, which was a beautiful action that Durham Beyond Policing did a couple years ago. And it can be just really powerful because we’re directly trying to make an impact; we’re not asking someone else to make a decision on our behalf, but we’re actually taking that into our own hands, collectively. So it was really powerful to be a part of that on November 23rd.
And it felt just so tragic to me, that day, that in taking that action that we were not able to stop that deportation from happening.
So then, what I saw in the week afterwards, I think we all were just thrown into the organizing around trying to get him out and bring him home and stop him from being deported. I saw how our action had functioned in the way that civil disobedience often does, to bring media attention to what’s happening and even though we weren’t successful in bringing him home, I think it did show the power of interfaith movements that are rooted in love and care about people’s dignity and know that ICE is such a violent structure. I think it just showed the power of people-power. And I also think that the media attention we did get and the way that so many community members came out to support in the week that followed, even those who couldn’t come that day – that it is because of that that some of the NC representatives… I know that people struggle so much to get them to take a stance and support immigrants, and they did for Samuel. And I think that happened both because of the specifics of his situation, of him being in sanctuary, and also I don’t think it would have happened if it weren’t for that action and how many folks being willing to put their bodies on the line, and our representatives seeing that, and so many people around the country seeing that.
SC: Anything else you want to add?
Noah: I hope that the action that our community took also inspires people everywhere to participate in this type of direct action, and to be able to envision what community really looks like beyond and without ICE.
Noah Rubin-Blose is a community organizer, chef, and maker of queer Jewish ritual from Hillsborough, NC, the homelands of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation. He has been active in social justice work since joining protests against the School of the Americas as a teen, and currently works to build a spiritually-grounded racial justice movement in the US South. He is a Southern trans and queer white Ashkenazi Jew who seeks to ground all of his work in collective liberation and the deep sense that we are all made in the image of g!d.