At dawn on June 28, Christian Evans was asleep on a couch in the driveway of the Immigrations and Custom Enforcement facility in Portland, Oregon. He is one of hundreds of protesters with #OccupyICEPDX. For 11 days running they had shut down the ICE facility in the city. But on that Thursday morning he was roused by “police sirens, orders being shouted, and the thud of heavy boots on pavement.”
When Evans opened his eyes, he says, “I was staring down the muzzle of an AR-15. It was four inches away, dead-on between my eyes.” A police officer with the Department of Homeland Security told him sternly, “Don’t Move.”
With the rifle trained on him, Evans watched a DHS cop sweep the legs of a compliant protester and body-slam him to the pavement. The cop gave Evans a chance to leave before being arrested. He leaped up and threw himself over a retaining wall near the couch.
That was the start of a military-style operation by DHS, the parent agency of ICE, to retake the three-story building that houses a temporary jail for detained immigrants. More than 100 police in riot gear and camouflage swarmed the area, tore down wooden barricades around the entranceway, and arrested eight, including seven on misdemeanor charges for passively blocking the facility. Over the next day police pushed protesters back — whose numbers swelled to 400 during a vigil Thursday night — and retook the street in front of the facility.
Evans was cheerful as he told his story the next day, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette as he lounged shirtless on a different couch. He was in a security tent in the Occupy camp that was in full swing Friday evening with well over 100 participants. Two youth behind him smacked each other with a flimsy chair as spectators egged them on.
“The camp is not going anywhere,” says Luis Marquez, who has been with #OccupyICEPDX since it began June 17. He may be right as the feds have not touched the camp that is arm’s reach from the police . The camp, which is packed with 60 tents, is on land controlled by local and state government agencies. They show no sign of moving in given the widespread revulsion toward President Donald Trump’s policy of forcibly separating thousands of children from undocumented parents.
Dozens of DHS police control the entrance, but their lines only extend to the building’s edge. They faced off impassively with protesters carrying signs reading “Abolish ICE,” and “Hugs not handcuffs.”
The crowd laughs delightedly as Kevin Grisby announces through a bullhorn to a line of riot cops, “This is an unlawful assembly. We are ordering you to disperse. If you do not comply we will resort to extreme sarcasm.” Many yell “Gestapo” at the police. One a woman chants softly to a cop in riot gear, “I see your eyes,” appearing to unnerve him.
Liliana Luna left Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, in 2005 when she was 14 years old. She talked about the deadly serious reasons protesters were at the ICE facility. Living on the border, she didn’t want to cross because, “I knew how the immigration system worked.” But her parents decided to come without documentation to escape drug cartels in the city.
Luna is a DACA recipient, the Obama-era program that gave provisional legal status to 690,000 undocumented immigrants who were under 16 years old when they arrived. With Trump eliminating the program, Luna said being at the protest meant, “I am risking deportation.” She spoke of living in a legal twilight. “I’ve been told to wait and the laws would change, my status would change. But it’s been more than 12 years and my status hasn’t changed. That’s why I am out here, taking a risk.”
At the back of the ICE building two outposts of protesters monitor entrances. Nick Nikas serenades six DHS riot police by singing Requiem from French composer Gabriel Fauré. Nikas stops by nearly every night after work as a sawyer cutting frames for houses. “I am out here because ICE is committing genocide.”
Prepared for skeptical visitors, he whips out his smartphone and clicks open a U.N. list of genocidal acts. One act is the “Forcible transfer of children … when committed as part of a policy to destroy a group’s existence.” For that reason, says Nikas, “We must abolish ICE.”
The ICE facility is expected to reopen next week, meaning agents will go back to arresting, imprisoning, and eventually deporting immigrants. But occupiers in Portland are inspired by what they accomplished.
Deborah Norton-Kertson, owner of a software development company, has been at the occupation nearly every day since it began. She rattles off what it’s accomplished, “It’s definitely an achievement the ICE facility was shut down for two weeks. #OccupyICEPDX helped legitimize the idea to abolish ICE.” That idea is entering the mainstream with high-profile politicians like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand endorsing the idea.
A related trend Norton-Kertson points to is local officials in Oregon, California, Virginia, and even Texas have canceled contracts that allow ICE to house detained immigrants in jails.
The most inspiring thing, she says “is to see this movement replicate itself.” Portland’s example has spread to other cities, with protesters occupying ICE offices, blockading their operations, and camping outside in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Detroit, and Tacoma. “This is spreading across the country. We certainly cannot defeat ICE just in one city.”