A group of Rogers Park residents are mobilizing to interrupt and protest immigration raids with the hope of making the process so inefficient for enforcement agents that the federal government will stop trying.
Volunteers behind the effort, called Protect RP, are not the only group attempting to build local responses to possible raids in their neighborhood. Concerned Chicago residents and organizations are lining up locations, such as churches and schools, to offer physical sanctuary for undocumented families who fear deportation. But the Rogers Park group hopes to take its actions one step farther.
Gabe Gonzalez, one of Protect RP’s organizers, said a hyperlocal approach to pressuring Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents could work if protesters understand how raids work and are properly trained to get in the way.
“It’s about interfering with them, confusing them, slowing them down so they can’t take more people,” he said, “and doing it so well that they never want to come back.”
Gonzalez and a team of Protect RP volunteer leaders have developed a training curriculum to prepare Rogers Park residents for physical standoffs against ICE. He believes people have to take risks if they are to put an end to ICE activities in his neighborhood — a strategy that he admits may not be legal, and has some participants concerned.
“The truth is, it’s incredibly ambitious, because it’s not just about providing sanctuary,” Gonzalez said. “We also want to get people to fight them, and that’s going to take a minute. We have to train people up.”
How it works
At Protect RP’s first “resistance training” in March at the Living Water Community Church in Rogers Park, Gonzalez walked roughly 60 people through the chain of events they would have to master for a successful “incursion” on an ICE raid. He and other members of the core organizing team showed participants a video of a previous raid, discussed the various roles needed for Protect RP’s plan to work and even had the group participate in a mock ICE raid and protest.
Gonzalez played a YouTube video of an ICE enforcement action in Chicago, one of many that he said he’s spent hours analyzing. He said his major takeaway is that it could take at least 30 minutes to conduct a typical immigration raid.
“They arrest people and that takes time,” Gonzalez said. “And then when they arrest them, they put shackles and other demeaning artifices on them, and that takes time. And then they put them in a car, and that takes time.”
Gonzalez, a former organizer with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, believes that resisters could assemble en masse at the site of the raid within minutes, before ICE agents have left. He explained to the group that the chain of events would begin with someone, such as a neighbor, alerting the Protect RP hotline to unusual law enforcement activity in the neighborhood, which they suspect could be an immigration raid. Protect RP’s core team would receive the call and dispatch a “trained verifier,” who would document what is happening and discern whether the enforcement action is, in fact, an immigration raid.
Once verified, Protect RP would send out two mass text messages to anyone in the Rogers Park neighborhood who has signed up to receive communications from the network. The first would notify recipients to stay away from the location of the raid if they are vulnerable to deportation. The second would call activists to assemble at the scene.
Gonzalez told people at the training that as the group of resisters begins to grow at the raid, they should make their presence increasingly known and uncomfortable to ICE agents.
“At this point they may decide to get out, and in that case we make it as slow and laborious a process as possible. Oh yeah, we’re going to let them get to their car, but slowly. Right? Slowly move back,” he said. “Until they go home and complain about what jerks we are because they had a plan and now their plan is ruined.”
Gonzalez said perhaps this would convince ICE agents that raids in Rogers Park are so inefficient that they are not worth trying.
Gonzalez and other Protect RP organizers promised participants that the nonviolent civil disobedience techniques they teach typically do not result in arrests in Chicago, but noted that they are not sure federal agents would follow the same rules of engagement with protesters as Chicago police have.
In a statement, an ICE spokeswoman said that “for reasons of officer and public safety, and operational security, ICE does not discuss our methods to counter disturbances trying to interrupt our enforcement actions.”
The statement said that while the agency respects people’s rights to protest peacefully, “ICE will seek to prosecute anyone who unlawfully interferes with our lawful enforcement actions.”
Roles for everyone
Protect RP organizers emphasized the importance of documenting what happens during a raid and maintaining discipline during the on-site protest as they discussed resistance techniques. At one point, volunteers from The People’s Response Team, a community group that calls attention to police violence, led participants in an exercise to practice safely filming law enforcement activities. Later, Gonzalez led the group in a role-playing scenario where a single person appeared to protest the activities of six police. He then added more protesters, until they nearly surrounded police.
“If you’re the first person that’s going to be there, it’s going to be an uncomfortable moment,” he told the group.
Marissa Graciosa, another organizer with Protect RP, said that at each protest people will have to assume specific roles. She said one role will be that of the Documentarians, who films law enforcement actions. Coordinators will direct the action at the protests, handle any contingencies that may arise, and keep people focused on the goal of slowing ICE agents down. Marshals would conduct the protests, by chanting and taking direction from the coordinators, and ensure that discipline remains throughout the action. Participants split into three group for specialized discussion about each of these roles.
Still, some volunteers said they had significant fears about confronting ICE agents head on. “I’ve been in handcuffs and I’ve been put into a cell for 48 hours,” said one man. “It’s really hard for me to see [law enforcement agents] as people. I see them as storm troopers.”
Graciosa assured participants that there are roles for everyone. For example, those who are fearful of arrest could help to staff Protect RP’s 24-hour hotline to receive calls about suspected ICE raids in the neighborhood.
How to stay safe
Gonzalez and Graciosa said organizers from other places in the Chicago area, including Evanston, West Ridge, Albany Park and Logan Square, have contacted them about conducting similar trainings since the one in Rogers Park. They said they’re making all their training materials freely available to anyone who asks.
Gonzalez said this kind of enthusiasm has been affirming, but in building Protect RP he was surprised to find that the challenges came from some expected allies, including local houses of worship.
Protect RP co-founder Torrence Gardner said they had hoped churches would agree to provide temporary shelter for undocumented immigrants who may fear returning home when there is an immigration raid in the neighborhood. ICE generally avoids conducting raids on the premises of churches and schools. So far, Gonzalez said only three churches have agreed.
“We’ve got enough that we can work with and achieve the goals that we set out to do. But we were pretty disappointed with a lot of them,” he said. “There was fear and a lot of conservatism.”
Gonzalez, Graciosa and Gardner said they feel that the logistical aspects of Protect RP’s rapid response are ready, such as the mass text communication system and the hotline. But ultimately, Gonzalez said, the strength of their effort may not be in building that infrastructure, but in gathering Rogers Park residents into the meetings to sit together, talk together and focus on a common goal.
“One of the big takeaways for me was how much time we spent helping build community,” he said. “The way we really stay safe… is by knowing each other. By having community. By being able to recognize each other on the street and know who’s missing.”
Still, Protect RP plans more trainings in Rogers Park. Graciosa estimated that at least 150 people will have received resistance training this spring.
“All we can ask people is to get ready,” said Gonzalez, “and then hopefully never use it.”
Odette Yousef is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her at @oyousef.