Activists put Northwest Detention Center on trial

One activist performs a blessing ritual on another person about to visit detainees at the Northwest Detention Center on Sunday. (Photo by Gavin Amos-Lopez.)

With a grey overcast and the looming barbed wire fences in the background, a crowd began to gather outside the Northwest Detention Center.

They walked around with their signs and met newly found allies, as they prepared for a People’s Tribunal.

Before a panel of five community judges, these activists would put Immigration and Customs Enforcement on trial.

The event was organized by the Northwest Detention Center Resistance in order to support the immigrants detained within the walls of the detention center, as well as the 800,000 DACA recipients in the country, and the 11 million undocumented immigrants that are at risk of deportation.

Maru Mora, a prominent member of the group, provided a comforting presence to the event. Despite being one of ICE’s recent targets, Mora addressed the crowd.

“This is the first tribunal of a series by our campaign called ICE on trial. This is the first city of 8, maybe 11 tribunals that will be held across the nation,” Mora said. “This is important for ICE can see that justice comes from people and we are the ones that are going to judge them. They’re not going to judge us anymore. We will judge them.”

The NWDC Resistance is a group organizing a movement to end all deportations and detention centers.

“As a movement we reject the paradigm that classifies immigrants as either ‘hardworking’ or ‘criminal’, ‘worthy’ or ‘unworthy.’ Words like these seek to further divide our communities between people whose lives are considered disposable and people whose lives are judged worthy of protecting. We reject these divisions,” the group posted on its website.

The group supported a series of hunger strikes held by detainees inside the detention center last year. The strikers demanded improvement in the facilities and in the way they were being treated. They also called for access to education, reasonable commissary prices, better mental and physical healthcare, and for visits that allow contact.

The People’s Tribunal held outside the detention center follows a traditional tactic used in grassroots organizing. In a mock-trial setting, panels of judges would empower common folk to speak about the injustices and trauma felt at the hand of their abusers.

Traditionally, the judges would consist of soldiers, workers and representatives of local communities. Witnesses and victims of atrocities would be called to the stand to give an account of their experiences in front of a crowd that consists of local stakeholders and community members.

This puts people in place to judge corporations and government institutions, reminding people of the power of our collective voice and struggle.

Hundreds gathered at the Northwest Detention Center on Feb. 4 for the People’s Tribunal, organized by the Northwest Detention Center Resistance. (Photo by Gavin Amos-Lopez.)

At the Northwest Detention Center, five local community activists sat in judgement for the tribunal on ICE. Before the tribunal, the judges visited detainees to see the state of the facilities and the conditions of those who are being detained.

Asha Abena of the No Youth Jail Coalition, was one of the people who went inside.

“I’ve visited prisons before, the conditions weren’t surprising. It was how although many of the people detained don’t have criminal records, we had less physical access to folx, than I’ve experience in some high level security prisons. It portrayed detainees as an excessive threat, similar to narratives of immigrants being crime ridden and disposable.” Abena wrote in an email. “The person I met with has been incarcerated/detained since he was fifteen. He was first booked as a juvenile in Oregon, and was immediately moved to the the detention center five years ago.”

Abena and the other judges told the crowd outside about what they saw and the bureaucracy that makes it hard for many to be released.

Many of people there are detained for indefinite periods of time, because they have not been protected constitutionally. There are not enough immigration court judges for the caseload, and immigration courts and staff face a huge backlog.

The detainees’ grievances against the detention center have been documented in previous letters to activists. The staff have transported detainees to their court hearings late, often provide inadequate medical attention and restrain the detainees to solitary confinement for minor offenses.

The Northwest Detention Center is a privately managed facility by an entity named GEO Group. GEO Group founded in 1984, specializes in managing private correctional facilities in multiple countries and runs several immigrant detention centers in the United States. Last year, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued GEO Group for its $1 an hour wages that it offers detainees for their labor.

GEO group stocks have nearly doubled since Trump won Presidency in 2016 and it was a large financial supporter of Trump’s campaign.

The Daily Beast reporter Justin Glawe wrote that half of the immigrant detainees deaths in 2016 and 2017 occurred in facilities run by GEO Group.

“Despite the deaths and rampant complaints of poor conditions in its facilities, GEO has been the recipient of at least three large contracts since Trump took office,” wrote Glawe.

Glawe added that the company’s recently opened detention center in Folkston, Georgia was funded partly by $116 million in taxpayer money and the company expected that the Georgia facility would have revenues of $21 million a year.

At the Northwest Detention Center, the five-judge panel ruled unanimously in favor of those detained in the facility. The panel released a statement of its findings on Facebook.

“We find ICE, CBP, and all immigrant detention centers (and private companies that run them) guilty of extensive human rights abuses, of conspiring collectively to dehumanize and profit from the suffering of immigrant communities. Guilty of profiting from the organized slavery carried out within the walls of each detention center and guilty for all the death and abuses that take place day to day as people detained are transferred, shackled and mistreated,” the panel’s transcript read.

“These entities are guilty of abusing and traumatizing immigrant communities for generations, denying them of their right to live and thrive collectively. These entities are guilty of carrying out all these crimes on occupied land that belongs to indigenous communities specifically the Puyallup nation, using environmental racism to further subjugate communities of color.”

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