Breaking the ICE

The Occupy movement has returned to S.F. Will it be more effective than years past?

Occupy protesters hold signs outside the U.S. Immigration office in San Francisco, July 2, 2018. . Photo by Kevin Hume

On June 24, protesters in Texas marched along the border, rallied outside immigration facilities, and tried to block buses carrying migrant detainees. On June 27, New York voters elected a Democratic Socialist who demands we abolish ICE. On June 28, a thousand women descended on a Senate building in Washington, D.C., in an outcry over family separations; 575 people were arrested.

And on June 30, the collective fight for immigration reform came to San Francisco.

The Families Belong Together march drew an estimated 30,000 participants, a remarkable effort considering the trek from Dolores Park to City Hall occurred just one week after tens of thousands turned out and marched for Pride. Parents pushed their kids in strollers, chanting in unison. People thrust signs in the air, and politicians took the stage to decry President Donald Trump’s administration and the forceful ripping apart of families who cross our borders without paperwork.

But by 2 p.m., the march was largely over, the kids taken home for naptime, the protesters congratulating one another and refueling at nearby cafes. After the Families Belong Together marchers returned to their day-to-day lives of wincing while opening news apps on their smartphones, an underground, permitless movement was organizing. On Monday, July 2, hundreds of people gathered at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office at 444 Washington St. in San Francisco, and built a makeshift, barbed-wire-topped wall that blocked the large, mechanical metal gate to the facility’s parking lot. Although San Francisco is a sanctuary city, ICE employees regularly drive detained people in and out of that parking lot — or they did, before it was occupied.

Word of the occupation spread like wildfire, and Bay Area immigration-rights groups quickly deployed their staff and supporters to the gates. The event, which officially started at 3 p.m. Monday, went well into the night, and the tents used as barriers were eventually occupied by protesters catching a bit of shut-eye.

Shortly after 9 a.m. the next morning, it didn’t look like the occupation was going anywhere. The homemade wall was surrounded by a dozen tents, several folding chairs, and tables overflowing with coffee and snacks. About 35 people milled around, talking to the press and playing music.

A protester named Michael who declined to give his last name told SF Weekly that the entrance they chose to block was very intentional.

“We don’t want to interrupt the activities of immigrant families who want to get green cards, or advance their ability to stay in the country,” he said. “But this building is also an ICE facility, and sometimes buses come in with people who’ve been detained in other parts of California.”

The driveway has been unofficially occupied, and in true Occupy movement form, no one is planning on leaving anytime soon. There’s more than enough food to go around — on Monday night tweets were sent asking people to stop bringing snacks and pizza — and protesters cycle in and out throughout the day, some working their 9-to-5 jobs before returning for an evening shift.

Another protester, Faiq, attended the events on Monday for several hours and returned Tuesday morning to hold down the fort.

“There’s been a lot of talk across the country, we’ve been seeing a lot of Occupy ICE protests and movements, so it’s been something that’s been on the top of everyone’s minds,” he said. “We’re excited this is happening in San Francisco. We’ve got folks from the East Bay, El Cerrito, Oakland. It’s awesome.”

It’s true. While San Francisco’s Occupy ICE protest may be the first time many city residents have heard of the movement, we’re a little late to the game; most protests at ICE facilities launched across the country last week. In Portland, lines of SWAT teams in helmets with batons stared down protesters. Occupy camps have been set up in Philadelphia, Detroit, Seattle, Wichita, and Charlotte. 

The crowds at all protests, and particularly San Francisco’s, are diverse, which perhaps speaks to the far-reaching range of the immigration crisis. In this city, it’s hard not to know someone who’s been affected by our immigration system.

“This is an intersectional issue. It affects our Muslim brothers and sisters, as this department was created in response to terrorism,” Faiq said. “Now it’s harassing our Latinx brothers and sisters and we’re fighting with solidarity for their struggle.

“The call here is to abolish ICE, but we want to bring attention to the fact that this is something that America is founded upon: stolen land, slavery, property rights over human rights, and ICE is just a mere continuation of that.”

The call to “abolish ICE” can, at first glance, appear a bit lofty and unspecific. Past Occupy movements have had similar vague requests. The first one occurred in 2009, when students affected by the recession occupied University of California campus buildings, protesting fee hikes and budget cuts. While the outrage was genuine, the lack of clear asks brought around the slogan “Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing” from critics. Even the catchphrase of participants at the time, “We are the 99 percent,” was more about the identity of participants than goals of the movement.

Demands aside, Occupy’s viral nature means success in mobilizing people. The Occupy Wall Street effort, which launched in 2011, lasted a remarkable two months before authorities forced participants out of Zuccotti Park. By that point, some clear requests had been developed: The group wanted forgiveness of student loan debt, more oversight over large banks’ speculative trading, and a reduction in corporations’ influence on politics. But it lacked diversity, with a poll of Zuccotti Park residents showing that 81 percent of participants were white.

The movement fizzled after the park was cleared out, and while pop-ups of the Occupy movement have appeared over the past few years, it’s lay fairly dormant since 2015.

Now that it’s back, will it be a success? It’s hard to say. As of Tuesday morning, the San Francisco camp had already been notified twice by police that they were in violation of 647e, which forbids people to “lodge in any building, structure, vehicle, or place, whether public or private, without the permission of the owner or person entitled to the possession or in control of it.”

If a police-led sweep happens, it’ll most likely occur in the middle of the night, when numbers are low and no members of the media are nearby to document it.

And the protesters are largely on their own. While local politicians spoke at the Families Belong Together rally and send out press releases bemoaning Trump’s policies, those occupying San Francisco’s ICE building say they’re just bucking a trend.

“Politicians are now paying lip service that ICE needs to be abolished, but we’re not going to believe them until they do something concrete, like remove their funding,” Michael says. “It’s within their power to do that. It’s within our power to block a driveway for a while. So that’s what we’re going to do.”

Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor. |  @TheBestNuala

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