Lessons to carry forward as we fight to abolish ICE
By David Purucker
In the wake of important electoral victories for socialist-endorsed candidates and ballot measures in New York, Michigan and California, thousands of people have taken the plunge and joined the Democratic Socialists of America. Here in Portland, our own chapter’s rapid growth — in terms of membership, financial strength and organizing capacity — surely owes something to this high-profile electoral work. But another, very different event from earlier this summer may have been just as important. Portland DSA’s support of the dramatic occupation at the ICE facility in Southwest Portland was crucial to the early success of that action and vividly demonstrated the range and radicalism of our political vision.
To learn more about the occupation and find out what our chapter can learn from the experience, I spoke with several Portland DSA members who were closely involved on the ground, as well as chapter leadership who organized actions farther from the camp.
Portland DSA was involved with the occupation from the very beginning. As news of the federal government’s family separation policy reached a crescendo in early June, the Direct Action Alliance contacted Portland DSA to co-host a rally at the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement center. Portland DSA’s large social media reach helped draw hundreds to the June 17 rally and march, which evolved into a small overnight occupation on the building’s steps.
Over the next several days, the makeshift camp grew, and by the fourth day the occupiers were able to shut down the building. Several DSA members from Portland and Eugene were on the ground for the entire five-week duration of the camp, while many other DSA supporters visited for the large evening vigils. The Portland facility’s shutdown ignited a wave of similar occupations in cities around the country, including an intense series of clashes outside of an ICE office in Philadelphia.
Portland DSA’s support was “really instrumental” during the first few days of the local occupation, said Chris C., a DSA organizer who stayed for the whole occupation. The chapter provided the growing camp with material support, including shade canopies, walkie-talkies, and lots of food and water. Chris, along with DSA members Juno Suárez and Jordan Sheldon, served as liaisons between the chapter and the camp. They posted on Slack, the chapter’s cloud-based organizing platform, to request supplies and keep members informed, and they signal-boosted camp press releases through social media. Members of the chapter Steering Committee helped set up an Abolish ICE-focused national DSA conference call joined by over 400 people. Chris was on the call, and gave a tour of the camp to the others (“I’m kinda DSA-famous now!” Chris told me).
Portland DSA also pursued a strategy independent of the occupation. On June 20, the chapter published an open letter with a list of demands for the Portland City Council (the letter was drafted independently, but Jordan told me that the demands of DSA and the occupiers “were more or less the same”). Eight days later, DSA and a group from the camp appeared in force at a City Council meeting, filling the chambers and an overflow room. Chapter co-chair Olivia Katbi Smith testified and repeated the demands: Adopt the recommendations of the Sanctuary City Task Force, withdraw from the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) and restrain the Portland Police Bureau from assisting federal officers in clearing the encampment. Interestingly, DSA’s actions may have influenced Mayor Ted Wheeler’s promise that the Portland police would not assist in clearing the camp, as his announcement to not intervene came only hours after the letter was published. (The mayor’s promise was eventually broken.)
After the ICE facility was forcibly reopened on June 28, divisions around strategy began to emerge within the camp. This led to a split between an “Occupy ICE” group, which wanted to continue pursuing direct action tactics, and an “Abolish ICE” group that favored a longer-term strategy involving pressure campaigns on City Council, more or less mirroring the strategic consensus of Portland DSA. This seemed like a “more strategic” course of action, Jordan told me, and the Abolish ICE group eventually withdrew from the occupation to organize independently as Abolish ICE PDX, although Jordan remained at camp to continue serving as a liaison.
By mid-July, DSA’s support for the occupation continued, but strategic focus had begun to shift. The July 8 DSA chapter meeting featured an educational “RED Talk” on abolishing the carceral immigration system, but no votes or official discussion around the occupation were on the agenda. “I think we sort of assumed that it was gonna be swept pretty soon,” Olivia told me. “It didn’t seem like something that we needed to figure out next steps on the occupation because it seemed inevitable that it was gonna end.”
But anti-ICE organizing was ramping up in other ways. On July 17, about a dozen DSA members attended another City Council meeting to urge the rejection of a proposed amendment to the city’s contract with G4S, a multinational security corporation that helps operate ICE detention centers. Working within the chapter’s Abolish ICE Caucus, DSA members have been conducting research and planning new pressure campaigns to end the G4S contract and pull the city out of the JTTF. And in the chapter’s Racial Justice Working Group, members are helping the campaign to defeat the anti-immigrant Measure 105, which threatens to overturn Oregon’s already weak “sanctuary state” law.
Portland DSA has hit the ground running in its Abolish ICE work, but there is always value in strategic reflection. I asked Chris, Jordan and Olivia what lessons we can learn from Occupy ICE.
1. The value of direct action
Among both liberals and the wider American left, DSA has a reputation for pursuing mainly electoral and legislative work. It’s true that ICE and the carceral immigration system are legal constructions that will ultimately have to be dismantled by elected politicians. But the current push to legislatively constrain and dismantle ICE was enabled by radical direct action. Whether it’s shutting down a whole federal building, or carrying out smaller-scale actions like when D.C. DSA confronted Homeland Security boss Kirstjen Nielsen over dinner at a Mexican restaurant, direct action dramatizes political opposition and draws media eyes. “Directly shutting down the thing that you’re trying to stop is what creates a conversation that opens up space for those legislative things to happen, because otherwise it’s very hard to get people to pay attention,” said Chris. And these actions have already catalyzed some real Abolish ICE victories. For example, in Philadelphia, where activists (including Philly DSA) camped and resisted police in early July, city officials recently announced that they would not renew a JTTF-like data-sharing agreement with ICE.
“Directly shutting down the thing that you’re trying to stop is what creates a conversation that opens up space for those legislative things to happen, because otherwise it’s very hard to get people to pay attention.”
DSA’s participation in large direct actions also helps to build solidarity across the wider liberal-left. Despite the split that came out of the occupation, Chris thinks that the occupation physically brought together many individuals and groups who otherwise might have never been in contact. And, Chris said, the relative calm of the occupation “opened up space for a less radical public to engage in radical politics.” So-called consciousness-raising, though often exaggerated as a route to material change, is a real phenomenon, and the occupation undoubtedly radicalized some Portlanders. Some of these new folks probably supplemented the recent surge in DSA’s membership, Chris thinks, and Chris personally knows of some less-active DSA members who were “profoundly transformed by camp” and have dived into work with the Abolish ICE caucus. Chris also brought up the not insignificant fact that Portland DSA gained almost 1,000 new Twitter followers during the occupation.
Direct action tactics are one thing that distinguishes DSA from liberal organizations, and so they must be just as much a part of our skill set as electoral, labor organizing and other work. “I think that a diversity of tactics is the best way to grow our movement,” said Olivia. “There’s a place for all types of skills and all types of leftist politics in DSA.” However, Portland DSA’s ability to carry out direct action is still limited. DSA’s support was crucial at the occupation, “but we couldn’t have started that on our own,” Chris said. “It’s a huge tactic that we’re missing.”
Olivia and Jordan told me similar things. “We have 1,000 members in Portland,” Olivia said. “I think we had 100 at the antifascist rally (on Aug. 4). But it’s like, why can’t we have 500? Why can’t we have half of our members there?” Said Jordan: “I think it’s important, if we’re gonna be doing more direct action stuff, to actually be willing to put in the work for it, and to show up and not just like come down. … I think we did well with material support, but material support only gets you so far.”
2. Navigating solidarity
Socialist organizations of the past and present have an unfortunate, and deserved, reputation for vanguard behavior — seizing on the struggles of others and claiming them as their own. It was recognized early on within Portland DSA that the ICE occupation was not ours to claim — we co-sponsored the June 17 rally, provided important material and communications support and continuously had members on the ground, but the decision to actually occupy the area was made independently of DSA. Except for the evening vigils, the group of occupiers never included very many DSA members.
Recognizing the limits of Portland DSA’s capacity for involvement, and sensitive to the risk of alienating allied groups, the chapter explicitly adopted a “supporting” role. On June 19, two days into the occupation, the chapter tweeted that, “Our role in this action is support, including by using our social media platform to boost the message. Our members are supporting & participating, but other orgs, including Direct Action Alliance and @nlg_portland, have put in lots of work which should be recognized #solidarity.” The “liaison” roles filled by Jordan, Chris and Juno also helped to prevent conflicts and fostered good feelings on the ground.
One factor that was out of our control was media coverage. “DSA is a big name on the left, and has become in Portland a sort of go-to organization repping lefties — for the media, I mean,” said Chris. Because of DSA’s rapid national growth and the novelty of our socialist politics, we’ve been drawing lots of attention in the press — sometimes for things we don’t deserve attention for. Chris cited a Willamette Week story from May that incorrectly framed DSA’s support as crucial to the organizing struggle at Burgerville restaurants (the Burgerville organizing campaign began years before). Olivia agreed: “We’re always super-mindful of that. We never want to take credit for something that we don’t deserve credit for. And we see it happen again and again where we get credit for stuff that we don’t deserve credit for.” Faced with largely capitalist media with few connections to the working class and often a weak understanding of left politics, DSA will inevitably get coverage that misrepresents its work.
Left solidarity is a notoriously fragile thing, but when it works well, it’s a powerful force. The ICE occupation and the Aug. 4 mobilization against fascism were powerful because Portland DSA found ways to leverage our collective strengths alongside other groups.
3. Be prepared for repression
Direct action may help “get the goods,” but it also involves risks. Importantly, these risks aren’t just borne by comrades wearing black. “All cops are bastards, all cats are beautiful,” said Chris. Socialists and anarchists can agree on the second point, but are all cops really bastards? The recent behavior of Portland police strongly suggests the affirmative. At the PopMob demonstration on Aug. 4, police fired flash-bang grenades from cannons into a crowd that included families, not just black bloc militants. One of those grenades punctured an antifascist’s bicycle helmet and sent him to the hospital for emergency surgery. At the ICE occupation, city police ignored the mayor’s neutrality decree and prevented journalists and protestors from reaching the camp during a DHS sweep.
Seeing cop violence up close is a valuable lesson for DSA members, many of whom have never had reason to fear the police. Said Olivia: “A lot of people come to DSA from very mainstream liberalism, and they get radicalized by these actions when they see the cops beating people who are just sitting on the ground trying to block someone from getting deported. That’s radicalizing,” she continued. “And that’s the kind of work that we need to be doing.”
But if Portland DSA is serious about developing its capacity for direct action, it will have to be prepared for some measure of legal repression, whether or not that direct action is peaceful or militant. Any true mass organization of the working class is by definition a threat to the power of the state — and when our successes truly begin to threaten the capitalist class, the state will come at us much harder than it has in the recent history of the left. Occupy ICE and PopMob have given us a small taste of the violence of the state. Let’s learn from our anarchist comrades and take precautions.
An abridged version of this article appeared in the Portland chapter of Democratic Socialists of America’s newsletter, Bread & Rose City, in October 2018.