UPDATE – 6:00 PM EST Late this afternoon, ICIRR finally released a statement just hours after this story appeared at Firedoglake.
On May Day, a coalition of immigrant rights groups in Illinois called for a massive mobilization to march from Chicago’s Haymarket Square to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) branch in downtown. They urged people to join the coalition in highlighting how “hard working families” had been separated through deportations and were struggling to provide basic needs. They planned to use the action to call attention to how President Barack Obama could “stop the suffering” caused by the 2 million deportations his administration has carried out.
Grassroots groups and individuals unaffiliated with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) showed up to the march at 3 pm, however, and, according to multiple organizers who participated in the march, this message clashed with ICIRR. Parade marshals with the coalition aggressively policed the message and allegedly pointed out individuals they did not want among them to police.
This ultimately led to the arrests of two people, Jose “Ze” Garcia, and Ann-Meredith Wootton, who were there as part of the Moratorium on Deportations Campaign (MDC) contingent.
I spoke to multiple organizers from MDC for this story. ICIRR Communications Director Monica Trevino was called and emailed. She did not respond to either attempt to obtain an explanation for conduct that allegedly occurred at the march.
Garcia, who has an open deportation case, told Firedoglake he was carrying a banner that said the “immigration reform bill equals more deaths” at the border because of “border militarization provisions in the bill” and “more deportations.” It said it would mean more “funding for organizations like ICIRR,” which support policies that do not really help immigrant communities.
According to MDC organizers, ICIRR and some individuals from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) did not want them at the front of the march with them. Marshals wearing yellow vests from SEIU and ICIRR linked their arms to block the MDC organizers from moving.
Garcia asked why they could not cross. They believed they had a right to move because they had something to say. They wanted to be at the front with their banner, where all the press and cameras were, and thought there was nothing wrong with doing that.
Suddenly, Garcia recalled, a cop came “out of nowhere” and said “come here.” He signaled and Garcia tried to walk away, but Garcia was apprehended and then arrested. (Watch video here.)
Wootton rushed to the front of the march and tried to put her body in between the cops and Garcia so that he could “make sure he was all right.” She was unable to stop the police who surrounded them and was apprehended.
According to Wootton, while she was being arrested, a female police officer called her a “whore” and another cop threatened to use a taser on her twice.
When the two organizers got to the police station, Wootton remembered that police asked if they were with the “good ICIRR folks who organized the march” or “with the bad nasty anarchists, the black bloc folk,” which affirms suggestions that there were people there police were encouraged to monitor.
Fortunately for Garcia, the charges were dropped. A police officer would not tell Garcia who had initially pressed charges or whether it had been an organization. He said he was informed that he had “pushed somebody” and would be charged with “reckless conduct.” And then, he was suddenly told he was “free to go,” while Wootton was charged with a misdemeanor of obstructing a police officer.
ICIRR Previously Declined to Help Garcia with His Deportation Case
It was particularly disturbing to activists in the Chicago community to see ICIRR and SEIU marshals apparently coordinate with police to have an immigrant who could be deported arrested. This was not the first time this had happened. And, what’s even more remarkable is Garcia went to ICIRR for help when he was first facing deportation proceedings. ICIRR refused to help him.
“It’s kind of come full circle,” Garcia stated. “This is obviously when I was more naive and younger,” but ICIRR was “the first organization that I went to in regards to my deportation case and was asking for help.”
In 2011, he went to ICIRR with a “notice to appear” and his “criminal dispositions.” Someone at ICIRR told him that they could not help him because they “didn’t accept my type of cases and they weren’t able to do anything.” He was confused and did not understand. “I was looking for an attorney that could represent me for free or cheaper or at least help me navigate the sort of process.”
Garcia had been “caught with weed twice.” He believes ICIRR would not take his case because they couldn’t “sell it to the public.” He wasn’t a “good obedient” immigrant with “no criminal record or limited criminal record” facing deportation.
ICIRR vs. the Moratorium on Deportations Campaign
ICIRR has been around for over twenty-five years and describes itself as an organization committed to “promoting the rights of immigrants and refugees to full and equal participation in the civic, cultural, social, and political life of our diverse society.” It is a state-wide organization that consists of 138 different organizations. They have launched a family support deportation hotline that has been praised in Illinois.
Its organizers have managed to liaison with individuals at all levels of government. This posting at the White House’s website highlights the coalition’s twenty-fifth anniversary celebration. ICIRR had Rep. Jan Schakowsky speak at an Affordable Care Act event in November of last year. They engage in drives to register members of the immigrant community to vote.
The coalition is very much a participant in the politics of organizations, who are very concerned with how their agenda clashes or harmonizes with the politics of the Democratic Party. Their Twitter feed will focus on GOP opposition to immigration reform particularly while, on the other hand, the Moratorium on Deportations Campaign is much more of a radical grassroots organization committed to ending “detentions, deportations and dismantling borders.” It is committed to how immigrants are being criminalized by all those in power and do not focus exclusively on Republicans or the president.
MDC has been heavily critical of ICIRR. One organizer from MDC, Ezra Arreola, said ICIRR supports the “border militarization bill,” which “gives all these contracts to companies to put drones and surveillance on the border at the same time as militarizing indigenous communities on that border.” They support a bill that “creates a new biometric database” for tracking immigrants. This is not pro-immigrant.
In June 2013, MDC showed up outside an ICIRR fundraiser and awards ceremony to deliver a “Bullshit Organization of the Year Award” for its “disinformation campaign” on immigration reform legislation. The award included a giant prop that was a piece of shit. MDC also argued that the organization stood to “financially and politically from this legislation” because of sections that give “financial incentives” to non-governmental organizations that cooperate with the Homeland Security Department in implementing reform.
So, MDC saw the conduct of ICIRR and SEIU marshals as part of a “top-down, authoritarian and sellout NGO system that is threatened by dissent and autonomous organizing.” ICIRR, they said, had “called the cops on organizers trying to expose their lies” about immigration reform before.
Marshals Negotiated with Police & Afterward People Unaffiliated Were Kettled by Police as March Began
This policing of messaging and policing of the kind of people they are willing to allow to march side by side with them seems very incompatible with any agenda to advance the cause of immigrant rights. It transforms protest into spectacle, an extension of public relations campaigns, and diminishes the ability of the crowd to engage in a vibrant, unscripted democratic act.
Arreola was present for the beginning of the march. ICIRR and SEIU marshals were talking to police. He believed this was to “arrive at a strategy to move a mass of people,” who were not necessarily there with them. (ICIRR apparently had the permit for the march, which is why they thought they could decide who could participate and not participate.)
Individuals unaffiliated with ICIRR reportedly outnumbered ICIRR and SEIU organizers, and people there for the action were about to march when police kettled them or corralled them off to the side.
Rozalinda Borcilă , another organizer with MDC, said she spoke to a police officer who said organizers had told him they were not allowed to march. They were not “allowed to participate in this march,” according to ICIRR organizers. That left many immobilized as ICIRR kicked off the action, but eventually everyone was able to follow the ICIRR and SEIU contingent at the front of the march.
Throughout the march, marshals were prepared to remove anyone that they physically did not want nearby. Arreola claimed he was “body checked” by one ICIRR marshal, who he saw basically “tackling” people who were in places in the march where he didn’t think they were supposed to be. Arreola also noticed that the marshals were pointing out someone with a flag and making some suggestions to police that this person might be dangerous.
Garcia said when he was handing out pamphlets the ICIRR marshals would rip up literature and tell their members not to talk to MDC organizers.
“It’s the way that ICIRR moves people, which I find to be especially humiliating,” Garcia explained. “A lot of older Latino people and they will just kind of yell at them. Hey, you move. Put yourself in front of the sign. It’s really awful the way they talk to their supporters and people that have actual stakes in this immigration debate and you know they’re clinging to the hope that they will be able to obtain some kind of documentation to obtain some sort of tool to be able to live without fear of deportation. They’re using these people and using their bodies to police another perspective of the immigration bill, and they would specifically move their people in front of our banners.”
Borcilă claimed to have witnessed marshals circling their arms in the air around people, specifically, the MDC organizers. They were trying to get police to pay particular attention to them.
Before the arrests, Arreola said he witnessed “a lot of SEIU and ICIRR pointing” at Garcia. Then, an officer on a segway came up and moved Garcia off to the side. He did not think Garcia knew what was happening, but ICIRR marshals moved to “facilitate” the police launching into the crowd to arrest him.
“Separating Out” People They Didn’t Want in “Their March”
After the arrests, Arreola described how he noticed ICIRR engaged in a strategy of “separating out” people “they didn’t want in their march.”
“People who saw this arrest [of Garcia] and cared about it were stopping and saying let him go, let him go, and engaging in what was going on,” Arreola said, but people “following the orders of the SEIU and ICIRR marshals” kept going.
An ICIRR marshal, Arreola alleged, approached him and interrogated him. He yelled “if you guys ruin this march this is going to come down on you and you’re going to make some enemies. You’re going to regret the types of enemies you’re making.”
Arreola wondered, “What function does this have right now?” He was concerned about this person undergoing deportation proceedings who was arrested and now this marshal was yelling at him. They are supposed to support immigrant rights but apparently supporting someone under arrest was an “inappropriate action.”
“This is crowd control that they were doing.” It was not just a select few people acting independently, Arreola said.
On Twitter, ICIRR Denies Playing Any Role in the Arrest of Garcia
Hours after the arrests took place, ICIRR responded to messages on Twitter blaming their marshals for collaborating with police. The coalition denied pointing out Garcia to police so he would be arrested. They said they had “nothing to do with the arrest” and actually “negotiated with cops” to not charge him because he was “undocumented.”
“I don’t think they know what’s going on,” Garcia reacted. “They keep saying that because from their point of view they keep saying I am undocumented, but I actually have a green card. I’m a green card holder. I’m a legal permanent resident. Just my green card has been rescinded and taken away from me, and I’ve begun deportation proceedings.”
Garcia has not heard from anyone in ICIRR that the coalition personally helped to have him released.
Leslie Mendoza Kamstra, a press person for SEIU Local 1 in Chicago, responded to an email requesting comment. She said, although she was not present at the march, “I saw the video. March organizers from various organizations are tasked with keeping marchers safe, which you can see include families and children. Organizers didn’t have anyone arrested, but instead asked for them to be released. I’m not sure why the marchers were arrested.”
One message sent by ICIRR scolded someone for making allegations against ICIRR. Please get the “facts before accusing anybody of police collaboration, a serious charge,” the message stated.
But ICIRR has declined to put out a statement on the events that transpired. It has refused to respond to some of the key criticisms put forward by members of the immigrant rights community in Chicago, who are troubled by the conduct they witnessed. The organization also ignored communications or declined to provide comment for this story.
Based off accounts from MDC organizers, nothing they did at the march would seem to rise to the level of provocative behavior that warranted having police remove an individual. It seems they were victims of organizers using the presence of police to coerce and intimidate people into staying out of their way. And, until the coalition provides more details that address specific allegations, it will not be clear whether their marshals played absolutely no role in Garcia’s arrest.