Anarchist first to be killed fighting US concentration camps

US anarchists paid tribute today to Will Van Spronsen, who was killed while carrying out a raid against a migrant concentration camp in Tacoma, Washington State. Van Spronsen is thought to be the first person killed attempting to take direct action against the US deportation system, which for months has faced heavy criticism over its use of concentration camps to break up families and detain migrant children.

The 69-year-old, known as an anti-fascist and campaigner against migrant detention, was shot dead by four police officers as he attempted to set fire to deportation buses stationed at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC), a few hours after a peaceful protest against the facility had been held.

The private immigration prison, run by GEO on behalf of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is notorious for falling short on basic human rights law and has seen repeated protests from local activists calling for its closure. It is also known for holding parents who have been separated from their children under Donald Trump’s widely hated “zero-tolerance” migration policy.

Friends of Van Spronsen, who lived at Vashon Island near Seattle, said he was well-liked and thoughtful character who cared deeply about those on the receiving end of State brutality. In a statement, Puget Sound Anarchists said:

All we know about what lead up to this comes from the cops, who are notoriously corrupt and unreliable sources for such a narrative. The story that we do have is that Will attempted to set fire to several vehicles, outbuildings and a propane tank outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma which houses hundreds of immigrants awaiting hearings or deportations. He successfully set one vehicle on fire and then exchanged gunfire with Tacoma police officers who fatally shot him. He was pronounced dead on the scene.

We find his actions inspiring. The vehicles outside the detention facility are used to forcibly remove people from their homes and deport them, often to situations where they will face severe danger or death. Those vehicles being destroyed is only a start of what is needed. We wish the fires Will set had freed all the inmates and razed the entire Northwest Detention Center to the ground. And we miss our friend and wish from the bottom of our hearts that his action had not ended in his death.

Will Van Spronsen was a long-time anarchist, anti-fascist and a kind, loving person. Here in Olympia some of us remember him as a skilled tarp structure builder from the Occupy encampment in 2011. Others remember him from the protests outside the NWDC last summer where he was accused of lunging at a cop and wrapping his arms around the officer’s neck and shoulders, as the officer was trying to arrest a 17-year-old protester. The very next day when he was released from jail he came right back to the encampment outside the center to support the other protesters. He is also remembered as a patient and thoughtful listener who was always willing to hear people out.

We are grief stricken, inspired and enraged by what occurred early this morning. ICE imprisons, tortures and deports hundreds of thousands of people and the brutality and scale of their harm is only escalating. We need every form of resistance, solidarity and passion to fight against ICE and the borders that they defend. Will gave his life fighting ICE we may never know what specifically was going through his head in the last hours of his life but we know that the NWDC must be destroyed and the prisoners must be freed. We do not need heroes, only friends and comrades. Will was simply a human being, and we wish that he was still with us. It’s doubtless that the cops and the media will attempt to paint him as some sort of monster, but in reality he was a comrade who fought for many years for what he believed in and this morning he was killed doing what he loved; fighting for a better world.

Around 30 people connected to the group responded to the killing of Van Spronsen with a spontaneous gathering at Percival landing in Olympia to remember him and oppose ICE, sharing stories and memories. Some people split off and plastered downtown Olympia with “Immigrants Welcome” stickers, while others drove circles around downtown flying the “Rest in Power Will” from the back of a truck.

A second statement from La Resistencia, a grassroots collective led by undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens based in Tacoma dedicated to ending the detention and deportation of immigrants, noted:

Today marks yet another death linked to the detention center, and another death at the hands of the police. Based on available information, including the police scanner recording, Willem Van Spronsen, the protestor killed, appears to have been targeting not the detention center itself, as has been widely reported in the media, but the parking lot across the street from the detention center which houses the NWDC’s transportation infrastructure. This infrastructure includes a fleet of buses that transports immigrants to be caged at the detention center, and that transports immigrants from the detention center to the Yakima Airport, from which they are deported.

Mr. Van Spronsen was apparently trying to set the deportation buses on fire when he was shot and killed. His actions sadly reflect the level of desperation people across this country feel about the government’s outrageous violence against immigrants, which includes the use of detention centers to cage migrants both currently living in the US and those seeking asylum. This death results from the federal government’s unresponsiveness to the anger and despair people feel at the horrors unfolding both at the border and in the interior, and from the inability of officers to de-escalate rather than shooting to kill.

But for the City of Tacoma allowing the GEO Group’s facility to be built and expanded in Tacoma, this death, and the death and suffering of those inside the detention center would have been avoided. The NWDC has become a liability not just for the tens of thousands who have been caged there, but for the city of Tacoma itself. It’s past time for the city of Tacoma to cancel GEO’s business license. It’s clear that this “business” is a deadly one, that has only brought pain and suffering to our region.

La Resistencia calls on the City of Tacoma to hold immediate public hearings addressing the Tacoma Police’s actions today that resulted in the loss of life at the Detention Center and why the City continues to allow GEO to operate with a city business license.

A friend of Van Spronsen, Deb Bartley, told the Seattle Times she had been among several friends who got letters in the mail from him saying goodbye: “He was ready to end it. I think this was a suicide. But then he was able to kind of do it in a way that spoke to his political beliefs. I know he went down there knowing he was going to die.”

William van Spronsen performing at Vashon Island, Seattle in 2012

Pics: Common Language Project and Puget Sound Anarchists.