On April 27th, at 11 AM, I was in one of about 70 cars snaking their way out of the Giant parking lot at University Mall in Fairfax, Virginia. Signs on our cars read “Liberation not Deportation,” “Fund Public Health Not Incarceration,” “Detention + COVID19 = Death,” and #FreeThemAll. We flashed our hazard lights, honked our horns and followed each other as closely as we safely could across the city.
The action was planned by Sanctuary DMV, La ColectiVA, Northern Virginia Democratic Socialists of America, and Standing Up for Racial Justice Northern Virginia. We had gathered on that cold and windy morning to demand the immediate release of every single person in prison, jail, or a detention center in Virginia. We were intent on taking that message directly to officials we knew could have an impact.
In late March, we had heard from about 100 people at the immigrant detention center in Farmville, VA who were participating in a hunger strike demanding that everyone be immediately released. The hunger strike was brutally quashed with familiar tactics of solitary confinement despite a chorus of support from local and national organizations, as well as Virginia State Delegates.
Inspired by protests I was attending in DC with the No New Jails Coalition demanding the release of those in prisons, halfway houses, and juvenile detention facilities in the city, I proposed that we put together an action focused on the intimately intertwined issues of immigration detention and incarceration. The call to #FreeThemAll, has echoed across the country as thousands of people have defied stay at home orders and found new ways to take to the streets while keeping themselves and others safe.
We decided that we could lift up the voices of those detained in Farmville and those trapped in jails and prisons to demand that everyone imprisoned in Virginia be freed.
This bold demand was driven by fear — fear that people we knew and people we didn’t would die locked up during the pandemic sweeping the world. This fear came from the knowledge that people were dying in these places from abuse, gross neglect and denial of medical care long before the pandemic reached this country. Our fear came from the calls we were getting from people in the Farmville detention center who told us how scared they were, that there was a dorm that was under quarantine, but no one would tell them anything. It came from hearing every day that the way to keep ourselves safe from the deadly coronavirus was to socially distance and wash our hands, but knowing that social distancing is impossible when you are forced to live in a cage with other people.
But our demand was also driven by hope. I hope for a city, a state, a country where our communal response to harm is rooted in compassion, reparations, and a belief in human growth. I hope to live in a place that welcomes immigrants and refugees instead of punishing people for where they were born. And I helped plan this protest because I dared to hope that others shared my dreams and were willing to take action to make them a reality. Close to a hundred people did.
The car caravan traveled to the Fairfax County Jail, then on to the regional office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and finally to Virginia Senator Mark Warner’s office. We broadcast and communicated through zoom, where we were joined by dozens more people. We gave dispatches from the ground, and at each location, organizers explained the role that those targets played in maintaining the system condemning people to danger and death due to their inaction.
We told people how Fairfax County hands people over to ICE despite years of community outrage, and how easily the county could change this policy of compliance. We told them that Senator Warner has been asked to join other members of Congress in calling for prisoners to be freed but has never responded despite Congress’s ability to fully defund our cruel immigration detention and deportation machine.
We knew there was a risk we could be arrested. In the days before our protest, armed right-wing groups gathered together in front of Virginia’s capitol without being arrested despite statewide orders to stay inside except for essential activities. But we know that laws aren’t enforced equally.
And indeed, before we even left the parking lot, there were police lurking nearby. As we drove, police pulled over several of our cars and ticketed drivers for blocking traffic. One included a misdemeanor charge. And as banners were unfurled in front of Senator Warner’s office reading “Sen. Warner Defund ICE/CBP” and “#FreeThemAll,” building security called the police who arrived to threaten us with arrest.
But we were willing to take that risk, because it was important to us to stand in solidarity with all of those who are caged and punished for speaking out. We drove in solidarity with the hunger strikers and with all those who had already gotten sick or even died and their families.
Five people have tested positive in ICE custody in Virginia despite a shockingly low rate of testing. 719 adults have tested positive in jails and prisons in the state, of which five have died. This is not including the 30 children who have tested positive in Juvenile detention. Physicians have labeled medical care provided by the Virginian Department of Corrections and by ICE “substandard” and have joined the call for decarceration. Across these systems, those who test positive for COVID-19 are moved into isolation, even though solitary confinement is inhumane and unlawful.
We were driven by the conviction that the only humane option is to release everyone so they can safely socially distance at home.
In my experience as an activist, Frederick Douglass’ words have consistently held true. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” and “If there is no struggle there is no progress.” Even in this time of deadly crisis, those who cage members of our communities won’t release them just because we ask nicely or make persuasive arguments.
But those in power may release them if we make it uncomfortable enough for them not to, if they find they can’t escape us. We’ve seen this happen in various places across the country as protests have forced officials to release people from jails and prisons in dozens of cities and states and immigration detention has fallen to the lowest level during the Trump Administration.
The coronavirus has made responsible direct action much harder. It is more difficult to disrupt meetings, to block business as usual, to throw our bodies on the gears of these cruel machines. But it is not impossible. As the recent week of climate action showed us, we can still take our voices, our vehicles, our art and our bodies to where decision-makers are.
And that’s what we’ll do. We’ll find creative ways to take action while protecting ourselves and others from infection. As long as the travesty of incarceration continues, we’ll keep up the drumbeat in DC, Maryland, Virginia and be joining people across the country with a clear and strident demand — Free them all.
Kathryn Johnson is a queer, non-binary anarchist who has spent the last 20 years protesting and organizing around issues related to incarceration, trade, immigration and US foreign policy. They also did an 8 year stint as a lobbyist in DC for human rights and humane immigration policies before getting completely fed up with the US Congress.