Aurora, CO – On Friday, July 12, 2019, more than 1,500 people participated in a protest outside the sole Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in the state, owned and operated by the private prison corporation GEO Group.
The protesters were expressing their opposition to what they call “concentration camps” detaining immigrants en masse. In these “camps,” or detention centers, thousands of immigrants have alleged neglect, abuse, overcrowding, and more.
Because of the substantial turnout, there were diverse strategies and tactics used by protesters to express their discontent. Some protesters switched the flags flying outside the facility, damaging at least one, which has led to an Aurora Police Department bounty on the suspected individuals.
Update (7/25/19): On July 24, 2019, one individual was cited with criminal tampering and was issued a court summons to appear in municipal court in connection with the flag switching.
Unicorn Riot was live during the event, which you can watch below:
One section of the protest began at 6:00 pm at the Peoria Station bus terminal a half-mile away from the detention facility, where 200+ people cheered on speakers from some of the 11 groups who organized this section as part of the international call to action by the Coalition to Close the Concentration Camps (CCCC).
Richard Folsom, an organizer with the local branch of CCCC, spoke to the crowd through a bullhorn:
“Our coalition does not merely want cleaner concentration camps. We do not merely want families united, we do not want families to be united in concentration camps, we do not want families united just to be deported where they escaped from. We want all the concentration camps closed, we want all the refugees and migrants in, regardless of whether or not they are doing it through ‘legal means.’ The US immigration system was not ever meant to stop migration, it was meant to make a hyper-exploited and isolated section of the working class that could be paid dirt wages.”
This “section of the working class” was in fact predominantly crafted by the U.S. through free trade policies such as NAFTA (1994) and CAFTA-DR (2005), which have eliminated millions of jobs in Central and South America, leading to the massive northern migrations of people in search of work. The immigrants who successfully enter the U.S. are subject to being “hyper-exploited,” as Folsom stated, because many have to wait years for their cases to be heard in front of an immigration judge, and in the meanwhile have to find work without legal documentation.
The U.S. also has temporary worker programs which, according to thousands of documents obtained by BuzzFeed News in 2015, creates unsafe, inhumane, and unjust conditions for workers. Many workers as part of the H-2 worker program allege being “cheated out of their wages, threatened with guns, beaten, raped, starved, and imprisoned.”
At the bus terminal on Friday, Folsom added that their march was going to end before the start time of the other section of the protest, as well as before Oakland Street (where the detention facility is located), so as to respect the vigil organized by a Lights For Liberty (L4L) coalition. However, Folsom also mentioned their coalition’s safety concerns regarding the L4L coalition collaborating with the Aurora Police Department. The L4L coalition had told the CCCC coalition that the police would help them block off Oakland Street, and that there would be at least one plain clothes officer present.
“While the police were going to be here regardless, it’s a lie that police are here to keep us safe, so just watch out. Be careful.” – Richard Folsom
The crowd began marching around 6:45 pm, heading down Peoria Street toward the detention facility. Numbers swelled as hundreds more protesters joined on the way. Instead of ending before Oakland Street, the massive march continued onward to the facility until it converged with the vigil crowd of about 200, when both groups began chanting together.
A stage on the bed of a pickup truck was the focal point of the vigil. A musician played songs such as Bob Dylan’s “The Times, They Are a-Changin” for the crowd, with the assistance of an interpreter.
Simultaneously, a group of about 100 people lined up on the grassy hill on the left side of the facilities’ entrance chanting “shut it down” toward the building, while remaining parallel to a line of yellow plastic chains (provided by GEO/ICE officials) held by marshals. After a few minutes, a man carrying a large Mexican flag (who was identified by a friend as being Mexican) ran through the line toward the facility waving the flag.
At that moment, dozens of people followed cheering him on, as organizers with the L4L coalition and the marshals became nervous.
Tony Strat, one of the marshals who was holding the line between the public property side and the federal property side, told Unicorn Riot that:
“We were told to hold people back completely, to not allow anyone past, and we said that’s not gonna happen, they have the right to be there. There’s nothing that we can do, nothing that we can say, nothing that we should say to discourage them from that, but as long as we can both coexist in one space, that is what matters. As long as we can keep the peace, as long as we don’t escalate this to a certain threat level, we’re OK.”
The “threat level” that Strat was referring to was any actions that could trigger the police or ICE officers to come down on the protesters. Strat mentioned that the main concern for the marshals was to make sure undocumented people in attendance were safe, along with disabled people and elderly people.
Boulder Democratic Socialists of America, part of the CCCC coalition who organized the march, believe it was the L4L coalition that created an unsafe environment:
“The protection of undocumented people is of the highest importance, and the real danger to them came from Lights for Liberty organizers who collaborated with police and invited them to be present—both in uniform and in plain clothes—throughout the entire event.”
About five minutes after people followed the lead of the Mexican flag-waving man, an organizer with the CCCC coalition instructed everyone through a bullhorn to leave and go back to the public property side, reminding the crowd that “this is not what we came here to do today.”
Some people in the crowd began walking back toward the marshal line, while others who chose to remain called out “come back!” The man carrying the Mexican flag responded in opposition to the organizer’s request by divulging that his brother was inside the facility.
In the past six months, there have been multiple mumps and chicken pox outbreaks at the facility, which led to forced quarantines. Some detainees participated in hunger strikes to protest the medical neglect leading to the spread of the viruses.
Less than ten minutes later, an Indigenous man named Tomás addressed the remaining fifty people on federal property:
“We are standing on our land and we are here to free our people, and we’re not gonna let an imaginary line stop us anymore… We’re gonna say our prayer and no one is going to stop us… No one is going to make us afraid because we’re warriors, we were warriors long before Columbus, we were warriors long before Cortés, we were warriors long before any of this, and we’re warriors still.”
Before leading the crowd in prayer, which was now encircling Tomás and an Indigenous woman, he reminded them how the United States has a history of not allowing Indigenous peoples to pray and speak their language. He and the woman sang together and drummed in the middle of the group.
Tomás then suggested that everyone return to the other side to be together because “if there’s one thing that we all know that our movement needs right now, it’s unity.”
The majority of the crowd agreed and headed back across the marshal line, as about 15 people stayed on federal property. Concurrently, the L4L vigil continued with music and speakers.
Thirty minutes later, a contentious moment happened when the three flags hanging outside the facility were taken down by anonymous individuals–the Colorado state flag, the U.S. flag, and the GEO Group flag.
A crowd emerged again on the federal property side, this time with about 200 people. The three flags were placed on the ground in the center of the large circle of people as they chanted “one, two, three, four, genocide, slavery, war, five, six, seven, eight, America was never great!”
The three flags were torn up and at least one was partially burned. Soon after three new flags were strung up on the flag poles: a Mexican flag, an upside-down thin blue line flag (‘blue lives matter’ flag) with “Abolish ICE” spray-painted on it, and lastly a homemade “fuck cops” flag.
Although the switching of the flags caused excitement and celebration for some, for others, particularly the organizers with L4L, it caused outrage.
The Aurora police department and ICE officers remained hands-off, even after the flag incidents, but the police were in contact with Patty Lampman, an organizer with L4L. While no official dispersal order was given by the police, at around 8:15 pm Lampman spoke into the microphone (on public property) telling the crowd that there had been one issued. At that moment, hundreds of protesters evacuated the scene for fear of police and ICE interaction, ending the L4L vigil early.
Meanwhile on the federal property side, Indigenous protesters led the large circle in a traditional round dance. Soon after, when no officers could be seen moving to clear the rest of the protesters, it was apparent that the dispersal order was not real.
When about 200 people in total remained outside the detention facility, they took part in their own vigil with candles, Assata Shakur poetry, and a few speakers. The events officially ended around 9:15 pm, however the online uproar had only just begun.
Cristian Solano-Cordova, a spokesperson for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC), one of the organizations part of the L4L coalition, wrote in a Facebook comment on CIRC’s page that:
“The issue was that the second group told us they would be joining our vigil. Instead they unilaterally took this action and inadvertently put our undocumented leaders at risk.”
CIRC’s legal services coordinator, Claudia Castillo, also disavowed the actions with the flags. She said to the Denver Post:
“It was disgusting and shameful. They have compromised our movement, and they stole the spotlight and endangered our undocumented people.”
Colorado Governor Jared Polis, who had been attending the Western Conservative Summit on Friday, tweeted his thoughts about the ICE protests the next day:
Of course I condemn the desecration of our flag, who wouldn’t? Now will you condemn the ongoing and even more serious offense to our flag and values of putting children in cages and tearing families apart? @GregAbbott_TX @cologop pic.twitter.com/u2IrqFc11A
— Jared Polis (@GovofCO) July 13, 2019
While Polis shared the sentiments of the protesters concerning the mistreatment of the immigrant community in his tweet, he told Colorado Matters in March 2019 that “ICE is absolutely a legitimate law enforcement agency.”
The Aurora Police Department (APD) also released a statement on Saturday explaining why they did not intervene during the protest:
“Our folks were more than ready to decisively engage, had we witnessed assaultive behavior or damage to the building or surrounding property that could jeopardize its security or public safety. Beyond the removal, attempted destruction of the US flag, replacement of the flags, and some signs and poles being put on the main doors and windows, the protesters did not engage in behavior that warranted immediate intervention.”
Three days later, on Tuesday, July 16, the police department shared photos on their Twitter and Facebook pages of “persons of interest” in their investigations into the flag switching and damaging. They offered a reward of up to $4,000. On July 18 and 19 more photos were shared; the majority of the photos released by the APD are of people of color.
While the police department says they are receiving many valid tips, they also told Westword reporter Conor McCormick-Cavanagh:
I just spoke with Aurora PD and they said the officer working this investigation has been receiving fake tips. Department staff also told me that the tip line email has been subscribed to various subscriptions, so now the email address is receiving advertising emails. https://t.co/qUupDZZJPM
— Conor McCormick-Cavanagh (@ConorMichael28) July 18, 2019
Boulder Democratic Socialists of America, part of the CCCC coalition who organized the march, released a statement on Sunday, July 14:
“It is absurd to equate peaceful occupation of federal property and the damage of three pieces of nylon with violence […] To those who argue that the radical protesters went too far and crossed a line, we disagree. Using respectability politics to denounce actions taken by and alongside impacted immigrants and people of color is shameful, divisive, and plays into the hands of authorities who prefer a quiet and complacent public.”
An authority figure who may “prefer a quiet and complacent public” is Johnny Choate, the Aurora detention facility warden, who also sits on the Aurora Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors. According to the Sentinel, the chamber’s CEO Kevin Hougen has been receiving a multitude of calls recently urging him to remove Choate, which he says will not happen.
A GEO spokesman told the Sentinel:
“We categorically denounce these politically-motivated calls. Our employees are active and contributing members in the community. We have been committed to fostering good relationships with local government and community organizations in Aurora for more than 30 years.”
Two days before the events at the Aurora facility, the U.S. House Oversight Committee sent letters to the three for-profit detention companies that ICE contracts, including CoreCivic, GEO Group, Inc, and DC Capital Partners, LLC. The letter to the GEO Group mentions “problems that undermine the protection of detainees’ rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment.”
The letter also highlights that under the Trump administration, “the number of people detained by ICE has increased from a daily average of approximately 38,000 in 2017 to more than 53,000 as of June 2019. Since 2017, at least 25 people have died in ICE custody.”
There is an ongoing class action lawsuit against the Aurora detention facility alleging it has been forcing its detainees to help maintain and upkeep it for no more than $1 per day. (The Department of Homeland Security allotted ICE nearly 9 billion times that day rate for the 2019 fiscal year to fill at least 50,000 beds.)
The suit was brought by nine former detainees on behalf of more than 60,000 people. Alejandro Menocal, one of the nine, said “Us detainees, we kept Geo running” at a 2014 press conference when the lawsuit was filed.
Immigrant rights activists like Jeanette Vizguerra, who has been claiming sanctuary for the second time in Denver, hope people won’t stay focused on the flag instances at the Aurora protest:
“We want to call for unity and focus the message back to what it was in the first place.” – Jeanette Vizguerra during a press conference on July 16
Unicorn Riot will provide updates as they become available.
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