It was looking through the binoculars that undid me first (at the time, I did not realize what would end up happening later in the morning). When I held up a simple and beautiful heart Melissa Bowen Rubin made, the teenagers reacted wildly. They blew kisses, made hearts with their hands, waved, danced, and jumped to see us. There was one boy in particular who kept throwing his hands up in a heart. He then began breaking the heart apart. Not knowing exactly what this meant, I did the same back at him. This caused him to wave wildly and jump up and down. I asked Josh Rubin for his binoculars and trained them on the boy’s face. Even I could hear my own sharp intake of breath as I saw how young this boy was. He looked about 10, but given the ages at the facility, had to be at least 13. I watched his frantic arm movements as he tried to make sure I could still see him.
I thought of my own 13 year old at home who calls out my name when I am supposed to be paying attention to her and I become distracted. Thankfully, my children get a lot of attention from two loving parents. Even then, they ask for more. This child, this boy alone in a detention center under a blaring Florida sun, this boy who no one is allowed to touch, or hug, or cuddle…this boy saw a heart floating out there over the fence, out there in the United States, and threw himself into trying to connect to the woman who held it.
He was not the only boy reacting to us. Many waved, threw heart-hands, jumped up, and blew kisses. Later in the day, others shouted to us in English, “We love you!” and “Thank you!” As boys were led back to their tent, they turned and strained their necks to get a last look at us and throw a final wave.
The boys, that this. We do not see much of the girls. When we arrived at 8:30am this morning, we went right over to the field where the kids play because we know this is the only time we see the girls outside. They were corralled into one corner of the field. When they saw us, a staff member stationed herself in front of them, arms crossed and facing us. Not a single girl walked past the spot where the staff member stood. We still held our signs high and willed our love and concern over the fence and across the field. We can only pray they felt it.
Later in the morning, we returned to the fence, 5 witnesses strong. We wanted to show the kids how many of us were there; remembering them, seeing them, caring about them. The group that was outside at the time waved, jumped, and threw hearts like the others. Then they began to shout and point beyond us, point out. They were shouting, “Fuera! Fuera!” I asked Josh what this meant. It means, “Out! Out!” I realized they were telling us that they wanted OUT, “Get us out!”
We are trying, we really are.
The afternoon had its own drama.
We were all nervous after the 2:30 shift change because we knew it brought with it the more difficult security guard who, during my only day on the ground, had called police on us twice. Sure enough, after two members of our group walked down the street to stand across from the field, this security guard drove up. Seeing this, Melissa and I joined the other two. The guard was on the phone with the police already. He did not speak to us. When he finished with the police, he radioed for backup and three more vehicles arrived and parked in front of us, two of which had lights flashing. Thankfully, Melissa and Josh had the number of a community relations officer with the Miami-Dade police.
While we were waiting for the officer, we read the news about the astounding number of sexual assaults that have been reported in the last 3 years from Detention Centers exactly like the one in front of which we stood. Thousands in fact. Even more disturbing, Axios reports that “178 of the allegations named an adult staff member as the abuser.” We stood there, in front of a heavily guarded teen detention center, with kids begging to get out, reading about the astounding number of sexual assault allegations leveled against adult staff members. Staring at the mysterious and towering white tents, I had to wonder what at that moment could be taking place. And all I could do was stand there. Just stand there.
A few hours later, near the end of our day, the impressive Officer Dallas arrived. In a great coincidence, the problematic guard was just coming back to us as Officer Dallas pulled up. We pointed the guard out to her. Great drama ensued as Officer Dallas told him in no uncertain terms that he was not to call the police again unless we actually break the law. She ran down a list of things that we could do to break the law. We have done none of these things. Hopefully, this means we are safe for tomorrow.
As far as what we see at the center, construction trucks continue to drive in and out. Staff in solid color shirts (each color signifies a different role) continue to walk by us on their way to and from their shifts. Some subtly give us a nod, thumbs up, or small wave.
The sun continues to blaze. The trees continue to sway in the breeze. And the children continue to sit in prison for nothing more than wanting to live in safety and freedom.
The young boy’s face from the binoculars swims in front of me now. I wonder if, as he falls asleep, he thinks of someone who used to tuck him in, someone who paid attention to him.