Islanders stand up for closing detention camps

When faced with events that shock the conscience, people will choose to stand up rather than standby

  • Wednesday, July 17, 2019 9:57am
  • Opinion
Rob Crawford (Susan Riemer/Staff Photo).

Rob Crawford (Susan Riemer/Staff Photo).

While many readers may be focused on the violence that occurred at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma involving a Vashon man and leading to his death, let us not permit this tragic event to occlude the violence perpetrated by our government against migrants and immigrant communities. It was against this violence that islanders peacefully protested just hours earlier.

Friday evening, more than 130 people gathered at Vashon’s main intersection holding candles or flashlights as part of a nationwide and global protest involving tens of thousands of people in over 900 cities. It was called Lights for Liberty. Although protesters stood quietly in solemn vigil, the people who participated conveyed an unmistakable message: When faced with events that shock the conscience, people will choose to stand up rather than standby.

This message was the most remarkable story of the week — a spontaneous outpouring of people who literally and metaphorically shone their lights into a darkening sky. The protest came together in just four days as island activists scrambled to get the word out.

The problem is that we have a racist, viciously anti-immigrant president, leading and backed by a far-right, white nationalist movement. The danger is great, the consequences already dire, and, daily, more and more Americans know it.

No matter the issue, desperate, destructive acts will not serve positive change. For millions of people, peaceable protest and the hard work of activism are the only way to respond. Over the past two years, solidarity movements that defend the human rights of migrants and immigrants have swelled.

Just last summer Americans protested the administration’s punishing family separation policy. Stung by critical public opinion, Trump pretended to retreat, all the while escalating his anti-migrant rhetoric and planning with Stephen Miller his next policy assault on asylum seekers.

During the run-up to the midterms, President Trump delivered racist, fear-mongering speeches from the White House in an attempt to amplify fears of “invasion” by migrant “caravans.” In January, it was all about building “the wall,” the ultimate symbol of the barrier between “us” and “them.” He then ordered military troops to the border.

Simultaneously, the government ramped up “Zero tolerance” policies intended to deter and prevent asylum seekers from reaching our borders and punishing those who did. This was followed by the “remain in Mexico policy” forcing asylum seekers to endure threats of extortion and violence in Mexico’s lawless border towns.

The anti-migrant assaults keep coming. In early June, coercive threats to Mexico resulted in a deal to deploy the Mexican military in an effort to prevent Central American migrants from reaching the U.S. border. As I write, the administration announced a new policy that will prevent most asylum seekers from applying in the U.S., requiring them instead to apply in a “transit” country, a flagrant violation of national and international law. This is accompanied by the threat of ICE roundups in several large American cities.

This is the background to the more immediate outrages that brought us to protest this past Friday — the Trump administration’s cruel and dehumanizing treatment of migrant children and adults in detention.

The abuses in these camps have been extensively documented: Extreme overcrowding forcing children to sleep on cold floors, separation of traumatized children from parents and older siblings, children kept in detention well beyond legal limits, life-threatening lack of sanitation, shortages of food and water. There have been six child deaths in detention. Even Homeland Security’s Inspector General found intolerable conditions. A few days ago the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights characterized the administration’s detention policies as bordering on “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment that is prohibited by international law.” The U.N. human rights spokesperson declared the U.S. was in “breach of the state’s human rights obligations.”

This is the crisis of injustice that brought people into the streets on Vashon and throughout the nation and world. I was inspired by this moment of resistance. We act without knowing the ultimate effects of our action. Yet, we know when we can no longer remain silent. Unless Trump is impeached or defeated in 2020, his politics of racism and cruelty toward migrants and immigrants will continue. Until that time, many more of us will find ways to say, Not in My Name.

— Rob Crawford is a longtime islander, retired UW Tacoma professor, writer and activist.

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