On Tuesday afternoon, the sun beat down on a huge crowd of people outside the Bishop Henry Whipple Federal Building in St. Paul.
Some were wearing yarmulkes, and some were carrying signs that said “Abolish ICE” or “My people were immigrants, too.” Some were even merrily playing marching tunes on tubas, trombones, and a spunky piccolo.
Excitement was in the air, even joyfulness, as the group made their way into the middle of the street and effectively blocked dozens of cars trying to start their commute home. A few cars lingered in a line by a sign that said “RESTRICTED ENTRY, I.C.E. ONLY” and occasionally honked. It was about all they could do at the moment.
One of the protesters, an organizer who goes by Track and uses they/them pronouns, says they were there because what’s happening at the southern border and dozens of Immigration Customs Enforcement (better known as ICE) centers across the United States is “an absolute atrocity.”
Track, dozens of Jews, and allies from across the Twin Cities were there to demand to close the camps, defund ICE, and ensure “permanent protection” for all immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers.
“I have family who have escaped from concentration camps during the Holocaust,” Track says—and family that didn’t make it. It’s therefore their responsibility, they add, to stand up against what they see as a grave injustice in the current day.
“The goal is really to call upon the lessons we, as Jews, have learned from the Holocaust,” organizer Leah Soule says—that “the separation of families” and the “rounding up of people” and the “creation of concentration camps” can lead down dark, familiar roads.
There’s a hesitance, especially in conservative circles, to compare the current-day detention of immigrants in the United States to what happened during the Holocaust. Minnesotan Congressman Jim Hagedorn bristled when one of his constituents referred to detention facilities as “concentration camps” during a recent town hall in Olmsted County.
And, many of the protesters say, there’s good reason to use that designation carefully. They don’t invoke the history of the Holocaust lightly. But many see immigrant detention, which has been reaching record numbers, as a “worrying trend,” especially amid reports of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in some camps. Already, 24 people have died in ICE custody during the Trump administration alone.
Not everyone feels that way. Over the course of the afternoon, the protesters, cheery as they seemed, were bombarded by blaring horns and curses by drivers attempting to pass by. One man in a car shouted at them to “get a job.” Another yelled “fuck you guys,” and a third speedily drove down a length of sidewalk to avoid them. Some cars passed only inches away from the nearest human body, slinking along as if they wouldn’t be noticed.
One particular man in a truck, stuck right by a crowd of protesters, leaned on his horn in an attempt to drown out the drums, the chanting, the refrains of “Whose Side Are You On?” With each blast, the group shouted louder, until the combined din was deafening. He kept at it, smoking a cigarette and flipping off random individuals in the crowd, for at least half an hour. Across the street, a state trooper waited in a van with its lights blinking.
There was no denying the protesters were in the way. That was the point. Soule says they wanted to disrupt “business as usual” for ICE, and by extension, for everyone. They understood that by doing this, they weren’t endearing themselves to those around them—and that they were risking arrest. According to a press release later issued by Twin Cities Never Again Action, 27 people ended up with citations.
Still, the cheers were continuing to soar an hour and a half into the proceedings, while some bemused government employees quietly looked on and made other plans for the evening.