BUFFALO, NY – Police arrested nine people at a large demonstration protesting the US government’s migrant detention camps yesterday. A crowd of more than a hundred people gathered in front of the local office of the Department of Homeland Security on Delaware street at around noon to demand that Congressional leaders and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) close the detention camps on the United States’ southern border immediately.

Initially, officers from the Buffalo Police Department and the DHS Police stood by in flak vests, brandishing assault rifles and nightsticks. “The police seemed uncertain about what to do, and first moved into the intersection, then backed up after someone in a white shirt told them to back up,” an eyewitness said. “They blocked off the street and stood and watched as about half of the crowd occupied the intersection.”

Organized by Jewish Voice for Peace, Justice for Migrant Families WNY, and the New York Immigration Coalition, the demonstration drew a broad cross-section of Buffalonians. “The bulk of the protesters were academic types, moms with kids in strollers, and professionals,” an eyewitness said.

They assembled to demand action from their political leaders, particularly Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Many made an impassioned moral case for immigration justice. “The America I know is a beacon to the oppressed… That was true when my great grandparents fled Russia at the turn of the 20th Century, and when my wife’s grandparents fled the Nazis a generation later.” Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein said. “To see the conditions our own government has kept people in along the border is horrifying and reminiscent of what my own family endured in places where they lived before they arrived. The time calls on us to speak out. I do so not only as a rabbi and as a Jew, but as American.”

Protesters spoke of their own visceral sense of shock and disgust at the revelations of conditions in the camps. Many are particularly outraged by the treatment of immigrant children in the border facilities. “As a mother, it’s been difficult to see the images of children detained and suffering, and not think of my own,” Whitney Crispell said. “I am here today because there is no reason – none, whatsoever – that families and children should be treated this inhumanely.”

After 2:00 pm, as the crowd began to thin, a number of demonstrators began to sit in the middle of the intersection of Delaware Ave. and Chippewa Street. “I’m risking arrest today because I’m a biologist who knows that climate change causes crop failures that turn farmers into refugees,” said Sandra Steingraber, Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY. “I’m risking arrest today because my father fought Nazis in Europe and taught me not to be a good German. I’m risking arrest today because I’m a mother who knows that children are not criminals.”

Buffalo Police drag a demonstrator away. (Photo © Whitney Crispell)

She was joined by Colleen Boland, a 63-year-old veteran from Trumansburg. “While serving in the Army and the Air Force, I traveled to many countries with egregious human rights abuses,” Boland said. “These images are forever seared in my mind. And as a veteran, I now see the same images here at home? Shame on our political leaders for allowing inhumane detention camps within our borders. Enough.”

That was when the police, who had already blocked the street to traffic, moved in. “It seemed to me like the cops made arrests because they had stood around for so long and wanted to be seen to be doing something,” an eyewitness said. “The batons and machine gun were overkill – nobody was acting violently, or even belligerently.”

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown later commented that the aggressive police response was warranted because the peaceful protestors had blocked the flow of downtown commerce. Police roughly handcuffed and arrested nine people, including Steingrabber and Boland.

A smaller group of protesters occupied Sen. Schumer’s local office and read a list a list of demands. “The Department of Homeland Security visited these camps in June and released a report calling the condition ‘dangerous’ and ‘a ticking time bomb,’” said Jennifer Connor, an organizer of the protest and Executive Director of Justice for Migrant Families. “We demand that DHS acts immediately on the advice of its inspector general and close the camps today, and that Congressional Leaders like Senator Schumer do everything in their power to see it happen.”

The Buffalo protests were organized to coincide with nationwide demonstrations planned for today and Saturday. More than 600 Lights for Liberty events will take place in the United States and around the world. Immigration advocates, immigrants and other activists will speak at each event, starting at 7:00 pm, local time. At 9:00 pm, participants will light candles and begin a vigil for people detained in US government camps.

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Leader Photo © Molly J. Giblin