Behind the Blockades: Intersectional Organizing to Abolish ICE

Each summer, the radical environmentalists behind the decades-old (and notoriously rowdy) Earth First! movement wrap up their annual campout with a protest action. Over the years, typical targets have included logging operations and, more recently, fossil fuel infrastructure. This year, things were different.

On Monday, July 9, dozens of Earth First! activists emerged from the Appalachian woods to join Native American, LGBTQ and Latinx activists in temporarily shutting down a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in downtown Columbus, Ohio. The action resulted in 12 arrests.

The demonstration was the latest in a series of protests and direct actions in cities across the US aimed at one of the major federal agencies responsible for carrying out the mass raids, deportations and family separations that have defined the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants and migrant families seeking asylum. It was also proof that the movement to abolish ICE is uniting activists from various social movements as they identify how their individual issues intersect. For example, climate disruption has contributed to the flow of migrants from Central America, where Latinx and Indigenous heritages often mix.

Corine Fairbanks, a member of the American Indian Movement from Cincinnati, told Truthout that her organization has always considered Native Americans from Latin America as their “Indigenous brothers and sisters.”

Ruben Castilla Herrera, an immigrant, migrant and refugee organizer with the Columbus Sanctuary Collective, takes a break between leading chants during the street blockade in Columbus, Ohio.

“We had the right to migrate anywhere we wanted before contact [with Europeans], prior to colonialism stepping foot in this land,” Fairbanks said as the police closed in on a street blockade set up by the protesters. “So, it’s fabulous that all these organizations are coming together and working together on this human rights issue, and drawing the connection on how it’s environmentally involved.”

The left has not always been united on immigration. At one time, major unions saw immigrants as a threat to domestic jobs. That changed abruptly in the early 2000s after internal pressure from Latinx members forced major unions such as the AFL-CIO to come out in support of granting undocumented immigrants citizenship. Under the Obama administration, the US government deported record numbers of immigrants, and a Democratic White House came under mounting grassroots pressure to change its policies as immigration reform stalled in Congress.

Now, the rise of President Trump and his “zero-tolerance” immigration policies are bringing broad coalitions together at rallies and mass marches across the country as activists connect the dots between migration, climate disruption and the mass criminalization of people of color. This has put mounting pressure on the Democratic Party to move left on immigration as the midterms loom.

The activists in Ohio said that the ICE office in Columbus that they targeted is part of the deportation machine. Immigrants are required to show up there for “check-ins” with officers, often unsure whether the meeting will escalate into a full-blown deportation. Some sit and wait with a single suitcase — the only item a deportee is allowed to carry. Such offices have been busy in Ohio. While the nation gasped at Trump’s now-defunct policy of separating migrant families on the southern border, recent ICE raids on workplaces in Ohio communities have resulted in hundreds of immigration arrests that could result in deportations.

Police used a fire truck to extract and arrest a protester from the top of the tripod.

Operations at the state’s central ICE field office came to a temporary halt on Monday morning as small group of protesters entered the office and locked themselves together with bike locks, refusing to budge until the police came and began making arrests. Others gathered outside, filling the street and suspending an activist from a large tripod to block any vehicles carrying deportees from leaving the area. Police eventually used a fire truck to extract the climbing demonstrator, who was arrested along with several others on misdemeanor trespassing charges.

In the lobby of the office building, Earth First! activists explained that the same fossil fuel polluters that “eco-defenders” regularly work to shut down are impacting migrants targeted by the Trump administration. Research has shown that climate disruption is a major factor in migration trends, including in Central America and the Caribbean, where rising temperatures, droughts and severe weather exacerbate the food insecurity and violence driving families to seek refuge in the United States.

“Large agriculture regions have been devastated by droughts, storms and newly erratic seasons,” the protesters said, speaking in unison and referring to regions in Central America. “Residential areas are being displaced by storms and food shortages stemming from drought. Farming collapse sets the economic stage for more organized violence, by the state and gangs.”

Police made 12 arrests during the action in Columbus, Ohio. Protesters have occupied and temporarily shut down operations at ICE offices across the country.

Full disclosure: In 2010, your faithful reporter briefly worked for the organization’s central media organ, the Earth First! Journal. I learned a lot about the history of the movement reading back issues of the magazine. Earth First! was founded by a group of cavalier white men in 1980. Women, people of color and LGBTQ people (particularly gender-nonconforming people) have long challenged its tendencies toward machismo and a singular focus on defending the wilderness. The broader environmental movement has also been criticized for its lack of diversity. The action on Monday was a sign of change.

Activists said the action was organized in solidarity with immigrant rights groups such as Mijente, a Latinx racial justice organization involved in major demonstrations against ICE in San Diego and other cities. The grassroots activism exploding around “Abolish ICE” has challenged Democrats to take up the issue, leading to a debate over whether disbanding the federal law enforcement agency is a reasonable, politically salient policy proposal or a shortsighted protest slogan. Mijente has addressed this head on with a full policy platform for overhauling the immigration system that explains how and why ICE should be disbanded, but that’s not the only demand that Mijente and other activists are making. They also want the immediate reunification of families separated at the border and the complete decriminalization of immigration.

“We are here to say that we will not stand silently by, and we’ll resist in ways unheard of right here in Columbus, Ohio,” stated Ruben Castilla Herrera, an immigrant, migrant and refugee organizer with the Columbus Sanctuary Collective.