By Stanley N. Shikuma
The North American Post
On Wednesday, February 1, 85 people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, WA, launched a hunger strike to protest unbearable living conditions. Almost immediately, guards from ICE and GEO Group, the private, for-profit corporation running NWDC, donned riot gear and mounted a militarized response, using pepper spray and smoke grenades in the confined, crowded quarters of the detention-pod units. Several units were placed on lockdown, strike leaders were thrown into solitary confinement and two of the detained immigrants were taken to the hospital.
People in other pods — and not yet involved in the hunger strike — were also affected by the gas that spread into the halls and through the ventilation ducts. One man collapsed with difficulty breathing. It took 15 minutes for a medical response to reach him. On Thursday, more people joined the strike in response to the heavy-handed, violent tactics used by ICE and GEO. By Friday, over 100 people had joined the strike.
Clearly, the violent, militarized response is only exacerbating an already volatile situation and driving even more people to resist.
ICE and GEO are responsible for the conditions that led to this mass protest and for the escalated and unwarranted violent response. ICE and GEO are also responsible for any harm that comes to the people they are charged with supervising, both those in detention and those on their staffs.
Swift action must be taken to preserve the health and safety of everyone inside the NWDC.
Three steps immediately come to mind:
1. Stop the Harm. Stop the pepper spray and the smoke. Stop the beatings. End the general lockdowns. Release hunger-strike leaders from solitary confinement. Take off the riot gear. Resume recreation-yard time so people can see the sky and breathe fresh air. Unblock communication so people can call their families and talk to their lawyers. Provide proper medical care to all in need. End the violent response to a peaceful strike immediately.
2. Meet the Demands. The strikers have presented a list of 14 demands to GEO and ICE. None of these demands are radical, partisan or a threat to the security and stability of the detention center. They include demands for: edible, nutritious food; regularly scheduled mealtimes; clean, dry clothes to wear; haircuts more than once a month; proper sanitation of bathrooms, showers and common areas; protection from COVID-19; bed-linen changes at least once a month; access to adequate and timely medical care when ill; jobs that pay minimum wage (as required by Washington state law); and no retaliation for making these demands. Taken as a whole, their demands are simply a call to respect their humanity.
3. Shut down NWDC. The terrible conditions that prompted the mass hunger strike are nothing new. The first NWDC hunger strike in 2014 was prompted by the very same issues — and little has changed over the past 9 years. City, county and state governments have not been able to impact the conditions established by GEO and ICE. Pleas to members of Congress, federal officials and the courts have failed to bring any real relief. Those detained inside NWDC will not tolerate these subhuman conditions any longer — and neither should we. The only lasting solution is to shut down NWDC and free all those confined.
The hunger strikers have asked that concerned people contact ICE Seattle Field Director Drew Bostock to express these political demands at: email@example.com, CommunityRelations.Seattle@ice.dhs.gov, Seattle.Outreach@ice.dhs.gov, 253-779-6000 or 206-835-0650.
Note added in proof. The strike ended February 6. La Resistencia rallied every day outside NWDC from the beginning of the strike in solidarity with the strikers and all detainees.
Stan Shikuma is a member of Seattle Chapter Japanese American Citizens League, Tsuru for Solidarity and La Resistencia. His protesting reflects recent thinking by some JAs to “be there” for the present-day unjustly incarcerated.