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SMC campus minister arrested in ‘Catholic Day of Action’ protest

| Monday, July 22, 2019

Seventy Catholic sisters, clergy and parishioners were arrested Thursday in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington D.C. while protesting the Trump administration’s immigration policies and the current treatment of migrants in America. The hall atrium echoed with the Lord’s Prayer as protesters were handcuffed and led outside to be detained.

Saint Mary’s campus minister Fr. Steve Newton spent the “Catholic Day of Action” protesting the mistreatment of immigrant children, and was among those arrested at the Senate Office building. Newton said it was important that the protest be seen as an event specific to Catholics. Most clerical participants highlighted the Catholic identity of the demonstration by wearing religious vestments.

“Our message was that, as Catholics in particular, we are opposed to the conditions under which children are being detained and separated from their parents at our southern borders,” Newton said in an email.

Having been elected to the Leadership Team of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests, Newton said he drove over 600 miles through heavy rain to Washington D.C. to participate in “civil disobedience” by demonstrating in the rotunda of the Senate offices. Newton said he and other protestors knew they faced arrest.

“We had joined a webinar earlier in the week to learn about the program and consequences of being arrested for not leaving the building when directed to do so by the Capitol Police, so while we were not entirely sure what to expect, we were confident that all would be well,” he said.

The group gathered at 8:30 a.m. across the street from the Russell Senate Office Building, where volunteers set the ground rules for arrest procedure and collected cell phones, wallets and other possessions from the protesters, Newton said. At that time, Newton said there were 200 other demonstrators praying outside the senate building.

“There was a festive spirit in the air,” he said. “Many old friends from other demonstrations and activist work were reunited and many introductions were made. Many of us were presenting ourselves for civil disobedience for the first time.”

The group filed into the rotunda and formed a circle, with five protestors lying on the floor in the shape of a cross, photos of children who had died in border detention centers clutched in hand and taped to their chests, Newton said. After a while, they began to pray the rosary.

“Very quickly, an officer of the police announced through a bullhorn our first warning to disband,” Newton said.

After a second and third warning, the auxiliary protesters began to filter out, leaving only the original 70 to remain in the hall and face arrest, Newton said. The remaining protesters were handcuffed, searched and bused to an empty police garage.

“The arresting police were very polite and very young,” he said. “I wondered what was going through their minds as they put cuffs on such a diverse and non-violent group.”

At the detention site, the protesters were again searched and relieved of their signs, religious stoles and remaining possessions other than identification and money for bail. The behind-the-back handcuffs were removed during the search, but protestors were once again cuffed this time in front after the search was completed. The group was then directed to sit in chairs and wait, similar to the processes of the Department of Motor Vehicles, Newton said.

After about four hours, 90-year-old Sister Pat Murphy from Chicago was the first protestor called to pay her fine and be released, Newton said.

“A great cheer went up as she was released,” Newton said, “This continued each time one person would be released.”

Newton said he realizes the group’s efforts were largely symbolic and of little personal cost, but considers the protest to have been a worthwhile endeavor.

“It was a witness gesture, but it did draw attention,” he said. “The news and social media coverage we received tells me that we were quite successful.”

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