Taking Action Against Detention Prisons

by Karyn Pomerantz, August 2019

While the US ruling class clamps down on the freedom of migrants seeking asylum and survival in the US, ordinary people are mobilizing to liberate the incarcerated. These protests have taken many forms.  Immigrant rights organizations educate immigrants about their so-called legal rights to avoid detention, communities and religious institutions provide sanctuary, lawyers negotiate to stop the police from sharing arrest records with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of Homeland Security), and activists confront anti-immigration institutions with direct actions.

In recent weeks (Summer 2019), there have been more direct actions and civil disobedience to stop detentions. Direct action protests and civil disobedience can use illegal or legal disruptive tactics to change conditions and policies.  Instead of negotiations and voting, they include strikes, demonstrations (think Yellow Vests in France), mutinies, prison rebellions, attacks on right wing rallies, urban rebellions, and sit-ins. They are instrumental in securing reforms and making revolutions.  While individuals can use direct action, such as assassinations or suicide bombings, they are not effective and usually harm co-workers or the public. Successful, militant protests involve large numbers of participants, unity, collective outrage, and organization.  

Imagine if thousands of anti-racists operating in a planned cohesive manner opened the prisons and released the children and individuals held in these camps!  Are we headed for this? Would this strategy succeed?

This article explores the value of direct action and civil disobedience, and recent and historical examples of workers defending their brothers and sisters.  We welcome your examples.

Examples of Recent Actions 

While militant responses to anti-immigrant practices are still few and small, they hold great promise to stop these fascist policies of detaining people and separating families.  These are some recent examples:

  • Neighbors in a Tennessee town surrounded a van where a Latino dad and son sat as ICE cops approached to arrest them.  The neighbors filled their gas tank to allow the AC to run and delivered food to them. As the cops advanced, the neighbors formed a circle around the van giving the family a chance to escape.

  • One hundred members of Never Again: Jews Against ICE Week Of Action sat down in the street and blocked the entrance to the detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, holding signs that read Never Again Means Close the Camps.  Thirty-six were arrested.

  • Hundreds of marchers with Never Again Action sat in the lobby and blocked entrances to the ICE headquarters in Washington, DC demanding the release of detainees.  They held signs reading “ICE = Gestapo,” “ICE, KKKops, Nazis ALL THE SAME!”  ICE employees were not able to enter or leave the building. Eleven were arrested.

  • On July 23, protestors in McAllen, Texas blocked a bus carrying detained children.  While the bus got away, many waved to the kids and told them “you are not alone.” There were no arrests.

  • On June 26, approximately 400 workers at the Wayfair furniture store  walked off the job to protest the company’s collaboration with the operators of the detention centers in Texas.  Wayfair had furnished beds to the camps earning $200,000 in sales. Workers demanded that the company donate the money to an anti-detention organization, RAICES, and stop future sales.  They explained that they wanted to close the camps, not make them more comfortable.  One worker explained:

    I think this has been a really great example of how everything that we do when we’re talking about total liberation is intersectional. None of the issues that affect us are alone or isolated. … Through this struggle, many of my coworkers began to see through the so-called apolitical nature of big business. Lots of them said, “If this is how the free market works, I don’t like it… My coworkers this week saw how the functioning of the machine depends on our labor. And when we withhold our labor, the machine can’t function.”
  • https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/06/wayfair-walkout-immigration-detention-centers
  • In July 2019, 200 people protested the detention center at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma where the Obama Administration held immigrants in 2014, and the Trump Administration will use for currently detained children.  Ft. Sill is notorious for its use as a residential school for Native American people and as an internment camp for 700 Japanese American men during WW II. The demonstration drew former internees and their families, Holocaust survivors, and native people.  Activists with all experiences and backgrounds emphasized their responsibility to stand up for detainees, recounting that few did so for them. https://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-japanese-internment-fort-sill-2019-story.html


Direct action campaigns by ordinary people populate world history.  Here are just a few examples.

  • Anti-slavery struggles in the US involved black and white people opposing slavery and protecting people escaping enslavement.  The Underground Railroad, led by free black men and women, and supported by abolitionists had “stations” that moved escapees to non-slave states and Canada. In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act that mandated people in the north and south identify and capture fugitives from slavery.  Frederick Douglass, freed blacks, and abolitionists physically fought to free many who were detained. https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/who-really-ran-the-underground-railroad/

  • ACT UP, a group of AIDS activists, organized militant actions to demand care for people with HIV and AIDS.  They conducted mass die-ins in the streets, and stormed the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to win faster approvals for medication.  They insisted on participating on scientific panels. Their militancy and visibility led to winning these demands and bringing public attention to the epidemic.

  • The Stonewall Rebellion in New York City promoted civil rights for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.  When police attacked the popular gay bar, people fought back, refusing to allow the city to close the bar and deny them their rights.  It helped establish the gay rights movement.

  • The African National Congress, the ANC, led the liberation movement in South Africa.  It included and allied with the South African Communist Party, black South African labor and youth organizations, and liberation armies in Rhodesia and Angola.  It supported a military wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation/ MK), that conducted sabotage against railroad lines, government buildings, and tanks. Led by Nelson Mandela and supported by people all over the world, it destroyed apartheid and established a new government in 1994.

  • On May Day 2003 in California, 27,000 longshoremen in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union struck in opposition to the war in Iraq.  On May 19, 2003, they also refused to cross an anti-war picket line at another port.  Because they load weapons for the war, they can seriously disrupt US wars. Workers who maintain important infrastructure and services in transportation and communication have potential power to change working conditions and government policies, and strengthen revolutionary struggles.

  • During WWII, ordinary European men and women, many led by communists, opposed and fought Nazi forces.  Operating in the countryside and cities, these partisans attacked the German troops, sabotaged railroad lines used by the enemy, intercepted communications, and rescued and led Allied pilots into safe places.  In England, people fought in the streets against the British Union of Fascists led by Oswald Mosely, stopping them from organizing there. Mosely wrote:

“All immigration will be stopped. Britain for the British, is our motto,  … Further, all foreigners who have already been naturalized will be deported unless they have proved themselves valuable citizens of Great Britain. … Jews must put the interests of Britain before those of Jewry, or be deported from Britain.”  Sound familiar?! (Fascism by Oswald Mosely reprinted at http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/holoprelude/mosley.html

These violent courageous actions, along with the Warsaw Rebellion, concentration camp escapes (Sobibor), and the massive anti-Nazi battles waged by the Soviet Union stopped the Third Reich. 

  • Recently (July 2019), Puerto Ricans amassed by the hundreds of thousands in the streets to demand the resignation of Governor Rosello for his flagrant corruption and negligence of Hurricane Maria’s survivors.  Administration officials spent millions to reward business supporters, privatize schools, and close medical facilities, basically holding people hostage to the interests of big business. Over 10 percent of the population, largely professional workers, had fled to other countries years before the protests began.  Rosello resigned in late July, but his new replacement was part of the Control Boared that was supposed to manage Puerto Rico’s economy.  

These inspiring examples show how we can also stop a fascist movement in the US with militancy, early interventions, and good anti-capitalist politics.  This means building multiracial unity and international solidarity, and relying on the public not politicians. However, as long as capitalism exists and profits drive the economy, conditions will worsen.  Governments under capitalism will never protect us; fascism is just another more dangerous form of capitalism.

An anti-fascist activist in Washington wrote:

It’s time to take action against the forces of evil.  Evil says one life is worth less than another. Evil says the flow of commerce is our purpose here. Evil says concentration camps for folks deemed lesser are necessary. The handmaid of evil says the concentration camps should be more humane. Beware the centrist. (https://itsgoingdown.org/on-williem-van-spronsen/)

As If Not Now says “If Not Now IS Now.”

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