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Resisting ICE in Kent County: What we have learned so far

September 18, 2018

The following is based on my participation with Movimiento Cosecha GR and GR Rapid Response to ICE.

It has been 2 and a half months since we started the campaign to End the Contract that the Kent County Jail has with ICE.

The campaign began with some 200 people coming to a County Commission meeting in late June and taking over the space in front of where the commissioners sit. The Chairperson of the commissioners, Jim Saalfeld, called for an end of the meeting and most of his fellow commissioners walked out. In the process they turned off all recording devices, but those who organized the action brought a bullhorn so people could continue to offer testimony on why the contract with ICE should be terminated. Commissioner Saalfeld also claimed that one member of the action pushed another person who was attempting to speak during public comment, a claim which was false

A few days latter, the campaign participated in a fourth of July action using some street theater about the immigrant children in detention near the US/Mexican border, with an emphasis that immigrant families were being separated right here in Kent County.

We then went to the home of Chairperson Saalfeld to protest his role in shutting down the previous meeting, which meant that most of the other commissioners did not get to hear testimony from the immigrant community. We also brought a resolution for him to sign, basically stating that he would commit to working with us to End the Contract with ICE. 

At the July County Commission meeting, there were some 20 people who got up during the public comment period to call for an end to the contract. These people included members of the affected community and allies. At one point we sat down an occupied space to protest the county’s unwillingness to sign onto our resolution. By the end of the meeting, just two of the nineteen commissioners agreed to sign.

In early August we met with Kent County Officials to talk about ending the contract with ICE. They had no intention of doing so, so after hearing from several county spokespersons, we got up and walked out of the meeting.

On August 18th, we organized a rally at the Kent County Jail, with some 60 people. There were numerous speakers to addressed a variety of issues, but mostly we heard from members of the immigrant community about their experience dealing with ICE and the constant fear they live in. There were also people from Kalamazoo who spoke, since Kalamazoo had just passed a resolution to end their dealings with ICE in that community. 

At the August County Commission meeting, we had one person speak during public comment, asking to be put on the agenda for September and then several members of the campaign turned their backs on the commission, standing in silence. After people walked at of that meeting, Commissioner Antor went on a rant about what we were doing and how misinformed we were. His comments were taped and we responded to them, deconstructing what he had to say.

At the September Commission meeting, we read a brief statement and then told the commissioners that we were holding our own People’s Commission, since they continued to refuse to be part of a collective effort to end the contract. 

During these short 10 weeks, we have talked to more immigrants impacted by ICE, as well as the larger community about the County’s contract with ICE and here is what we have learned about the campaign so far.

  • Most people were unaware that Kent County even had a contract with ICE (since 2012) before we made it a public issue.
  • This issue resonates with lots of people. We have had hundreds of people participate in our actions; over 2,000 sign the petition calling for an end to the contract; some 20 news stories have been done about our campaign, in print, on air and online.
  • Movimiento Cosecha GR has been recognized by the Mexican Heritage Association because of this work and their work on the Drivers License for All campaign.
  • Since we began 10 weeks ago, there have been numerous communities across the country that have ended their contracts with ICE.
  • We have heard from thousands of people in the immigrant community that they fully support our efforts to end Kent County’s contract with ICE.
  • Most of the County Commissioners have either been silent on the issue or have taken an oppositional stance towards our efforts.

One commissioner recently stated:

We need to have a civil conversation about these issues. One thing that I’ve observed in my old age is that sitting down to work through problems together usually produces better outcomes than going to battle over them. I know the Sheriff is willing to engage (talk AND listen) with our community. I know that many in our community are also willing to do the same. We need to get that important work started!

When people in power tell us that we need to be civil, it usually means that they feel threatened by what social movements are doing. The fact is, that we have been having conversations with county officials, in groups and individually. The reality is that they continue to refuse to end the contract, so what would be the point of continuing to have a conversation. In addition, the GRPD and the Sheriff’s Department have continued to intimidate and harass those involved in the campaign. We ask, how is that being civil?

The commissioner quoted above says that the Sheriff is willing to talk and to listen. Not on this issue. Sheriff Stelma has been very clear on this matter and has repeatedly stated in the news media that he will not end the contract with ICE.

Lastly, while some people may object to the tactics of our End the Contract campaign, they failed to understand that the tactics we are using are part of a long history of social movements that have used disruption as a tactic. Whether we are talking about the abolitionist, civil rights, women’s voting rights, anti-war, environmental, LGBTQ or disability rights movements, all of them have used disruption or a no business as usual approach in their struggles.

We will continue to disrupt business as usual, until ICE and any complicity with ICE stops disrupting the lives of immigrant families. 

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