Sanctuary vs. Brutality: Notes from a “Rapid Action Lab” in Chicago

The following post was submitted by Chelsey Rhodes.

*The following is a reflection from a “Rapid Action Lab” organized and facilitated by United Way of Metro Chicago and Roller Strategies, that took place July 13-15th, 2017, with 66 participants from the neighbourhoods of Little Village, Brighton Park, and Austin.


“Our meeting venue [Chicago Teachers Union Center] is a brick and mortar example of ‘Unity is Strength.” – Jose Rico, United Way of Metro Chicago [Photo credit: Isaac Guzman]

“Not all violence is hot. There’s cold violence too, which takes its time and finally gets its way… Putting a people into deep uncertainty about the fundamentals of life, over years and decades, is a form of cold violence. Through an accumulation of laws rather than by military means, a particular misery is intensified and entrenched. This slow violence, this cold violence, no less than the other kind, ought to be looked at and understood.”

-Teju Cole

The concept of Sanctuary (n.: a sacred or holy place; a place of refuge or safety) is a very old tradition, with roots in the Biblical notion of hospitality towards the stranger, and in medieval times the provision of protection for fugitives.  The Sanctuary tradition in the U.S. grew from the establishment of key safe harbours for those fleeing slavery, in what came to be known as the Underground Railroad.  Later, churches acted as safe meeting places for activists in the Civil Rights Movement. 

In the 1980s, the Sanctuary Movement (the interfaith branch of the broader solidarity movement) became a ‘new Underground Railroad,’ providing safe passage and refuge for people fleeing U.S. imperialist intervention and bloody wars in Central America.  Sanctuary has been a kind of conscientious resistance to unjust laws; it has served as both a moral and political action.  Sanctuary scholar Elizabeth Allen points to its venerable role in human history, calling it “an escape valve for society when the law can’t meet the deeper demands of justice.”

Sanctuary Cities (also states, counties, and campuses) are the latest outgrowth of the Sanctuary Movement.  There is no precise legal definition, but generally Sanctuary Cities try to enhance access to services for undocumented people, and limit the cooperation of local authorities with federal immigration officers.  

As the global migrant crisis grows and waves of reactive populism, white nationalism, and xenophobia increase, Sanctuary Cities have become an increasingly polarizing issue and many (like Chicago) are struggling to live up to their mandate.  In January, Donald Trump signed an executive order attempting to withdraw federal funding from so-called Sanctuary Cities, and has given expanded powers to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

This context has produced an urgent need to strategize about the creation of actual safety for undocumented people and families in the face of hostile federal immigration policy. This led to envisioning the Safer Through Unity “Rapid Action Lab.”


Wither Sanctuary?

A Rapid Action Lab (RAL) is a social lab designed for conditions that demand an urgent response (see diagram above).  It is a model that can be adopted and adapted across many contexts- for instance in communities struggling to create neighbourhood-level safety/ sanctuary. The idea is to quickly put resources into the hands of people who are locally embedded, in existing organising networks, and therefore are best-placed to create solutions and act on internally-driven priorities.  

In July, 66 people came together to respond to the challenge question: “How can we work together to support children and families to be safe from violence and deportation in their neighbourhoods?” These people were drawn from the Chicago neighbourhoods of Little Village, Austin, and Brighton Park.  Over the course of a 3-day kickoff workshop, 6 teams formed and developed prototype interventions to address this challenge. 

During the first day of the workshop, participants focused on developing a deep, shared understanding of the system.  Stories quickly began emerging regarding the topic of state violence.  Participants described children being afraid to go to school, fearing their parents would not be at home when they returned. A recent article in the New Yorker reported this very thing happening, following 4 mothers who had been targeted and detained for minor traffic violations or decades-old deportation orders. A Guardian article that discusses Trump’s new fast-track, secretive deportation courts describes conditions in the private detention centres as “horrible and brutal… people would rather go [back] to a place that they know is dangerous, where they have no family, where they might be tortured.”

As the lab progressed, participants discussed a kind of bureaucratic brutality at the City level related to the allocation of funds and services.  During a heartbreaking morning in a park close to the lab venue, several parents remarked that their children had never had the experience of playing safely on a nice playground like that one.  Later, a participant referenced “Downtown Chicago- which has a lot of money but they don’t give it out to people who need it.”  Another lamented that, “Money generated from our community… sometimes we don’t see it back in our communities.”

Zaid Hassan (Roller Strategies) and Jose Rico (UW) demonstrate a Dialogue Interview in the park [Photo credit: Isaac Guzman]
By the end of Day 2, participants were moving towards team formation (the ‘innovation’ of a Rapid Action Lab produces a group of diverse teams composed of people with deep knowledge of the issue and context, who can begin having an immediate impact).  One group brainstormed the following interventions: “Organize actions against ICE, mayor’s office, and other officials; identify areas of sanctuary for undocumented people; create and fund a local food cooperative; train police to work with youth and families in a less hostile manner; create a rapid response network for deportations; “know your rights” workshops on protecting yourself from law enforcement; organize community to pressure City to de-fund Chicago police department and direct funding towards schools and health care.”

The narrowing and focusing process led to 6 teams developing initial prototype ideas and action plans (stay tuned for more details in the upcoming Kickoff Workshop Report).


A team from Little Village develops their prototype model [Photo credit: Isaac Guzman]

Thinking in Dark Times

The word “brutality” took shape in my head early in the lab, when participants began discussing ICE officials performing what they called “dragnet raids.”  These occur when officials target people with deportation orders but sweep up any undocumented people in their path (there are an estimated 11 million undocumented people in America, or 3.5% of the population).  At this point I could not help thinking of ICE agents as mini-Eichmanns, rounding up Jews in the night (there were an estimated 11 million Jewish people living within Nazi Germany’s sphere of power).  Some may protest that I am stretching analogies here- people aren’t being deported to literal death camps- but not if we take “slow, cold violence” seriously.

With one day left in the lab, I went with my colleagues to the Seminary Co-op bookstore near the University of Chicago, and picked up a collection discussing the work of Hannah Arendt.  Her writings (including her controversial report on Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial in Jerusalem) have experienced a huge resurgence in the wake of the last U.S. election.  

Arendt admonishes us that we cannot retreat to private life and claim neutrality when plain evil is happening, that we cannot rationalize actions or follow commands we hold to be wrong, and that “crimes remain crimes even if legalized by the government.”  Thinking, and judging, helps to defend reality from the “political lie”- the fictional constructions and ideologies that serve to obscure reality. 

Arendt is talking about a very specific kind of thinking, which she refers to as “thinking in dark times.” That is, “When everyone is swept away unthinkingly by what everybody else does and believes in, those who think are drawn out of hiding because their refusal to join in is conspicuous and thereby becomes a kind of action.” 

This, of course, was always the underlying thrust of the Sanctuary Movement.  In contrast, Trump has so distorted reality that he would proclaim the building of a wall to keep people safe by keeping vulnerable people out- a kind of perverse, inverse Sanctuary.

Does the death (or attempted killing) of the Sanctuary Movement represent the death of thinking in America? As Arendt might say, the system itself has obliterated (political, critical) thinking- the ability to engage in dialogue with oneself, to be self-reflexive, to imagine oneself in the shoes of another.  Dark times obscure the light of knowledge, and thinking goes to die.

Arendt pointed out that what was most incredible about Eichmann was not his evil but his thoughtlessness.  Ordinary people become complicit in extraordinary harm and violence when they fail to think about the ways in which evil is systemic.  Arendt seems to say that collective violence is perpetrated not by vicious sadists but by normal people following the dictates of bureaucracies, and without “intentions” in the usual sense (she also clarified that people are not mere cogs in a machine, and agreed with the court that Eichmann should be executed… to read Arendt is to sit with seeming contradictions, like koans).

This “thinking”, in the Arendtian sense, is a core capability for anyone attempting to address complex social problems- labs practitioners, community organizers and activists, nonprofit workers, social innovators, and so on (Roller Strategies points to the core capabilities of “Power and Systems” and “Self-Awareness”).  

I have been in environments with an institutional mandate to ‘solve complex challenges’ (e.g. poverty), and yet this collective capacity was so underdeveloped that there was a kind of allergy – and violent reaction- to any attempt at thinking-out-loud.  To think and speak about these things is to puncture the story we tell ourselves about ourselves; we would like to avoid thinking about ‘who we think we are’ at all. The result of this was not just failure, but (to steal a phrase from Zaid Hassan) “traumatic failure.”  The impact, of course, is felt most by communities who have already been made deeply unsafe. This kind of well-intentioned brutality is ubiquitous throughout civil society.

In order to create a truly safe society, we need to risk thinking; and then acting on this thinking.  It remains to be seen whether more radical approaches, i.e. those that reach root causes, and really leverage social change- will be funded.  In general, potentially transformative ‘experiments with power’ are confined within grassroots social movements, and don’t receive the grants or big foundation money (which is often intertwined with powerful corporate or state interests). 

It is still an open question whether donors or funders are willing to take the kinds of risks needed to create change, or will retreat into non-thinking and their own illusions of safety.  After visiting Chicago and witnessing the work of Safer Through Unity, I am tentatively hopeful.  As usual, the best kind of thinking is happening nearest to the ground.  

The growing global refugee crisis and the increased hostility towards migrants suggests that what is needed are full-scale, long-term Social Labs expanded over multiple neighbourhoods and cities, which requires a much bigger funding commitment.  To start, an expansion of the RAL model to other neighbourhoods in Chicago would be an important step towards reversing brutality, transforming conditions of violence, and achieving a true City of Sanctuary.

              And we will have to face ourselves,

              Face our sense of justice

              To include all life


              We will need to nourish our imagination

              To include a new equality

              And summon our souls, our heart and our minds to a justice,

              which includes all life

                                           -Lee Maracle, “Blind Justice”

“Safer Through Unity” participants [Photo credit: Isaac Guzman]





Berkowitz R, Katz J, Keenan T (Eds). Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics. (2010).



Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. (1963).

Gonzales, Roberto. Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America. (2015).

Walia, Harsha. Undoing Border Imperialism. (2013).

Butler, Judith. “Hannah Arendt’s Challenge to Adolf Eichmann.” (2011).

INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. (2009).

13th – American documentary on the intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration. Directed by Ava DuVernay. (2016).