In an act to draw attention to one of the largest for-profit immigrant detention centers in the country, five activists crossed a police tape at the November 22, 2014 Shut Down Stewart event in Lumpkin, Georgia, a gathering held as part of the annual School of the Americas Watch vigil. All five were arrested.
Yesterday all charges were dismissed against Anton Flores, Jason McGauhey, Kevin Caron, Maureen Fitzsimmons, and Rebecca Kanner who were facing up to 12 months in prison and a fine of up to $1000. In a press release, Jason McGauhey of Washington, DC said that he crossed onto Stewart to highlight the injustice and inherent racism of US immigration policy. Kevin Caron of Atlanta, Georgia said that after the countless families separated by unjust detentions at Stewart, combined with t he horrid conditions that detainees experience there, I felt that the injustices taking place withing Stewart must be addressed. Maureen Fitzsimmons of Detroit, Michigan said that [CCA’s] 2013 revenue in the US was $1.7 billion in 100% taxpayer money, “The vigil at the Stewart detention facility inspired me to act on my faith that we can be kind to each other. 1,800 men imprisoned for profit, while millions of working families in the US struggle in or around poverty. Our taxes must be better spent.” Rebecca Kanner of Detroit, Michigan said that SOA Watch activists have used peaceful, nonviolent resistance to expose the horrors of the SOA/WHINSEC and to express solidarity with sisters and brothers in Latin America, “I believe now is the time for similar actions to happen at the Stewart Detention Center. We need to expose the horrible conditions of this detention center and express solidarity with the 1,800 immigrants imprisoned there. I hope that as more people learn about this detention center, and other such facilities, our awareness will turn into action.”
The weekend-long vigil takes place outside the gates of Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, home to the School of the Americas (SOA)- since renamed Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) by the Pentagon. Here thousands from around the world gather for teaching events, speakers, and musical events concluding with a funeral procession for those killed by graduates of the SOA. Organizers of the Stewart Detention Center event say they want the public to make the connection between US foreign policy in Latin American countries that contribute to forced migration.
Stewart, owned by the largest corporation in the immigration detention business in the US, Community Corrections of America (CCA), regularly incarcerates more than 1700 men who range anywhere from being in the documentation process to recent arrivals to the country. This past year’s Shut Down Stewart event was the largest ever with thousands marching from the tiny town of Lumpkin, Georgia to Stewart, a distance of about a mile and a half. Leading the march was Pedro Guzman who was held in Stewart for 18 months prior to his release and whose mother-in-law in a similar act also crossed property lines onto Stewart in 2013 calling for its closing.
Anton Flores, co-founder of Alterna, a community devoted to providing hospitality, mercy, and justice and co-founder of Georgia Detention Watch told KGNU this morning why he crossed the line and what was going through his mind before his court appearance,
” Today was a victorious day for the movement to close the Stewart Detention Center and will grow the movement to end the detention of immigrants throughout our country, the 34,000 held currently around the country. We were surrounded by some wonderful witnesses of nonviolence like Father Roy Bourgeois [founder of School of the Americas Watch] and exceptional attorneys who worked pro-bono and contributed their expertise. Even in that I recognize the privilege because [even through] our simple nonviolent act of conscience standing before a judge, and we were still being afforded the right to due process, and the right to legal counsel and yet that is something that individuals who are detained, who do find their liberties being deprived, they are denied that very basic democratic right to counsel. It’s estimated that at least 85% of immigrants held inside our detention facilities around the United States and at Stewart never get any legal counsel. I was very mindful of the fact that while we were standing there facing this misdemeanor charge that could have inconvenienced us for a while with incarceration, the individuals who are being torn apart from their families, perhaps for life, or whose families may have a de facto deportation themselves, are not given the access to that very democratic principle that so shapes our understanding of the criminal justice system.
So significant for me was that as we gathered to walk to the courthouse, I received a text, a simple text in Spanish that encouraged me to keep the faith and to know that the person sending me this text was praying for me and that they were hopeful that all would go well. The thing that made that text so significant is that it comes from a woman whose very own husband has been in Stewart Detention Center for a month. Her husband was picked up at her home at 6:00 in the morning. Local police officers in my town banging on the door while immigration officers were in hiding. The children saw their father be detained. This is the woman encouraging me. This woman’s husband was one of the 2000 plus individuals that was picked up during [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] ICE’s most recent Operation Crosscheck where they were nabbing, including pastors, individuals who had 10-plus-year-old misdemeanor cases and whose lives have dramatically changed from those missteps. These were the individuals that they were picking up and this is the case with this father who was picked up right in front of his children in collusion with local police which sets a really ugly precedent and really hampers the relationships between immigrants and local law enforcement. So the fact that this woman could muster the strength to encourage me, how could I not muster the strength to continue to struggle for her, for her husband, for her children, and for the other 1700-plus individuals held in Stewart Detention Center. I walked into that courtroom with my own ego hoping for an outcome similar to what we had but I also walked in knowing that regardless of what the outcome might have been that this movement was victorious even before we stepped into the courtroom.”