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Protesting ICE in Portland

It’s one-thirty in the morning. I just got home from the Portland Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility, where dozens of people are camping out to protest the draconian detention of immigrants into our country. A double row of twenty or so tents lines the back of the building. There are tents for food and water. Some bookshelves show the beginnings of a community lending library. Dogs wander among the people sitting up late talking or lying down to catch a few hours of sleep. It looks like a group gathering for the long haul.

When I arrived, I wandered a little on my own and then sat on a wall to a get a feel for the place. Behind me some music softly played. Some tables of religious candles marked the spot where a vigil took place earlier in the evening. A sign reminded those present about praying for the reunification of children and their families, the absurd and inhumane policy of the Trump administration. Despite what the president has insisted again and again, this violation of families is not a matter of law, but rather of policy. Even if it were a matter of law, however, prosecutorial discretion allows officials to make judgment calls about how, when, and where to enforce it. And even though asylum-seekers crossing the border at unauthorized locations is indeed against the law, it’s a misdemeanor—so the current policy is a lot like separating parents from their children for a traffic violation.

Finally, I approached a small group that let me sit on the sidewalk and talk with them. They told me that the demonstration began with five people on Sunday. Maybe a hundred were there for the vigil. Several said they were going home for the night but would return tomorrow. Many more arrived during my hour or so there.

I wanted to walk around more of the grounds, but my new friends suggested that, given the way I look, it would be better if I didn’t wander among the tents. I got what they meant—I’m white, male, and old (the median age there is probably less than half my 57 years); hell, if I were among them, I wouldn’t trust me either. It’s a bunch of guys who look like me who’ve ushered us into this dismal situation. So I went around the front of the building to look for some more campers. The sidewalks are lined with protest signs against ICE tactics, including two planted at the front entrance. Up the hill, there was another open tent and more people sitting up late talking.

The second group I spoke with included a very vocal young man who is committed to continue showing up after work, staying late, and then going home to get some sleep so he can return after work the next day. Although the group seems to function with the kind of egalitarian ethos of the Occupy Wall Street movement, there are point people to help make sure lines of communication stay open. I take it that this young man was one of them because someone came up and handed him a walkie-talkie. Soon a couple more people joined the group and started talking strategy. He pointed out that I was there, so I offered to leave because I didn’t want to get in the way of their good work.

Quite a bit of the talk I heard tonight ran toward pessimism about where we’re going as a people and the forces at work among us. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but discern some signs of hope, which is not the same as optimism, something that the great literary critic Terry Eagleton has written about brilliantly. Optimism is an assumption that everything is fine and is going to be fine. Hope is a commitment to remain dedicated to the good regardless of how bad things look. The fact that these people were setting up their tent city to demonstrate for social justice and simple humanity is one of the greatest signs of hope I’ve seen in a long time.