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Families Belong Together: Protesters Outnumbered Inmates at Richmond Jail

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Guest Post by Nevin Long

Between 1,500 and 2,000 demonstrators amassed outside the West County Detention Facility in Richmond, California, Saturday as part of a national day of resistance against the Trump administration’s immigration policy. Their message was clear: families belong together.

The rally capped off two weeks of intense protests, was the largest at the jail over that span and took place in conjunction with demonstrations, marches and direct actions that brought hundreds of thousands out in over 600 cities across the country. Organizers plan to continue calling for pressure in the days and weeks to come, citing a lack of timeline for reuniting parents separated from children at the U.S.-Mexican border.

Protests ensued when news broke that in excess of 2,300 minor children had been incarcerated apart from their parents after attempting to cross the border, with images of small children in cages sparking a national furor. President Donald Trump issued an executive order on June 20 ending the family separation practice, part of a “zero tolerance” immigration policy drawn up by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Despite the executive order and a Friday ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw Friday that ordered children under 5 be reunited with families within 14 days and children over 5 within 30 days, the administration has provided no concrete timeline.

Demonstrator, Alia Saharrief says, “We are now living in a time where we are watching history repeat itself, and really we are the change that we need.” Families Belong Together rally at West County Detention Facility in Richmond, Calif. June 30, 2018. Photo by Betty Rose Livingston

Monthly protests have become common over the course of the last year, but have increased in intensity and to near-daily frequency outside the West County jail, a facility which houses an average of 200 Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees suspected of immigration violations. The Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the facility, receives $6 million in rent for housing migrants picked up across the East Bay as part of an agreement with the U.S. Marshals Service.

The boisterous, but peaceful, crowd began assembling as early as 10 a.m., well in advance of the 11 a.m. start time given on the Facebook event page. Indeed, so many demonstrators were expected that volunteers from the Democratic Socialists of America, who coordinated with members of Kehilla Community Synagogue under the organizational name Let Our People Go, were needed to shuttle people to and from the El Cerrito Plaza BART station some 10 miles away.

Many were quick to point out the connection between mass incarceration of citizens and the criminalization of migrants under recent U.S. Department of Justice directives, seeing both as forms of institutional racism.

“As a black woman in this country, whose ancestors suffered under very similar conditions, and who continues to suffer under the boot of white supremacy and militarized policing, it is my duty to be out here and stand in solidarity,” said Cat Brooks, Oakland mayoral candidate and co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project.

Cat Brooks delivers powerful speech at Families Belong Together rally at West County Detention Facility in Richmond, Calif. June 30, 2018. Photo by Betty Rose Livingston

Brooks said that, if elected, she plans to stop all municipal cooperation with ICE officials. This would mean making greater efforts to prevent data mining of arrestees and stopping ICE agents from apprehending undocumented immigrants upon release from Oakland’s Glenn Dyer Jail. She also argued that more pressure needed to be put on Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern to stop collaboration between his office and ICE.

“We need more than lip service when we say that we’re a sanctuary city,” Brooks said.

Others concurred with Brooks’s assessment of immigration policy as institutionalized racism. Elizabeth Phelps, a reverend at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley, disliked the very idea of borders.

“God created the world without any borders,” Phelps said, “and all borders have done is create more ‘uses’ and ‘thems’ and have supported systemic poverty, systemic racism.”

Across the Bay Saturday, thousands marched in San Francisco and in several other surrounding cities. Friday, children made and left cards with well wishes outside the Southwest Key Facility in Pleasant Hill where two children separated from their families are being housed.

A protester holds up hands, with “WE CARE” written on them at Families Belong Together rally at West County Detention Facility in Richmond, Calif. June 30, 2018. Photo by Betty Rose Livingston

In Richmond, efforts to establish seven-days-long, around-the-clock presence were stymied. Rachel Silverstein, who organized the attempt, said she was given conflicting information about whether detainees would be allowed to see visitors while protesters were present.

“It seems pretty manipulative on the sheriff’s part,” Silverstein said. “Either it’s punitive to the inmates, or it limits the amount of time you can protest without hurting the people you’re trying to help.”

CCSO deputies made no one available for comment on the matter, saying on multiple occasions their onsite public information officer was “in a meeting.”

Efforts to push government officials at all levels will continue next week. A caravan to San Diego is set to take off from the East Bay for what organizers are calling “non-violent direct action,” with groups meeting in Chicano Park on Monday. Also on Monday, activists and others plan to blockade ICE offices on Sansome Avenue in San Francisco.

So far, measures on the part of federal officials have not mitigated the resolve of protesters to reunite separated families, put an end to Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy and abolish ICE, a reform supported by at least 19 ICE agents in a recent letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. The general sentiment throughout the weeks of protest has been that immigrants are not criminals and their mass detentions are akin to internment. Brooks summed up the mood in a passionate speech Saturday.

“I stand here not in front of a jail, but in front of a concentration camp,” Brooks said.

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