All photos by the author.
Early Tuesday morning, a residential side street in Elizabeth, New Jersey was packed with a slew of double-parked cars, the orange glow of their flashing hazards lighting up the dawn.
Around 50 immigration justice activists were in the backyard of a secret house on the crowded street. They had met each other there at 4:30 a.m. These people, vetted for the act they were preparing to perform, had come far. They traveled from different parts of New Jersey and New York, from Massachusetts and Virginia. Their organizers had been planning the event they would soon take part in for nearly two months.
A man stood in front of the house, monitoring the street. He would notify anyone who needed to move their car who was blocking a neighbor from leaving for work. Another man greeted journalists and made sure they didn’t go to the backyard. Someone made sure all attendees had bug spray and sunscreen. A passerby would have thought a group of people were embarking on a church trip, for a reverend and pastor stood on the sidewalk.
“Here, in the middle of a Black and brown community of working-class people, they hide themselves as they subject immigrants to all this brutality. From here, people are taken to airports or buses, shackled from hands to feet, and taken away from their families and communities.”
The reverend was preaching about a controversial topic. “I’m so disgusted with the whole attitude towards immigration in this country,” said Reverend K. Karpen of Manhattan’s St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist Church. “ICE is the target of my fury because they practice evil and promote a culture of intolerance. It’s especially frustrating to see fellow Christians supporting them. The scripture is very clear about welcoming the foreigner, the stranger. The people of Israel were foreigners. God is urging us to be better. Jesus was a refugee.”
In 2018, for about a year, the reverend provided sanctuary to a woman named Deborah and her family, some of whose members ICE was trying to deport. “Nobody should have to live in a church to keep their family together,” he said.
Around 6 a.m., the group of 50 piled into vans and cars, carrying chains, PVC pipe and loud-speakers. They left caravan-style, for 600-640 Frelinghuysen Ave, a private office park about five minutes from the Newark airport.
When they got to the office park, around 30 people referred to as the “arrestees” were “lock-boxed” together — on person’s arm chained to the next inside of a PVC pipe with chicken wire taped around it — so that they could effectively block the entrance to a Department of Homeland Security office inside the office park. Their aim? Bring to a halt that office’s work, which includes processing all deportations and transfers of people in ICE detention in the state. They would, in fact, interrupt the business of ICE and of the whole office park for the next five hours.
“This is a black site where ICE carries out transfers and deportations, where people are physically forced to fingerprint their deportation or transfer papers,” Haydi Torres of Movimiento Cosecha, one of the organizers, told The Indypendent. “We were able to identify this site and expose it to the public. Here, in the middle of a Black and brown community of working-class people, they hide themselves as they subject immigrants to all this brutality. From here, people are taken to airports or buses, shackled from hands to feet, and taken away from their families and communities,” she said.
Torres, undocumented herself, has seen the brunt of it. “I know what it’s like to have the fear of being taken away. Is it scary to be on DHS and Border Patrol right here? Yeah, of course. But we lose the fear collectively. I want more of our community to be here and us to be abolitionists … If they come get me, they come get me,” she said.
Tuesday’s action marked an escalation in response to ICE actions, as New Jersey activists have been working for years to rein in ICE abuses. On June 8, 14 activists were arrested for blocking an ICE van from leaving Bergen County Jail. They were successfully able to halt two deportations.
Pressure to get ICE out of New Jersey continues to mount from those in detention and the public. ICE has been transferring detained people out of Essex, Hudson and Bergen County jails at a higher rate than usual since May, sending them to other states in what advocates refer to as a transfer roulette. Detainees have organized a slew of hunger strikes in the last two years, protesting horrific conditions, the lack of Covid safety measures, and the abusive nature of the transfers themselves. Most recently, people detained by ICE at Essex County Jail went on hunger strike to demand they be released, not transferred, as ICE’s operations at the jail are scheduled to end by August 23.
“Just about two weeks ago, people were transferred out of Essex to other facilities across the country because Essex is ending their contract with ICE,” Torres said. “Ending the contract is not enough. We are fighting back to send the clear message that we want people to be released, not transferred.”
Quickly after the demonstrator’s 6:30 a.m. arrival, cars began to pile up in front of the blockaded gate. The office park is filled with mainly airport-related businesses, and many cargo trucks had to turn around, blocked from entering the building.
The workers trying to enter the gate in their cars had varying reactions. One woman walked up to an activist to inquire about their cause. As she left, she thanked them for what they were doing, adding “It’s a good cause,” she said. Another woman was waiting to pick up her husband who had just worked all night long. “I feel bad, because Black Lives Matter and all that, but some people gotta work,” she said.
Workers who were trying to enter the gate in their personal vehicles, not to deliver materials, parked their cars on the street and walked around the human blockade.
At around 7:30 a.m. one livid employee drove away from the blocked gate so abruptly that people had to run away in order to dodge her SUV. She was rushing for the second entrance of the office park, which she and a couple other vehicles were able to enter before a group of “arrestees” rushed to blockade it.
Others showed excitement and support at the sight of the demonstration. Frequently, a truck driver passing by would honk their horn animatedly or raise a fist.
Reginald Lewis, the owner of Unlimited Cheesesteaks, was so inspired to see the demonstration that he pulled his car over to express his solidarity. He was so inspired he decided to buy donuts and coffee for the activists. When he dropped them off, he fist-bumped the “arrestees,” who haid down in front of the gate because of the difficulty of standing with the weight of the “lock-boxes.”
“All the poor people, come on by [to Unlimited Cheesesteaks] and let’s eat. Cause if I’m with you, you’re with me, we together,” Lewis said. “I’m gonna say, I love y’all. Enjoy the donuts, the coffee. I gotta go to work. But I will come back down here to check on y’all. You guys are my brothers and sisters. I love y’all!”
Marlen Paredes, another organizer with Movimiento Cosecha, wielding a loudspeaker, kept the momentum going by speaking during the majority of the five-hour action. She spent much of her time emphasizing the shared plight of the worker and that of the immigrant.
Cleaning staff who had just gotten off the bus to enter the office park and men wearing neon colors, draped on the fence of the complex, looked on as she spoke.
“We’re exposing this in the middle of the Black and brown center of New Jersey. To the underpaid staff who works here, you know what? You get a break for the day. We are the working class, we maintain these streets and cities. This country won’t move without us. If we say we’re not gonna work, we’re gonna strike, everything will stop moving.”
Laura Julney, the wife of Patrick Julney, who has been in detention in New Jersey for two years, spoke with The Indy on the phone during the action. “It feels good to know that people are standing up and saying that they don’t need to be transferred. You can’t just keep transferring people across the country when their lawyers are here, their families are here,” she said. “I go for weekly visits with my husband. If he’s transferred to another state, we won’t have that time where we can sit one-on-one, where he can see his children face-to-face. Even though he’s behind the plexiglass, that’s our time away from everything that’s going on around us. If we don’t have that, he gets really stressed.”
Laura and her children are allowed to see Patrick for 15 minutes every week. “But if no one is behind us or no one is paying attention, sometimes it goes to 30 minutes,” she said. Her family is fearful that Patrick will be abruptly transferred to another state, as has been common at Bergen County Jail of late. Or, worse, that he will lose his deportation appeal and be forced to return to crisis-stricken Haiti, a country he left when he was two-years-old. “We live in constant fear of the unknown. Everyday I don’t know if I’m going to be able to speak to my husband the next morning.”
To the surprise of demonstrators and onlookers alike, the police did not interfere in the action. A handful of police officers and Department of Homeland Security officers were staged around the site, but they kept their distance. Some came and went, and there were never more than about 15 officers, standing on the opposite sidewalk, under the shade of a tree on the 91-degree day.
The officials mingled with two third-party “anti-crime” units, one of which was the “Essex Anti-Crime Partnership. The members of the other group wore vests with “anti-crime patrol unit” written on them. In Newark, the police have third party actors and volunteers. That’s particular to Newark,” said Sean, who stood guard on the edge of the action. “Once at an anti-ICE action, they lured us away, beat on us,” he said.
By 9 a.m. the immigration justice activists reported that they had seen two vans with plates identifying them as Department of Homeland Security vehicles turn around at the sight of the blockade. Whether the vans held detained people could not be verified. But the next day, the group of organizing activists released a statement saying, “the organizers accomplished [their] goal of delaying ICE vans so that they missed their morning flights.”
At around 10 a.m. Paredes announced to the group that an international flight had been cancelled on account of the action.
Pines, an organizer with Ridgewood for Black Liberation, said that the office park’s employees kept confusing him as a coworker, since he was wearing a neon vest that dubbed him a “police liaison” to his fellow activisis. He said that one of the employees who he didn’t bother to correct was complaining to him that the action had already blocked at least one international flight — from or to where and on behalf of which entity remains unknown. “Hey, if it’s not an ICE plane, we’re out here stopping capitalism, too.” ICE has a private hangar for its chartered planes at the nearby Newark Liberty Airport.
“True destruction comes from direct action. If you want direct results, you perform direct action, from blocking an intersection to blocking a deportation,” said Sean, when asked about the importance of the demonstration. “In a perfect world, nobody else’s livelihood would be impeded on. But in reality, we live in the same system where under capitalism we’re forced to work side-by-side with ICE.”
At 11:15, the group, exhausted, packed up shop. They admitted they were shocked to not have been interrupted by the police. They had planned under the assumption of being quickly shut down, hence the usage of the term “arrestees.”
Benz, an organizer with Never Again Action, said that law enforcement was “clearly caught off guard, clearly unprepared,” and that that “underscores that they thought no one knew about the black site, that no one was watching.”
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