Never Again Para Nadie: The Jewish Movement to Shut Down I.C.E. in L.A.

Around the country, thousands of young Jews are taking to the streets and occupying detention facilities in solidarity with migrant communities terrorized by ICE.

Corrections Officer Thomas Woodworth attempted to run his truck through a line of Jewish activists on Wednesday, August 14th.

Corrections Officer Thomas Woodworth attempted to run his truck through a line of Jewish activists on Wednesday, August 14th.

by Julia Tanenbaum

This Wednesday, the movement faced violent backlash when Corrections Officer Thomas Woodworth rammed his truck into hundreds of protestors blocking a driveway at the Wyatt Detention Facility in Rhode Island. While local police stood by and watched, several other COs pepper sprayed the traumatized crowd; in total five activists were hospitalized, including a 64 year old who suffered from internal bleeding. The fledgling organization Never Again Action who organized the demonstration successfully pressured Woodworth to quit, but their ultimate goals involve a broader agenda, of closing all concentration camps, shutting down ice, and securing permanent protection for all undocumented people. To Never Again and its allies, Woodworth’s actions demonstrate not only one individual’s blatant disregard for human life, but the inherent violence of prisons and detention centers as a whole. 

Never Again Action only formed about a month ago, in the midst of a public debate after Alexandria Ocascio Cortez dared to use the term “concentration camps” to describe the squalid, overcrowded, and abusive detention facilities at the border. Liberals and fascists alike raised the specter of antisemitism to condemn AOC’s remarks, but this reaction ignited a spark of anger and solidarity in the Jewish community that would coalesce into a popular movement. While politicians, pundits, and some Jewish institutions like the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and the U.S Holocaust Memorial Museam claim comparing the mass detention of migrants to the Holocaust is unthinkable and an insult to the dead, over 375 Holocaust and genocide studies scholars and countless activists insist comparisons between Nazi concentration camps and American detention facilities in fact furfill the mission of Holocaust history by alerting the public to human rights violations and potential mass atrocities.

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At the same time, the nascent Never Again movement was taking direct action to abolish ICE and the dehumanizing immigration system it perpetuates. For the hundreds of young Jews arrested while shouting “Never again para naide!” and “Never again means close the camps!” the lessons of Jewish history compel us to take action before it is too late. In the last month, thousands of Jews have taken action and over 120 have been arrested halting rush-hour traffic (Boston), stopping the Fourth of July parade (Philadelphia), and barricading the entrances of detention facilities. On July 16th, one thousand “Jews and allies” blockaded the entrances and exits to the ICE agency’s headquarters and the surrounding street. A leaked ICE email revealed that the action “Disrupt[ed] Normal Operations” and put ICE Headquarters on “Lock Down Condition”. 

As a national movement took shape, Los Angeles based activists began to put their bodies on the line to shut down the concentration camps on our doorstep. On the morning of Wednesday, July 3, around one hundred Jews from the Los Angeles blocked the entrance doors of the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange, CA. For three and a half hours, the group of students, rabbis, and community members sang Jewish prayers of healing and mourning to grieve for migrants who have been torn away from their families, fallen ill, or lost their lives at the hands of ICE and CBP. Theo Lacy alone was sued for “physical assault, mildewed shower stalls, inoperable phones...solitary confinement, and lack of proper grievance documentation process” by the non-profit Freedom for Immigrants on behalf of ten detainees in 2015, and is currently holding detainees under threat of transfer outside of Orange County. In one of the most populated counties in the nation, Theo Lacy faces little scrutiny because of its distance from the border where high profile cases of infants in cages and incarcerated migrants dying from medical neglect occurred. Yet, as Never Again participants warned, their name and slogan is about more than remembering how the Holocaust ended. Nathan Taft, who lives and works 10 minutes from the protest site, explained his reasons for attending and risking arrest that day.

“Why did I come out to the Theo Lacy facility today and put my body on the line? Because as a Jew who had 32 members of his family murdered in the Holocaust, the words "Never Again" have special meaning to me. The Holocaust didn't begin with death camps and exterminations-- it began with abuse toward a specific community and concentration camps...I, for one, won't wait for things to get even worse to stand up and speak out. Never again is now.”

The morning of August 5th, a diverse coalition led by Never Again targeted another key element of the deportation machine when they barricaded the entrances and exits of the LA regional headquarters of GEO Group, the infamous private prison corporation whose profits skyrocketed last year alongside ICE and CBP round ups. In 2018, ICE contracts represented GEO’s largest source of revenue, over $2 billion dollars, and 28% of its contracts. GEO’s heinous record of forcing both incarcerated citizens and migrants to perform maintenance work for free or illegal “wages” of $1 a day under the threat of solitary confinement exemplifies the brutality of CBP, ICE, and the prison industrial complex. As Never Again organizer Emily Altschul stressed, each of the 15,000 people unjustly imprisoned in GEO Group’s facilities is not a mere statistic, but a human being with a story to tell, from the “27-day-old infant in the Karnes Residential Center in Texas crammed in an unsanitary cage without access to food or medical care” to “Kamyar Samimi, who lived legally in the U.S. from 1979 to the day he died in GEO Group’s Aurora Colorado ICE facility.” While many Americans feel paralyzed by the racist violence that is slowly becoming the new normal, as a private corporation GEO Group is an ideal target for organizers. In 2019, after several major banks bowed to the movement’s pressure to stop extending loans to GEO Group, the company admitted it suffered financial harm and lowered stock prices from “increased public resistance.” 

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For 5 hours, around 100 organizers made that resistance a reality, by forming a human barricade to shut down GEO's local headquarters. Eleven Never Again activists blocked access to the building from the inside by forming a human barricade along the elevator and stairs that lead to the GEO offices, while others blockaded the entrances and exits to the building.  As a result, the action forced many of GEO Group’s employees to stay home for the day; GEO bureaucrats were unable to conduct operations that exemplify what Holocaust refugee and philosopher Hannah Arendt termed “the banality of evil”. After four and a half hours, the Los Angeles Police Department arrested seventeen protestors for trespassing, while threatening the larger group with charges of unlawful assembly. Civil disobedience can bring the life and death stakes of the political moment to life, and in the tradition of the religious Left, it is also a profound experience. Rabbi Jonathan Klein, who attended the rally with a tallit draped over his shoulders, reflected on the spiritual consequences of complicity. “By letting this atrocity happen to them, we lose our souls...and meaning in our lives."

For a short time, the public square hosting the towering office building became a liberated space as protestors filled the air with chants and songs of resistance in English, Spanish, and Hebrew. While speakers like Rabbi Aryeh Cohen of Bend the Arc and ICE Response, Dr. Rodolfo Cortes Barragan of East LA Communities Against ICE, and Donna Malamud, who recently visited Adelanto, revealed the extent of the atrocities perpetuated by GEO Group, a small team of activists dropped a banner from the roof of the parking lot next door, reading “GEO Group Runs Concentration Camps for ICE. #Neveragain” Malmud, a movement elder and descendant of radical Polish and Ukrainian immigrants, carried the infamous tin foil “blanket” ICE and CBP offer to detainees, as she recounted the desperation of the three Russian women she visited at Adelanto.  “One of the women had been in five facilities over three years. We assume they are getting paid each time, as that’s the only reason we could think of for moving her to so many different facilities.” Malmud also described the conditions migrants live in, which she deemed “even worse than ICE facilities”, from labor violations to rotting food and foul water. Yet, her speech ended on a note of solidarity, urging others to visit and write to detainees so they know they are not alone.

Many participants conceived of resistance to GEO Group and ICE as one aspect of a larger internationalist and abolitionist struggle, invoking both religious and socialist principles. After chants of “shame” and “people over profits”, one speaker specifically described the border’s historical function of containing the potential consequences of the Mexican revolution and international organizing for the American ruling class, declaring “The border was created to contain anarchism, to contain communism.” With an abolitionist perspective, Malmud emphasized that calls to “abolish ICE” and “shut down” facilities are insufficient, because “Federal facilities aren’t any better. We have to stop treating people like this. When my family came here they got right into the system and even received medical care.” 

 This action is part of a longstanding effort to shut down concentration camp profiteers GEO group and CoreCivic by both detainees themselves and outside organizations like the Dream Defenders and the Freedom for Immigrants Coalition. In 2015, 400 detainees began a hunger strike at the Adelanto CA facility to demand access to medical care, which was followed by another strike in 2017, after three detainees died due to lack of medical care. This March, 150 migrants began another hunger strike demanding access medical care and edible food and an end to abusive treatment. In solidarity, Never Again activists joined the August 8th “Compassion Not Cages” rally led by the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights Los Angeles in Adelanto. 

While Never Again targets the prison industrial complex through its protests of GEO Group, Jewish Voice for Peace continues its Deadly Exchange campaign to snythesize the disparate struggles against prisons, policing, and Isreali apartheid. The titular exchanges, funded by the self proclaimed “civil rights organization” the Anti-Defamation League among others, fly American police and ICE agents to Israel where they exchange “worst practices” of racial profiling and militarized policing. Police and ICE agents from throughout Southern California, including LAPD officers like Commander Peter Zarcone and Assistant Chief Beatrice M. Girmala, among others participate in the exchanges. At JVP’s demonstrations at ADL headquarters (which the chapter later found out the LAPD warned the ADL about beforehand), their members proclaim that Jews can only achieve safety through solidarity. Indeed, JVP LA is working on this campaign alongside the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, just as Never Again works within CHIRLA. 

Modern Jewish solidarity movements are profoundly radical and abolitionist, and work to distinguish themselves from would be representatives within and outside the community, who use Jewish history as a weapon or a tool to silence others, who make obvious connections when citizens are stripped of their passports and detained without trial, or babies die in sordid cages. The Holocaust is cynically deployed by proponents of “American exceptionalism”, who use the American military victory against the Nazis as evidence that the country is built on respect for the rule of law and universal human rights. Never Again’s language and actions are particularly radical and strategic because they reveal the false mythology at the heart of the history of the American empire. 

Despite a shared Jewish identity, the young Jews building today’s faith based social movements have very different social and political values from the ADL and other organizations that claim to represent the community. Instead, they center the struggles of migrants, refugees, and marginalized people throughout the world. Understanding the fullness of our shared trauma and history can inspire fear of others or empathy and solidarity. We have already decided which side we are on, and will not be silenced. 

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Ericco Malatesta