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Federal Government Threatened to put Detainment Camp in Concord. The City Fought Back

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They say the city of Concord is “Where Families Come First”. This past week put that commitment to the test.

It was June 22 when Time published a story that rocked the city and surrounding Bay Area with news that the U.S. Department of the Navy was considering a detainment camp for up 47,000 immigration detainees on the federally-owned Naval Weapons Station property inside city limits, and chaos and resistance actions ensued.

Concord Mayor Edi Birsan told us that “not a single person in the city’s government had been notified” of the proposal – he became aware of the situation when a journalist called and asked him for comment on the TIME piece. When Gov. Jerry Brown’s office was asked if the state received prior notification or had an official position, we were directed to the federal government for all questions. We inquired about the environmental safety of the base with the DON Base Realignment and Closure office, but were forwarded to three different contacts and have not yet received confirmation of remediation work performed there, largely by Tetra Tech EM, Inc., the same contractor accused of falsifying results at Hunters Point Shipyard.

It was revealed five days later that the entire state of California was being pulled from consideration as potential locations for temporary detainment centers “for the time being”, but some real damage had already been done.

The population of Concord, California is estimated to be somewhere around 126,000 people, with Latinos accounting for approximately 30 percent. That comes out to about 38,000 of our friends and neighbors. Imagine rounding up every single Latino and most Asian people living in Concord right now and putting them all in tents behind barbed wire fencing.

Children play basketball in residential area off Mulberry Drive, with Concord Naval Weapons Station immediately beyond barbed wire fencing in Concord, Calif. June 26, 2018. Photo by Nik Wojcik

It would have been a detainment camp with the population of a small city like Pascagoula, Mississippi within a stone’s throw from residential neighborhoods and Concord High School’s football field. For context, the U.S. detained about 117,000 Japanese Americans during WWII – the camp that was proposed in Concord alone is almost halfway there.

In an impressive show of solidarity, Birsan and Congressman Mark DeSaulnier were quick to push back on the DON proposal as what DeSaulnier called “madness”, which he reiterated in a Facebook Live Town Hall meeting streamed on Tuesday, July 26. Birsan’s official letter of response, dated June 25, highlighted several reasons the property was “unsuitable for consideration as a detention facility”, including the base’s lack of infrastructure and presence of contaminants. The mayor is familiar with issues surrounding the 12,800-acre base, as he has been a participant in several years of negotiations for the transfer of the property to the city, where major development is well into the planning phase and millions have already been spent toward the effort.

Birsan also explained how inappropriate it would be to jail immigrants in a city gifted by Mexican-Americans to survivors of the tragic 1868 Hayward Fault earthquake, which destroyed the original city of Pacheco. Although the city was originally named Todos Santos, Birsan explained that “the people almost immediately began calling it Concord because we live in concordance with one another”.

“The town was created to take care of refugees and survivors,” Birsan said, while vowing to the lead the opposition.

Concord Mayor Edi Birsan leads special public meeting to address detention camp at the weapons station in Concord, Calif. June 27, 2018. Photo by Nik Wojcik

The people of Concord quickly realized they had no say about the role their city would play in what could go down as one of the largest civil rights stains in U.S. history, but residents and many others from nearby communities came out in force to have their voices heard anyway. Tuesday’s regular session city council meeting was met with hundreds of concerned residents and protesters who marched with signs from Concord BART, an unusual site in the ordinarily quiet East Bay suburb. The chamber was quickly packed to capacity as the fire marshal stood turning people away at the door. Drums and chanting from outside served as a backdrop to the emotional meeting.  

A man attending the special Concord City Council meeting June 27, 2018 carries a sign that translates to “Families Belong Together”. Photo by Nik Wojcik

A special public council session was called the very next day to solely address the issue of CNWS and was again heavily attended by residents of Concord and protesters from around the Bay, despite Tuesday’s late news that the plan was taken off the table for consideration. Those unable to gain entry into the primary chamber or the overflow room were forced to wait outside in the courtyard. Inside, public comments were heard, one after another for nearly two solid hours. Several speakers praised the council for their swift and strong condemnation of the proposal, but begged them to keep up the fight and do more.

Protesters fill the courtyard outside the Concord City Council chamber June 26, 2018 to oppose detention camp proposal. Photo by Nik Wojcik

The story in Concord attracted people from all walks of life. The daughter of a Japanese-American interned during WWII urged the city to heed her warnings. “My family has continued to suffer the inter-generational trauma from that,” Reverend Leslie Tokahashi said. Immigrant families expressed fear of federal agents and an ICE detention camp in a heavily-Latino community. Housing advocates from explained that immigrants had already been adversely affected by the news. Debra Bernstein of Monument Impact said landlords had been “emboldened” and evictions of immigrant tenants spiked in the few short days after news of the proposal.

Debra Bernstein of Monument Impact stresses to Concord City Council the risks immigrant tenants face in the wake of the Concord Naval Weapons Station detainment camp proposal, June 27, 2018. Photo by Nik Wojcik

A Concord resident attended both days of city council meetings on June 26 and June 27, 2018 with the help of a translator to relay her emotional pleas in opposition to the CNWS detention camp proposal in Concord, Calif. Photo by Nik Wojcik

A recently retired Child Protective Services social worker, Rebecca Nassarre told horrific stories of sexual assault among young, unaccompanied female detainees. “They have been raped and assaulted by our government, by people who are supposed to take care of them,” Nassarre said as she pleaded with the council to stay resolute in their opposition.

Members of clergy and BAMN activists took to the podium inside the chamber and although their tones were decidedly different, their message was the same: asylum-seekers are not criminals and “no human is illegal”.

We commonly see this level of community action and unity in cities like San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, but it’s a rarity in Concord. That was a point of inspiration for many and fear for some.

One speaker by the name of Natalie thanked the council for their support but warned of what could come as the city becomes more vocal in the fight against the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. She worried the attention would bring “Nazis” and other alt-right counter-protesters into Concord, as they have shown up in cities like Berkeley over the past two years.

“We have to walk a very fine line,” Natalie said. “Please dance gracefully.”

At that moment outside the chamber was one man by the name of Patrick Little, dressed in a suit and holding a sign that read “Deport Foreign Nationals”. Little believes the immigrants being detained at the southern border are a threat to his business and the only people who should be granted asylum are “victims of ISIS” persecuted for their Christian faith. On the other side of the courtyard, BAMN activists attempted to drown out Little’s words. The exchange expanded in heated debate between several people, at least partially affirming some of Natalie’s concerns.  

Patrick Little stood defiantly with a sign that read “Deport Foreign Nationals”, sparking an argument outside the Concord City Council special meeting June 27, 2018. Photo by Nik Wojcik

BAMN activists passionately argue that “Nazis” and “racists” should not be given a platform in the press outside the Concord City Council meeting June 27, 2018 in Concord, Calif. Photo by Nik Wojcik

A lot happened in Concord during the frantic days between the TIME article’s publication and the government’s rescindment of the proposal. According to Birsan, the city incurred costs for additional police, meetings and compensatory time swaps. Fear struck the community and some suffered from the backlash. But in the end, what we can say is that the immigration policy fight arrived at Concord’s front door, or backyard, and the people united in their response:  

“Immigrants are welcome here!”

Protest sign inside Concord City Council chambers during special meeting to address detention camp at Concord Naval Weapons Station in Concord, Calif. June 27, 2018. Photo by Nik Wojcik

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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.