Photos and story by Brooke Anderson
Brooke Anderson is a Bay Area-based photojournalist. She can be found on Instagram at @movementphotographer and Twitter at @movementphotog
As COVID-19 outbreaks rip through jails, prisons, and immigration detention centers across the U.S., activists are taking to the streets – in socially-distanced car protests – to call for the immediate release of incarcerated loved ones who are not able to maintain social distance from others or to sanitize their immediate surroundings.
However, many abolitionists say the demand for #CareNotCages is not simply a strategy to survive the coronavirus. Pandemic or not, policing and punishment will never be compatible with public health. As many of the protestors state below, they were riding not just to free their loved ones or to close this jail or that detention center, but to advance an abolitionist vision of a world free of state violence in all its insidious forms. We must #FreeThemAll, end the violence of policing, and mobilize to both demonstrate and work toward a liberatory future.
I’ve photographed nearly a dozen of these car protests across the Bay Area in the last two months. Protestors caravanned to “Empty Santa Rita Jail” in Dublin, CA, called for an end to ICE transfers out of Maguire Jail in Redwood City, projected messages opposing the Sheriff’s budget on the County building in Oakland, denounced the brutal police murder of a black man in San Leandro, staged a noisy demo outside a bond hearing for a domestic violence survivor in immigration detention, and won a historic victory closing San Francisco’s 850 Bryant St. Jail.
Here are a few shots from those protests, accompanied by the voices and stories of some of those at the heart of the fight.
Isabelle Duffy participates in a car protest to “Ride on Santa Rita Jail” in Oakland, CA on April 16th. The protest, organized by Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ, pronounced “courage”), called on District Attorney Nancy O’Malley and Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern to release people from Santa Rita jail and to divert funds to housing, food, and healing. At the time of the mobilization, organizers reported that COVID-19 was spreading thirteen times faster inside the jail than among the general public. The poster that Duffy is holding was designed and screen printed by Oakland artist Jesús Barraza of Dignidad Rebelde.
Amika Mota (left) and her husband, José (right), drive past Alameda County Courthouse during the “Ride on Santa Rita.” Families feared that a jail sentence would become a death sentence for incarcerated loved ones denied the ability to social distance or to sanitize their environment. For Mota, the protest was personal. “My husband spent 27 years of his life in and out since he was a youth. We’re both formerly incarcerated, and always ride together as a family in the efforts to free our people. Baby G was in the backseat with us,” she said. Mota is the Statewide Policy Director for the Young Women’s Freedom Center and active in the Sister Warriors Freedom Coalition.
On April 26th, activists projected a message on the Alameda County Administrative Building in Oakland, CA calling on the County’s Board of Supervisors to invest in health and housing, not jail. Activists had been fighting a proposal, approved on May 12th, by Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern for $318 million over three years to hire new deputies and jail staff under the guise of “improving mental healthcare.” Advocates, like those at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, decried the decision, noting that mental health care is better treated in community, not in cages, and that the county should invest instead in housing, health care, job training, and protective equipment.
Samudra Randazzo participates in a car protest in Oakland, CA on April 16th. Her sign refers to the No New SF Jail Coalition’s years-long battle to shutter the dilapidated San Francisco County Jail #4 at 850 Bryant Street. On May 12th, the SF Board of Supervisors voted 10 to 1 to close the jail by November 1st, 2020. The legislation prohibits San Francisco from transferring individuals out-of-county and restricts the city from building a new jail. Following the win, the coalition commented, “If we can prove that no city needs a jail like 850 Bryant — not during the COVID crisis and not ever — then we have shown the world that we do not need cages of any kind for any reason.”
Nora Melendez speaks outside Maguire Correctional Facility in Redwood City, CA on April 22nd. The protest, organized by the San Mateo County Coalition for Immigrant Rights, called on Sheriff Carlos Bolanos to rapidly decarcerate the jails and stop ICE transfers, which send county residents to detention facilities known for rampant medical neglect. Melendez’s husband, Sergio, was transferred from Maguire jail in 2018 to the Mesa Verde ICE Detention Center where he suffered from migraines and seizures. “The health services they get are nil to inadequate. It’s a for profit detention center so they’re not going to spend any money on people’s health,” Melendez said. While Sergio was released eight months later, his immigration case is still pending. “It’s not just about my family. We have to look out for each other. It’s something that this pandemic has made plain.”
Sarait Escorza (middle) and Maricela Santos (right) honk as they pass Maguire Jail in Redwood City, CA on April 22nd. Escorza, an organizer with Silicon Valley DeBug, says, “My connection to the rally was really personal. My sister was handed over to immigration as a juvenile. Using participatory defense, we eventually beat her deportation case. She became eligible for a V Visa and is applying for citizenship this year. So I know what these families go through and what it means for them to get their loved ones out. But we’re not excluding anyone. Everyone should be released from jail, juvenile hall, and immigration detention. Everyone’s life is important.”
Activists gather in a socially-distanced mobilization on May 4th outside the ICE offices in San Francisco, CA in support of freedom for Liyah Birru. According to Survived and Punished, which has been supporting her case, Birru is “a Black immigrant from Ethiopia, who was prosecuted and incarcerated for defending herself against her abusive husband who had subjected her to beatings, sexual assault, verbal abuse, threats, and racial slurs. After serving her sentence, she now faces the added punishment of deportation.” After a year and a half in immigration detention, Birru was granted bond on May 19th.
Ny Nourn (left), Valeria Suarez (middle), and Stacy Suh (right) lead chants outside the ICE building in San Francisco, CA on May 4th where domestic violence survivor Liyah Birru was to have a bond hearing, her first after a year and a half in immigration detention. Prisons collaborate directly with ICE, often transferring incarcerated survivors directly to ICE upon release, inflicting further violence upon survivors, effectively punishing them for surviving abuse. Suarez, an organizer with the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, says: “Liyah and all criminalized survivors deserve protection and healing, not a death sentence in unsafe conditions in prison and ICE cages.”
Kamardip Singh and Mika Kie Weissbuch join an April 25th caravan of hundreds of activists with the Anti-Police Terror Project demanding for Steven Taylor after he was brutally murdered by police inside a San Leandro, CA Walmart. Up to 50% of the people killed by law enforcement are in the middle of a mental health crisis and those that are killed are disproportionately Black. APTP policy coordinator James Burch says, “We are past the time for a shift in how we respond to mental health crises. That’s why APTP Sacramento launched MH First to create a community-lead response to mental health that responds with compassion and care, not a badge and a gun.”
Carroll Fife raises a fist for Justice for Steven Taylor as cars encircled City Hall in San Leandro, CA on April 25th. Fife is a signatory to the APTP Letter to Public Officials to Act on Black New Deal Demands, which among other things, calls for decarceration. Specifically, the letter states: “Given the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Black community and the disproportionate number of Black people in jails, Black peoples incarcerated in Alameda County must be released immediately. Upon release, they must be tested, provided with medical care and housing and other necessary services.”
Two unhoused women occupied a vacant, bank-owned house in San Francisco, CA on May 1st. The action followed Mayor London Breed’s failure to open up vacant units that would allow unhoused residents to safely social distance during COVID-19. Quiver Watts of Reclaim SF said that, “the City responded by sending dozens of heavily armed police to forcibly push them back onto the streets. Strikingly, police wore masks adorned with the racist ‘Blue Lives Matter’ flag which came to prominence as a backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement.” Public outrage against the use of the masks forced SF Police Chief Bill Scott to ban their use.
Youth with the community education initiative Abundant Beginnings lean out of a parked car during a car protest on April 16th in Oakland, CA. “We break down white supremacy, the gender binary, exclusion, and ways that police and government tell our communities we don’t have the power to do something about it. Through conversations and games, we create learning, action, and solidarity for our entire community including the incarcerated, homeless, and the most impacted,” explained teacher Mitali Purkayastha. “We showed up to the Santa Rita caravan because in the state of COVID-19 we understand no one should be behind bars! #FreeThemAll.”