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Why they risked everything to Occupy ICE

The intense power of North America’s refugee crisis is a reminder that nothing is more powerful than an image that compels people to make a moral choice between right and wrong.

Hundreds of activists protest the Trump administration's approach

Hundreds of activists protest the Trump administration's approach to illegal border crossings and separation of children from immigrant parents, in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo Credit: AP / J. Scott Applewhite

Last Tuesday, Philadelphia police arrested 24-year-old Jameson Rush, gave him - along with 28 others who had been part of an encampment seeking to shut down a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, office in the city - a citation, and told him that if he got arrested there again he’d be taken to jail and face more serious charges.

But as a searing July sun was turning the 8th Street pavement into a convection oven on Thursday morning, Rush - a barista who moved to Philadelphia from northern California last year - was back out there in his bright green safety vest, even though he was exhausted from only getting about one hour of sleep in a small folding chair the night before.

“It’s (bleeping) important,” said Rush, noting that images of children detained in dog-pound style cages near America’s southern border and news of plans for what he called “literal concentration camps” to hold migrant families on U.S. military bases fueled his sense of urgency. He said the police “can charge you with whatever they like - but there’s nowhere else in the world I feel I should be.”

Rush spoke to me just a few hours before Philadelphia cops formed a wall with their bicycles and then used it as a battering ram to break up the four-day-old encampment, rendering the future of the anti-ICE protest unclear. With temperatures rising over both immigration and the Trump presidency, it felt like a skirmish in an escalating war.

Even with Thursday’s police action, there are many more folks like Rush out there. Similar “Occupy” camps sprung up this past week at ICE offices from coast to coast, and several have succeeded in their short-term goal of impeding federal immigration agents from doing their jobs. Perhaps more important, though, the chief long-term goal of the Occupy ICE protesters - the abolition of ICE, the federal quasi-police force created in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and its replacement with more humane immigration policies - has moved rapidly from the fringe to the mainstream, with variations of the idea endorsed by leading 2020 presidential hopefuls like Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

The populist appeal of the “Abolish ICE” movement clearly caught the Beltway pundit crowd completely flat-footed, which of course is about as surprising as Wile E. Coyote and his Acme jet pack slamming into a desert rock at 200 mph. Still, the speed and the vehemence of the anti-ICE protests - coming after three years of political chaos on everything else from police brutality and racism in the public square to health care and even the threat of nuclear war - does raise questions.

Why has the issue of border policing been the thing that has some everyday Americans, young and old, laying their bodies on the line and camping out in 99-degree heat, when there have been so many other contentious things to choose from? More important, is abolishing ICE a serious idea, or is it, as right-wing pundits insist, a knee-jerk anti-cop reaction to the immigration debate that will alienate moderate voters and lead to a political bloodbath for the ever-hapless Democrats.

The intense power of North America’s refugee crisis and the public reaction to it is a reminder that nothing is more powerful than an image - especially an image that compels people to make a moral choice between right and wrong. In the end, it was arguably not words but images from Vietnam - America’s first “television war” - like a naked girl running from a napalm attack or the street execution of a Viet Cong operative that turned public opinion against it.

In 2018, a president with authoritarian tendencies and an angry 5 a.m. Twitter feed that brands journalists or black athletes seeking social justice as The Enemy may trouble people, and yet the rise of American autocracy feels weirdly abstract to a lot of folks.

But then the pictures and sounds from a new “zero tolerance” policy at the southern border started floating north - and for the first time these searing images caused our “reality-show president” to lose control of the narrative.

The puzzlement of calling the cops on a sitting U.S. senator during his Facebook Live feed from outside a Texas-Walmart-turned-detention-center led directly to the slow burn over new images of children living in those dog-pound-style cases, and then to fury over the ProPublica audio tape of a 6-year-old girl crying out for the mother from whom she’d been separated. The raw power of images to shape the policy debate was confirmed when a heartbreaking photo of a crying 2-year-old girl at a Texas border-crossing arrest led to days of controversy over what the picture actually meant - after it came out that in this case the girl was not taken away from her mother.

The visceral power of images to shape the debate on a complex issue like immigration cuts both ways. On July 4, activists unfurled an “Abolish ICE” banner at the Statue of Liberty and then shut down the iconic monument in New York Harbor when one of them - a Congolese immigrant named Therese Patricia Okoumou - climbed atop and told authorities she wouldn’t come down “until all the children are freed.” Okoumou was arrested after four hours but the image - a dark speck of modern resistance amid the grimy green folds of aging ancient liberty - electrified progressives even as the shutdown surely infuriated conservatives.

Anlin Wang - a 25-year-old political organizer who worked recently on the failed Delaware County congressional campaign of Democrat Molly Sheehan, who called for abolishing ICE - compared the new protests to the 2011 Occupy movement, “but with demands.” He said the movement took off after the family separations “and what it meant and what it looked like in practice” - including the audiotape of crying children.

But is “Abolish ICE” too simplistic a solution, as some critics argue, to what - beyond the stark images - is a very complicated policy issue. That very question seems fraught with irony. For years, critics have told Democrats they lose elections because the GOP offers policies on guns or God or abortion that fit on a bumper sticker, while Democratic programs read like the warranty that comes with your new high-def TV. Now, finally, here are progressives with a bumper-sticker slogan - and the Democratic establishment is terrified of it.

But the establishment shouldn’t be terrified. “Abolish ICE” is a moral stance that gets enraged everyday citizens engaged in politics - and what the people want is for the politicians to get the details right. The existence of ICE wasn’t chiseled into a stone Constitution - rather, the agency is an awkward construct that didn’t even exist before 2002, when it was thrown together in the fear-laden aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The Homeland Security agency is a hammer created to attack the nail of (mostly Islamic) terrorism, but which now whacks away wildly as a deportation army, increasingly targeting undocumented brown-skinned undocumented immigrants who were quietly working and raising a family.

Recently, a letter was published by 19 individuals urging the government to break up ICE, saying the group has strayed far from its original mission. And who are these wild-eyed radicals and socialists? They are 19 top ICE investigators, who told Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen that the obsession with deporting regular folks was harming their efforts to thwart sex traffickers and drug smugglers. Simply put, abolishing ICE as a renegade agency and replacing it with a more humane approach to immigration control is sound public policy.

And it’s a policy that will satisfy the moral fervor of Occupy Ice protesters like “Eric” - a 26-year-old activist with the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW - who didn’t want to give me his name after his arrest last Tuesday. To Eric, the fight against ICE is not so much a political battle as much as a spiritual one, similar to the fight that the Catholic priests the Berrigan brothers waged against the Vietnam War 50 years ago. Indeed, Eric - raised a Lutheran - was clutching onto Rosary beads when the police took him into custody.

“I’m motivated by . I’d like to say general human decency but also coming out of the Christian tradition - there is an undercurrent of Christianity that has always held with the oppressed,” he told me. “I think it’s my job to come out here.”

Less than four hours later, Philadelphia police were moving to shut down the encampment - but there was little question that Eric’s job was far from over.

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