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When Democracy Wins

Residents of the small town of Springfield, Or., band together to end jail contract with ICE

As a longtime ally but newly woke activist, I found myself sitting in the Springfield, Oregon, City Council chambers as they were getting ready to vote on whether to amend the city’s controversial contract to provide jail beds to ICE.

First, a little bit of background. Springfield, with a population of 62,000, is thought of as the more conservative sister city to progressive, liberal Eugene across the river. Its poorer, more rural, logging and working-class roots have sometimes earned it the derogatory moniker “Springtucky.” Twelve percent of the population is Hispanic. Since 2012 the city has had a contract to provide jail beds to ICE. Although unclear, the city has maintained that this contract does not run counter to Oregon’s 30-year-old sanctuary laws which prohibit the use of state and local resources to enforce federal immigration law if a person’s only crime is being in the country illegally. Officials maintain that because ICE pays for these beds, local resources i.e., dollars are not used, making them compliant with the sanctuary law. Activists have been pushing hard for the last year to change this, attending City Council meetings on several occasions. At the time of this meeting a “compromise” amendment was being voted on that if passed, would mean ICE beds would only be used to house violent detainees.

The place was PACKED. Clearly the events of the last few weeks had brought people out. You could feel the energy. Lots of people were wearing red. The mayor Christine Lundberg started by saying there were 250 people in a room meant for 180, but the fire chief said he would allow it if everyone agreed to be civil — which I think meant no clapping, jeering etc. — and to limit comments to two minutes from only Springfield residents. There was easily another 100 people watching remotely from another room.

A lot of people spoke. Nurses, teachers, librarians, teenagers, my old accountant, now a minister with a size able parish, all weighed in as well as members from labor organizations and the Democratic Party. A couple of people said that they would never have voted for the jail levy if they had known it meant beds going to ICE. A respected nurse who runs a low-income clinic shared a story about a Latino man who came to them when he was having a heart attack because he was afraid of being detained if he went to the hospital.

By far and away the most powerful comments came from local Latinx youth, probably in their twenties and thirties. One talked about being racially profiled while driving. After handing over her license, registration and insurance, she was asked for her social security number — I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be able to recite this when I was 16. You could see the police chief listening intently. Two others talked about personal experiences they had had with ICE and the terror they felt when agents removed family members from their homes. One brave young woman came out as undocumented. Not one person spoke out in support of Springfield maintaining their ICE contract. Well maybe one did but he was so incoherent it was a little unclear where he stood. The mayor made sure everyone got a chance to speak.

When the councilors started talking it became clear that more than one of them had been swayed to cancel the ICE contract. Up until that point, it was definitely anyone’s game. Before the testimony most people thought it would be a 3-3 split with the mayor breaking the tie. The council’s talk had centered around amending the contract or suspending it until later in the year after further research had been carried out. I’m pretty sure most of the activists there were not expecting this outcome. It was the best of all possible scenarios. When the vote came down and it was unanimously in favor of cancelling the contract, the whole room stood up and clapped. People were jubilant. It was a wonderful moment of democracy in action.

Afterwards, when we were outside the room, someone got a chair for a young Latino organizer (one of the children whose dad had been caught in a dragnet operation is Springfield in the nineties). He stood on it and with characteristic Latino grace asked the crowd to write and thank the City Council for their vote. Everyone was so happy. We had stood up together and said that ICE was not welcome in our community, and our representatives listened. We used our voices to chase the bullies out of town. And it occurred to me that, in these dark times, when we think that only the voting booth will save us, we may be selling ourselves short. It’s far easier to vote for hate and bigotry in the privacy of the voting booth and harder to go that way when you have to look your neighbor — in this case, hundreds of them — in the eye. Communities can band together, like Springfield did, to both protect their vulnerable neighbors and stand up for human rights. Resistance at the local level might just be what saves us.

Jewel Murphy is a small business owner, organizer of art trips to Mexico, artist, and newly woke activist.

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