“I grabbed the first person I came across who was blinded and walking with their hands out. After laying the individual on the ground, water was brought over to us. The corrections officers attempted to engage us to force us to leave, an impossibility due to this person’s disposition at the time, but were intercepted by Rhode Island John Brown Gun Club who gave me space to work in…”
My family survived the Holocaust. Correction, my family barely survived the Holocaust…
Prior to the rise of the NSDAP, my family resided in a town in Poland that today has a population of about 1500 people. Frampol had a population of approximately 2800 in the beginning of the 1920s. My family contained cobblers, seamstresses, and merchants among other things. They worked with their hands and, if they were anything like my grandparents, loved their families deeply. They, we, were Jews. Approximately 30 of the 1500 Jewish residents of that town belonged to my family. Two percent of the Jewish people in Frampol were my relatives.
In 1939, a year after Kristallnacht in Germany, Poland was invaded by German forces and becomes occupied territory. Two years later, Operation Reinhardt (Einsatz Reinhardt) begins and by 1943, all but a few of those members of my family would be murdered in Belzec or Majdanek. The few that didn’t meet their fates in concentration camps somehow escaped Europe and landed here in the United States or died making their last stands as members of the Polish resistance. Great grandparents, grandparents, fathers, mothers, and infant children. All dead.
In January of 1939, a poll was conducted of United States citizens asking whether or not the United States should take in 10,000 refugee children from Germany. 61 percent of respondents said no. The year prior, the question was asked whether the refugee quota should be lifted to take in Germans, Austrians, Poles, and other political refugees. 67.4 percent of respondents said no. The majority of those refugees were Jews fleeing Nazi persecution and oppression.
For all these reasons, how my family arrived here makes not a bit of difference to me. Did my family forge papers to escape Europe? Did my family hide their identities due to the persecution they were trying to escape? I have no idea and I don’t care.
My family is descended from those who fled persecution, imprisonment, and murder. We did what we had to do to survive. It is precisely this reason that I have no right to condemn those who have embarked on the same journey. Their journey and story is one my family knows well. What right do I have to deny them safe passage? Was that journey not paid for by the blood, tears, and ashes of millions of people that ended up in places like Majdanek, Belzec, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, and Treblinka. The words memorialized upon the walls in those places are “Never Again.”
On the night of August 14, 2019, I found myself in a place that has become familiar to me, a protest. For years, I’ve been practicing my Judaism as a Street Medic, providing care for activists everywhere from encampments to street actions where violence erupts. This night was special to me because I was joined by hundreds of others from the Jewish community as part of the Never Again Action in Rhode Island, a series of actions to support and defend immigrant communities around the United States from unjust imprisonment and deportation at the hands of ICE and other government agencies.
The action was initially uneventful. There was a rally which featured key speakers from Jewish and Immigrant communities. There was a march down to the Donald W Wyatt Detention Facility, a privately run facility in Central Falls that has immigrant detention contracts with ICE. Protesters filled the sidewalks around the facility as organizers delivered a letter and requested the presence of the facility leadership to discuss the conditions in which immigrants were being kept. Throughout the entire action prayers and songs were sung loudly among participants. Some of them in English, some of them in Spanish, and some of them in Hebrew.
When detention center officials refused to meet and discuss the demands, two groups decided they would engage in civil disobedience by blockading the sally ports, preventing any of the transport vehicles from entering and exiting.
Myself and other activists noted the lack of police presence, the indifference of facility staff, and the lack of transportation vehicles while we were there. It indicated that there would likely be no traffic going in or out of the facility for the duration of the protest. As such, the current action showed no sign of threatening facility operations in any manner.
At 8:45pm, a decision was made to move the blockades to the entrance of the employee parking lot as well as to the adjacent parking lot which facility staff also utilized. At the time, I was located on the sidewalk at the public parking lot adjacent to the employee parking lot. As protesters slowly started to dissipate and the chants grew quieter and fewer, many of the those still present wondered if this protest would have any effect at all and if this was going to turn into a moment where facility and law enforcement officials just waited for everyone to go home. But then came the change of shift.
One staff member was stuck behind the blockade and unable to exit the auxiliary lot. Another got in his pick-up truck and sped around the employee lot before abandoning an attempt to jump the median that separates the two parking lots.
Around 10pm, there was an audible horn and people shouting. I noticed a black pick-up truck in front of the protesters at the employee lot. Suddenly, the vehicle accelerated towards Jewish protesters and there was screaming from the line where there were elderly as well as an individual in a wheelchair. As I ran over, it accelerated again and came to a stop, knocking several people to the ground. Protesters were shouting at the driver, now identified as Thomas Woodworth, a Captain at the Wyatt facility. He was seen speaking into a handheld radio and not acknowledging the people he had just run into only seconds prior.
While marshals and organizers pushed to create separation from the vehicle, myself and other medics started seeking out anybody who was injured. There was an elderly individual on the ground as well as another person. Both were being tended to. Within minutes, dozens of corrections officers swarmed around the vehicle and began to shove people from in front of the truck. Without warning, they haphazardly deployed pepper spray, hitting over a dozen protesters as well as 4-6 officers. More screams.
I grabbed the first person I came across who was blinded and walking with their hands out. After laying the individual on the ground, water was brought over to us. The corrections officers attempted to engage us to force us to leave, an impossibility due to this person’s disposition at the time, but were intercepted by Rhode Island John Brown Gun Club who gave me space to work in. As I flushed someone’s face and eyes with water, I looked around to size up what was happening. I could see the other medic working with two other individuals and trying to recruit others to help those that were pepper sprayed. A triage area was formed on the other side of the fence for people who needed help.
Ambulances filtered in from municipal rescue services and they brought out sterile water, saline, towels, mylar blankets, and anything else they could do to help. They were professional, courteous, and compassionate as they also began delivering care and seeking out anybody that needed to be transported to the hospital.
The individual I had been helping was able to stand and walk across the street, so I joined the other medical volunteers at the triage area where there were empty water bottles strewn about. Four people were laying on their backs with water being poured into the eyes and over their faces in an effort to reduce the effects of the pepper spray. We were poking holes in the tops of water bottles to create makeshift spray bottles. We took liter saline bags from EMTs and created eye flushes from nasal cannulas. Those who were able to be treated on site remained, a handful of others required hospitalization including an older individual who suffered a fractured leg, internal bleeding, and a possible spinal injury.
As the ambulances left and the number of people being treated turned to zero, a somber quiet settled in. While the other medic and others collected their gear and accounted for each other, I looked around at what was left behind. Nearly 100 empty plastic bottles, blankets, mylar, and plastic containers for saline as well as wrap for cases of water thrown over wet concrete illuminated by a single green chemlight. The quiet earlier marked a complete disinterest from authority because the action wasn’t a threat. This quiet and all of the physical reminders of what happened – 20 minutes prior?
All of it was the result of what happens when that authority is challenged and people in positions of power are confronted by those without.