Matt Driscoll

One man committed vile acts at Tacoma detention center. Another does so from the White House

Crowd starts chanting ‘send her back’ at Trump Rally

‘Send her back,’ crowd chants at Rep. Omar during Trump campaign rally in NC
Up Next
‘Send her back,’ crowd chants at Rep. Omar during Trump campaign rally in NC

It’s been nearly a week since 69-year-old Willem Van Spronsen was shot and killed by Tacoma police outside the Northwest Detention Center.

Described diametrically as both a folk singer with a big heart and a man armed with Molotov cocktails and an AR-15-style rifle, Van Spronsen’s demise — and the motives that led to his fatal encounter with police — have been dissected at length ever since.

Aside from the obvious, which bears stating — Van Spronsen’s alleged actions, if described accurately by law enforcement, are indefensible — what seems certain is that those questions will only continue, with satisfying answers proving elusive.

That’s the thing about incomprehensible acts, human complexity, and — ultimately — death. They create breaches we desperately seek to bridge with rationale explanations and meaning, as futile as the task often is.

In Tacoma, meanwhile, home to one of the nation’s largest privately operated immigration detention facilities, we’ve been thrust into the searing national spotlight. For several news cycles, we found ourselves at the epicenter of the country’s boiling immigration debate.

“Increasingly divisive national rhetoric, reports of intensifying U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement actions, and the presence of a detention center in Tacoma that is privately operated under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement create tensions that impact us all,” said Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards and City Manager Elizabeth Pauli in a statement issued after Van Spronsen’s death.

The statement also praised law enforcement officers and urged residents to come together in “open and honest communication.”

In some ways, it’s a standard, boilerplate political response. All true. Obligatory, but unremarkable.

Let the reality of the words and the moment sink in, however, and what you have is a warning and an ominous reminder.

We’re in a deep, dark place, and the truth the statement conveys — just like the burned out vehicle and porta-potty bullet holes that marked the scene of Van Spronsen’s last stand — will one day serve as notches that help historians chart our descent.

We’re being torn apart — limb by limb, and meme by meme — by the Trump administration’s racism and nationalism, and nowhere is that struggle more evident than when it comes to immigration.

In truth, this column isn’t really about Van Spronsen’s actions. Again, if it went down the way it appears, it must be roundly and wholly disavowed. Even if his legitimate concern for immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and housed at the privately operated NWDC led him to act, his actions were wrong by any measure that matters. No excuses.

Still, there’s a broader level to contend with. The mayor and city manager are right. The rhetoric surrounding immigration is increasingly and dangerously divisive.

But the cancer is not found in the way we talk.

It’s found in the White House and the predictable manner in which Trump’s clear and calculated disdain for immigrants has slithered and slimed its way into the mainstream and become the guiding principle for U.S. immigration enforcement policy.

You hear the hallmarks at Trump rallies, in racist chants of “Send her back.” You see the hard evidence of it along the southern border, in pictures of children in cages. You feel the loss of humanity when scrolling through posts made in a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents.

Propublica recently described the latter, where agents “joked about the deaths of migrants, discussed throwing burritos at Latino members of Congress visiting a detention facility in Texas ... and posted a vulgar illustration depicting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez engaged in oral sex with a detained migrant, according to screenshots of their postings.”

“In one exchange,” Propublica’s reporting continued, “group members responded with indifference and wisecracks to the post of a news story about a 16-year-old Guatemalan migrant who died in May while in custody at a Border Patrol station in Weslaco, Texas. One member posted a GIF of Elmo with the quote, ‘Oh well.’ Another responded with an image and the words, ‘If he dies, he dies.’”

This is America, 2019.

Back in Tacoma, we have the ignominious honor of being home to the NWDC, which stands as a massive, 1,500-bed concrete reminder of everything that’s wrong. Whenever we look to the Tideflats, we’ll see it, and we’ll know. Or we should know.

Since news of Van Spronsen’s death broke, many in Tacoma — from the mayor’s office to family dinner tables — have been understandably searching for a path forward. Just like the quest for answers and meaning in the wake of tragedy, it’s a natural response.

The truth of the matter, however, is that there is no path forward until we confront — and extinguish — the vile ugliness Trump has uncorked.

This is the moment we find ourselves in, ready or not.