WASHINGTON, D.C. — Hundreds of Washingtonians took to the streets Monday evening in protest of reports that District of Columbia police officers had assisted Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials in rounding up a dozen D.C. residents on immigration charges over the weekend.
The marchers stepped off from a city square in the Columbia Heights neighborhood after an hour-long rally conducted in English and Spanish. Speakers decried ICE’s raids and its very existence, with several calling on Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and other city officials to answer for the breakdown in the city’s sanctuary policies. The capital city is one of the many jurisdictions where locals have moved to block law enforcement cooperation with ICE as a way of shielding their neighbors from indiscriminate immigration sweeps.
A crowd of 300 to 400 people gathered at Tivoli Square, formerly a hub of Latinx culture in the city but now the heart of a heavily gentrified residential neighborhood about two miles north of the White House. Some carried “Abolish ICE” signs. A diverse group of all ages listened attentively to more than half a dozen brief speeches, each syncopated by the passing of a megaphone back and forth to translators who converted English to Spanish or the reverse.
Many relayed the phone number for a local hotline for immigrants and their allies to report ICE activity in the city. The group’s bursts of applause and occasional cheers of “Abolish ICE” and “Stand up, fight back” ricocheted through the adjoining streets.
After a final speaker ended by calling on city councilmembers to explain reports that a Metropolitan Police Officer had tipped off federal agents to trigger the arrests last week, a young woman with short-cropped blond hair grabbed the megaphone and called on the crowd to help her “take the streets.” The group broke in unison out of the square across 16th Street, a busy artery.
“Arriba! Abajo! La Migra al carajo!” the group chanted as it went, with locals popping out onto stoops and apartment staircases to watch and film on their phones.
A handful of police watched on as the marchers fully blocked 16th Street for more than half an hour. Whatever MPD’s role may have been in assisting the ICE activity that drew the protesters’ ire, the department has more experience in handling unpermitted protest marches that block traffic than perhaps any law enforcement agency in the world. D.C. is home to hundreds if not thousands of these unplanned disruptions each year. With some notable exceptions, MPD has earned a sterling reputation for balancing the safety of participants in First Amendment activity against the transit needs of a busy mid-size city.
The 16th Street location where the marchers stopped and blocked four lanes of traffic is the seam between Columbia Heights and the adjacent Mt. Pleasant neighborhood. The north-south thoroughfare would have popped off of demographic maps of the city as recently as 10 years ago as a demarcation line between one of the city’s most Latinx neighborhoods in Mt. Pleasant and one of its blackest in Columbia Heights. Today, decades of pro-developer policies from the city that warped investments toward wealthier, whiter outsiders have muffled that delineation, but Mt. Pleasant is still among the neighborhoods most tangibly marked by Spanish-speaking cultures and people.
The diversity and cultural fluidity that’s delighted Mt. Pleasant locals for generations now seems to have painted a target on the area. The ICE raids that inspired Monday’s action happened at the Sarbin Towers, an apartment block on 16th Street. The spot where marchers stood their ground as police rerouted traffic away from the human knot in the street was almost literally in the shadow of the building where ICE agents reportedly arrested at least four and perhaps as many as a dozen people last week.
“What I’ve heard is that [ICE] may have gone there with a couple of people in mind, and then they didn’t find those people and just started asking random people for their papers,” local activist Ben Beachy told DCist.
The other reported arrests from the past week occurred at a house half a mile east on Georgia Avenue, and at a restaurant along 14th Street in between those two locations. Locals have been told that the Georgia Avenue raid was spurred by renegade city police officers who tipped ICE that someone without documentation of legal status was living there. MPD officials denied any official cooperation with ICE — which would flagrantly violate the city’s policies — but acknowledged that it couldn’t rule out an officer acting alone.
“[T]o our knowledge MPD had no involvement in the alleged arrests you mentioned, and therefore has no information to provide,” a spokesperson told DCist.
Sanctuary city policies like the one active in D.C. have become a chief villain in President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ narratives about immigrants and immigration. Their administration is suing a number of such cities in hopes of getting the judicial branch to bar the policies for good. The right wing of U.S. politics and media have been ready for that fight for a generation, with the phrase “sanctuary city” long treated as a derisive insult in conservative circles. Since Trump’s nationwide crackdown began, the term has taken on a new life as a prideful rallying cry for supporters of immigrants’ rights.
Where conservative smear-merchants often portray sanctuary cities as lawless havens that embrace even the most egregious criminality, law enforcement officials themselves tend to support the policies because they help ensure that people without legal status to be in the U.S. will still help them solve crimes. The disintegration of trust and confidence in law enforcement among undocumented people only makes police officers’ jobs harder by raising suspicion of all uniformed personnel in those communities, many law enforcement leaders note.
“Not in our neighborhood,” the marchers chanted on Monday night. “Not in our city. Not in our name.”