The outer walls of the Henry Art Gallery are currently decorated with colorful, eye-catching posters. The kaleidoscope of images draws the attention of passersby, as people stop to read the stories of detainees in the Tacoma ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) Processing Center, formerly known as the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC). This is exactly how “Free Them All: Portraits from La Resistencia” was meant to be displayed — in a striking and deeply moving manner.
“It becomes a daily appearance for people walking by,” Maru Mora Villalpando, a community organizer and founder of La Resistencia, said. “It is a normalization of the struggle. We want to make sure people know what happens inside [the Tacoma ICE Processing Center].”
Many people aren’t aware of the Tacoma ICE Processing Center — located just south of Seattle, in Tacoma — and its treatment of detainees. Through publicizing their stories, the exhibit makes it harder to ignore the voices of detained immigrants in Washington state.
The display at the Henry was organized by La Resistencia, a Washington grassroots organization that advocates for immigrant rights. La Resistencia often organizes arts-based protests because its members believe art is the perfect way to connect people and create a lasting image of the resistance.
Members of La Resistencia have painted murals documenting the struggles of detainees and produced videos that share the lives of those inside the Tacoma ICE Processing Center.
#FreeThemAll: Voices from Inside the NWDC is the basis for the Henry exhibition. It is the first time a project organized by La Resistencia has included the names and details of people detained; previously, there had been fear that detainees would face repercussions for sharing their stories. One of the women who is featured in the exhibition reached out to La Resistencia to share her story, and insisted that she wanted it to be available to the public.
“There is no way to fix detention centers, because detention is torture,” Villalpando said. “It’s a cage.”
Reading the stories of those detained at the Tacoma ICE Processing Center only serves to reinforce this point. Per the posters, the water provided for inmates is unsafe, there are widespread reports of maggots in the food, and there remains a constant fear of being deported or released into an unsafe situation.
“This movement is really important because we are fighting a monster that was created intentionally to harm our community,” Villalpando said.
La Resistencia is not only working to close the detention center — its broader vision is to eliminate detentions and the deportation process in its entirety.
“We are creating a changing culture,” Villalpando said. “When we started years ago, people didn’t agree with us and thought it was radical, but now most people agree.”
The exhibit at the Henry is one example of how much the conversation around the Tacoma ICE Processing Center and its practices has changed. “Free Them All: Portraits from La Resistencia” exemplifies how art may build community, connections, and awareness in a simple yet impactful manner.
According to Villalpando, during the COVID-19 pandemic at least three guards at the Tacoma ICE Processing Center have tested positive for the virus, and three detainees who were admitted to the facility had previously tested positive. This speaks to the deteriorating, actively unsafe conditions inside the detention center.
“We can’t expect ICE to do the right thing, because they never do the right thing,” Villalpando said. “To do the right thing, they would have to disappear, and they don’t want to lose their jobs.”
I suggest you visit the exhibition and take the time to read and understand the stories shared by La Resistencia. Then, make an action plan and look into how you can advocate for the rights and protection of detainees in the Tacoma ICE Processing Center.
Reach writer Zoe Schenk at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @schenk_zoe
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