Tuesday morning was among the first truly cold days in October.
That’s when about 300 people, bundled up in coats and hats, sang, cheered, and shuffled toward the Bishop Henry Whipple Federal Building at Fort Snelling. That’s where you’ll find the Minneapolis offices of Immigration and Customs and Enforcement, better known as ICE.
The crowd was eclectic. There were several faith-based organizations present, including the Interfaith Coalition on Immigration, the Episcopal Church of Minnesota, and more. The crowd included Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and other faiths, all of whom had one message for the folks inside.
Either the name “Henry Whipple” or “ICE” had to come off that sign.
Whipple was the Diocese of Minnesota’s first bishop back in 1859, but he’s best known for ministering to the Dakota and Ojibwe people in the area. At a time when the U.S. government was forcing Native people onto reservations and withholding the payments promised for their lands, he dubbed the U.S. Indian Administration a “stupendous piece of wickedness” and called for extensive reform.
He was also among those who opposed the mass execution of 303 Dakota men during the U.S.-Dakota War. While many white Minnesotans threatened to take to the streets if they weren’t killed, Whipple wrote letters to President Lincoln, other government officials, and the press arguing that the government had no right to take their lives—that it had been the U.S. who had stoked the conflict in the first place through years of broken treaties. (Thirty-eight were still killed, and it remains the largest mass execution in the history of the nation.)
That isn’t to say Whipple was a perfect ally. Far from it. He had a pretty paternalistic, white-saviorish attitude toward Native people. His goal had been to “civilize” them and teach them to live like white European Americans, supposedly rescuing them from poverty, alcoholism, and so-called “spiritual wandering.” But at the very least, he saw them as people. He cared whether they lived or died.
Minnesota’s Walter Mondale was a junior senator when he proposed naming the building after Whipple to honor his efforts to save Native lives. Now that it’s a “deportation machine,” Interfaith volunteer Daniel Romero says, it’s no longer a fitting tribute.
“Families are torn apart there,” he says. “Immigrants appear there… in tears, often without legal representation. That is not the legacy Bishop Whipple would want to be honored for.”
The protesters gathered first outside the building, held a quick worship service, and then proceeded toward the back entrance, where detainees are brought into the facility. The intent was to serve communion to any of the detainees who wanted it. As you can see on the livestream, they were quickly stopped by a Department of Homeland Security vehicle pulling into their path with its lights flashing.
It was all very calm. Nobody shouted or pushed. The officer had a quick conversation with some of the faith leaders as members of the crowd sang in soft harmonies and prayed. But they were told in “no uncertain terms” they wouldn’t be allowed to proceed any further. Allowing the detainees to come out and take communion in the parking lot was also out of the question.
So the crowd shuffled away and closed the proceedings with a press conference. This wouldn’t be the end, leaders said. They would organize to get Whipple’s name off the building, and to make Minnesota a sanctuary state. A task force is already in the making.
Reverend Jim Bear Jacobs of the Minnesota Council of Churches is heartened by the amount of media attention the movement is getting. As an ordained minister, he feels compelled to seek justice and reform. As a Native American man from a tribe now located in central Wisconsin, he has his own feelings about the rapid escalation of immigration enforcement.
“The U.S. government made over 400 treaties with indigenous people across this land, and it’s broken every single one of them,” he says. There’s a certain hypocrisy, he says—or, at least, a shortness of memory—in that same governing body deciding who is and is not “legal” here. As he stood with many others outside of a detention facility, beside a sign that read “Whipple,” he could feel the irony as keenly as the cold.
“Conversations around immigration reform are missing the first stories of this land,” he says.