The spirit of solidarity at NORCOR

Jordan Weinstein reports from Oregon on a demonstration organized to show support for hunger-striking immigrant detainees being held at a prison.

A picket outside the NORCOR prison where immigrant detainees went on hunger strike (Gisela Rodriguez Fernandez)A picket outside the NORCOR prison where immigrant detainees went on hunger strike (Gisela Rodriguez Fernandez)

THE NORTHERN Oregon Regional Correctional Facility (NORCOR) is an austere, windowless compound, surrounded by barbed-wire-topped fencing and located on the literal wrong side of the tracks in The Dalles, Oregon, on the Columbia River.

It has gained national attention recently because of a hunger strike initiated on April 30 by a handful of its inmates. The hunger strike reportedly ended on May 5 after officials agreed to several demands.

These hunger strikers aren't part of the corrections system of Wasco, Hood River, Sherman, or Gilliam counties, the area NORCOR serves. They are Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees, and some of them were transferred from the even more infamous Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, in retaliation for participating in the hunger strike there.

As in Tacoma, the NORCOR hunger strikers were protesting inhumane conditions and unfair treatment as a result of their undocumented status.

At NORCOR, the ICE detainees are treated differently from other inmates, even though they are housed together. They are denied the opportunity to work for pay, which means they cannot afford the $0.25 a minute rate for phone calls, nor can they afford socks, which are not provided, but must be bought from the commissary.

They are also denied access to mental health and educational programs that other inmates are offered, and the closest they get to spending time outside is in a high-walled, roofless room, meaning they can't see anything but a patch of sky directly overhead.

The demands of the hunger strike were simple enough: adequate food, lower commissary prices in order to purchase necessary hygiene products, contact visits (they can only interact with their families via video camera) and no retaliation from ICE or prison officials.

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DESPITE THE somber issues at stake, the mood was celebratory on May 6 at a rally called by Gorge ICE Resistance, a local coalition formed in response to the detainees' action. The rally was initially called to offer moral support to the hunger strikers, but was turned into a victory celebration when the NORCOR administration conceded to some of the demands, and the strike ended.

Officials reportedly agreed to provide ICE detainees with several requested amenities, including a microwave and access to music players. They also promised to allow them access to some of the facility's programs, including anger management, substance abuse treatment, parenting and cognitive behavioral restructuring therapy.

Around 150 people turned out for the May 6 rally--some from over 100 miles away--bearing signs and enthusiasm and representing a slew of local, state, and national organizations.

Apart from the organizations involved in Gorge ICE Resistance--which include religious, immigrant rights, feminist, environmental, and political causes--the rally received support from the Rural Organizing Project (ROP) and its allies, including the local farmworkers' union Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, the ACLU of Oregon and others.

In addition, members of many more organizations turned out on the day of the rally, including Jobs with Justice, Jewish Voice for Peace and a contingent from the Portland International Socialist Organization.

It was a heartening display of cross-cause collaboration, proving that on this issue, there is recognition of the old labor slogan that "An injury to one is an injury to all."

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ABOUT HALFWAY through the rally, organizers placed a step stool in the middle of the crowd and invited key leaders to speak. Jessica Campbell of the ROP shared statements from detainees, which had been collected by ACLU lawyers that morning.

One said, "When I get out of here, I want to be able to help other people like me. The work that all of you are doing is inspiring, and it's what I want to do now." Another said, "Thank you for your support and everything you've done. We have to stay united and fight for what we believe is right."

With the windowless, thick-walled prison in the background, it was a relief to know that the detainees were aware of our presence, even if they couldn't see or hear us.

One of the main organizers of Gorge ICE Resistance, Solea Kabakov, had rally attendees pull out their phones and leave messages for Gov. Kate Brown and state Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, expressing our displeasure at the way our tax dollars are being used, and asking them to investigate whether NORCOR is in violation of a state law that prohibits the use of state resources to enforce federal immigration policy. Standing in the crowd and listening to the swell of voices leaving messages was a powerful experience.

Unlike the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, which is privately run by a company called GEO Group, NORCOR is a public facility.

Speaking to Kabakov after, she stated that the hunger strike had brought new information to light for the community, including the horrible conditions and the government's use of the tactic of moving detainees back and forth between facilities to break their support structures. "[It's our] tax dollars going to illegal detainment," she said. "We have every right to be angry."

One of the last and most moving speakers of the day was Ramon Ramirez, president of the local farmworkers' union. He talked about the crucial role immigrants play in the state of Oregon, and in The Dalles specifically:

You see all of those trees over there? Those are cherry trees and pear trees that are picked by thousands and thousands of farmworkers who travel across America to come here and feed Oregonians...and this what we give them--we put them in facilities like this. Who in their right mind is going to come and work here?

Farmworkers, immigrant workers are the backbone of the agriculture industry in this state. Trump says, "Oh, we're going to go after the big bad hombres," right? That's bullshit. The first thing that happened in our state was they took out 16 farmworkers--people who were going to work. And this is what we do--this is how we pay them. We put them in this facility or in Tacoma. There's something wrong with that picture.

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IN INTERVIEWS, local residents described their support for immigrants in The Dalles. One member of Gorge ICE Resistance, Beverly, a self-described "new activist as of November 9," talked about how people might assume a small town like The Dalles would be intolerant towards immigrants, but that it's quite the opposite.

Rosanna Schneider of Gorge ReSisters agreed, saying, "People working with immigrants [in this area] understand the value they bring. And it's the programs that support immigrants that bring the crops in."

Schneider also spoke about the interconnectedness of the immigrant rights struggle with other struggles. Standing in her "Modern Suffragette" T-shirt, with the word "FEMINIST" tattooed in all-caps on her arm, she explained how her deep concern for women's and family issues led her to co-found Gorge ReSisters, along with her friend Amber Rose--and to join Gorge ICE Resistance.

Gorge ICE Resistance has demonstrated its commitment to fighting for the detainees at NORCOR and for immigrants in general. Despite its short existence--having formed when local activists got word from allies in Tacoma that the hunger strike would be spreading to NORCOR--activists in the group have secured a headquarters, set up a Facebook page and listserve to provide updates on the rapidly evolving situation, and staged daily rallies to show support for detainees.

With help from the ACLU, the group is now applying pressure to make sure NORCOR's concessions are actually carried out--as of May 6, according to a detainee statement, conditions in the facility had not changed. The goal, following the model of activists in Tacoma, is to support detainees in whatever way possible, but also to "keep the pressure on" local and state officials, making it clear that the community wants ICE out of NORCOR.

There was a very positive response to radical statements made by signs and speakers. Solidarity and the spirit of collective struggle were on the minds and lips of much of the crowd.

The lessons from the coalition are important, including building actions that are inviting, accessible and truly family-friendly; forging relationships with other organizations; and combining strengths and resources to mobilize for causes that matter. This is the way to build our numbers on the left and strengthen our movement.

In her brief remarks to the crowd, Rosanna Schneider talked about how rallies like this one were her form of "self-care." People are finding their voices and beginning to push back against the horrifying tactics of intimidation and destruction of families. And that is only one of many, many fronts of this struggle.

Ramon Ramirez ended his address to the crowd with a call-and-response reading of César Chávez's "Prayer of the Farm Workers' Struggle." A few of the lines encapsulated the feeling of the day:

Bring forth song and celebration;
So that the spirit will be alive among us.
Let the spirit flourish and grow;
So we will never tire of the struggle.