An Unshakeable Abhorrence for Injustice

Natasha Lennard

Photo by Miriam Marauders

Willem Van Spronsen couldn’t stand by any longer. What will the rest of us do?

An imprecise description can be as misleading as a false one. It is, for example, imprecise to say that Willem Van Spronsen was killed by police while attacking an immigration detention center in Tacoma, Washington. This was the standard account of the 69-year-old antifascist’s death offered by the news media. But don’t let that mislead you. Van Spronsen, at least, was more precise. His final act should be understood as such.

As far as we know: on July 13th, at around 4 a.m., the musician and carpenter neared the Northwest Detention Center, one of the largest Immigrations and Customs Enforcement concentration camps in the nation. In the parking lot, across the street from where over fifteen hundred migrants are jailed, he began his attempt to incinerate a fleet of ICE vehicles. With homemade incendiary devices, he tried to burn the empty buses, used to transport immigrants to and from cages and to the nearby airport for deportation. He reportedly aimed for a propane tank, too. His efforts were cut short; Tacoma police officers arrived and shot him dead. The aging anarchist expected as much. In a plainly worded final statement-cum-manifesto he wrote, “I regret that I will miss the rest of the revolution.”

He also wrote, “I have an unshakable abhorrence for injustice. That is what brings me here.”

ICE representative Shawn Fallah stated, misleadingly, “This could have resulted in the mass murder of staff and detainees housed at the facility.” Van Spronsen did not target any buildings holding immigrants or ICE staff. It’s true that he was armed, with a home-assembled AR-15, and we do not know whether he exchanged gunfire with the four Tacoma police officers who arrived on the scene; none of them were injured. (White supremacist mass murderer Dylann Roof was armed, too, when detained, unharmed by Charleston police after shooting up a black church. The cops bought him Burger King in custody.)

“Van Spronsen’s small yet absolute rebellion should be placed in this history, one that understands how the techniques of fascist terror presuppose modernity’s quotidian infrastructure and everyday bureaucracy.”

Beyond this, emphasizing Van Spronsen’s vehicular targets matters if we are to appropriately situate his dying act in the history of high-risk sabotage against fascist infrastructures and the implements of state terror.

In an obvious sense, the US deportation machine subjugates migrants through blockages both spatial and temporal—cages, razor wire, interminable waits in perilous borderlands and torturous camps. ICE jackboots wait in courthouses, they linger outside immigration offices. Necropower—the organization of life in constant proximity to death, to bare life—allows the state to hold migrants in brutal suspension. Yet ICE’s cruel operations are equally dependent on speed and movement—stealth raids, rushed deportation flights, the unimpeded circulation of the dispossessed and desperate through for-profit prisons. Cribbing from the late urbanist Paul Virilio, we might frame the battle against the fascistic deportation regime as dromological: that is, a struggle over territory, determined by movement and speed.

Immigration enforcement uses the same streets, the same highways, the same airports as the rest of us. The fact that they do so without impediment reminds us that, no, these are not our streets. “Possession of territory is not primarily about laws and contracts,” wrote Virilio, “but first and foremost a matter of movement and circulation.” Van Spronsen, it seems, understood this. He went for the buses.

As journalist and comrade Kim Kelly noted on Twitter (much to the ire of the paranoid right-wing commentariat), “History echoes. During WWII, Jewish partisans targeted Nazi infrastructure, blowing up trains, power plants, and factories. Italian partisans targeted communications links, bridges and rail tracks. In 1943, the Soviets launched Operation Rail War, derailing 1,000 Nazi trains.” The latter sabotage efforts are thought to have reduced German transportation and traffic on the Eastern Front by 40 percent. Van Spronsen’s small yet absolute rebellion should be placed in this history, one that understands how the techniques of fascist terror presuppose modernity’s quotidian infrastructure and everyday bureaucracy.

“You don’t have to burn the motherfucker down, but are you going to just stand by?” he wrote. According to the lore of defanged histories, there are bystanders and there are upstanders. But that’s not quite right; since when, in common parlance, has standing up been the opposite of standing by? The antithesis of standing by, letting something pass, is obstruction. ¡No Pasaran!, I, for one, have been too upstanding; there’s little resistance in that. You don’t, we don’t, individually, have to burn the motherfucker down; obstruction can take many forms. Only committed, collective direct action on a large scale, against the gears of the necropolitical deportation machine, could render individual extreme action unnecessary.

The opposite of standing by: activists from Never Again Action and the Cosecha Movement, who shut down the ICE headquarters in Washington, DC the same week Van Spronsen died. The protesters who swarmed JFK airport in 2017 against the Muslim ban, the cab drivers who refused to drop passengers there. The immigrant rebels of the Gilets Noirs who occupied a terminal in Paris’ Charles De Gaulle airport, in direct resistance to Air France’s role as “the official deporter of the French state.” Those who lock their doors to ICE and hide their immigrant neighbors. Those who makes the identities of agents of terror public, and their once comfortable lives intolerable. As Joshua Clover writes, of our new era of “circulation struggles”: “thoroughfare, public square, pipeline, railway, dockside, airport, border, these will be our places.”

“Terror is the realization of the law of movement,” wrote Hannah Arendt. She meant that terror makes it possible for ideologies of totalitarianism “to race freely through mankind, unhindered by any spontaneous human action.” He left behind a small number of simple, hopeful, and melancholic guitar songs, his voice twanging like an E-string. In one, he prophesied: “I’d gladly pay the price that’s asked, I guess I always have. I guess I always will… I have no regrets, I’d do it all again, if this is how I land in the end.” I can’t speak to his life or his character, that’s for those who knew him to do. But as to where he landed in the end, it can at least be said: he stood in the way.

One week prior to Van Spronsen’s final act, Donald Trump basked in militaristic pomp during his Fourth of July parade. Army tanks occupied the National Mall as props, fighter jets dominated the sky. Such bellicose displays disturb because they appear like military occupations. It would be a mistake, however, to forget that these streets are already occupied; those individuals who are ushered through them against their wills—to prisons, jails and airport terminals—know this well. So too do those, hunted by ICE, who hide in homes and churches. To move in public is too dangerous. In his writing on the politics of speed, Virilio recalls the words of none other than Joseph Goebbels: “whoever can conquer the street can also conquer the State!” While Trump’s tanks stand out, the dromological battle is waged by more banal war machines: the ICE bus, unburned and ready to roll.