Led by Jewish activist group Never Again Action, hundreds marched down Market Street to the San Francisco Federal Building to protest conditions in migrant detention camps, July 5, 2019. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
Led by Jewish activist group Never Again Action, hundreds marched down Market Street to the San Francisco Federal Building to protest conditions in migrant detention camps, July 5, 2019. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

‘Never Again’ is now, say hundreds marching through S.F. streets

More than 100 people affiliated with the Jewish group Never Again Action were arrested in New Jersey, Rhode Island and Philadelphia this week during nationwide protests against the dire conditions facing migrants detained at the U.S.-Mexico border.

In San Francisco, where 200 or so protesters marched downtown on Friday morning, no arrests were made — though not for lack of trying.

The group walked on Market Street toward the Federal Building around 8:20 a.m., blocking traffic and bringing the morning commute to a halt as part of a national week of demonstrations organized by the nascent Jewish activist organization.

“Hey hey, ho ho, racist ICE has got to go!” protesters chanted, holding signs that read, “Never again for anyone,” “Stop demonizing immigrants” and “We’re doing what the gentiles in Europe should have done.” A banner at the head of the march implored House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to take action with “Nancy, close the camps.”

Local law enforcement took a hands-off approach to the action. About 20 police officers stood by as demonstrators blocked the entrance to the Federal Building, where Pelosi has her district office. Police SUVs and motorcycles cordoned off a block of Seventh Street around 9:15 a.m. after protesters spilled into the streets.

“We’re trying to figure out what we’re going to do,” one officer told J. Most officers stood by with their hands in their pockets, as passersby honked their support to cheers.

Demonstrators across the country have gathered to oppose the treatment of migrants on the Southern border, as media and government accounts report overcrowding and unsafe conditions for tens of thousands seeking to cross into the United States. The first Never Again Action protests were held on June 30 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, followed by marches in Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Rhode Island.

The organization was launched last month as a “mass mobilization calling for Jews to shut down ICE,” according to its website. The group, which is planning more protests in New York City next week, says it wants to hold accountable those who enable “both the deportation machine that has separated immigrant families across the US for decades” and the “current crisis at the border.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez voiced support for the movement on Twitter, saying 36 protesters arrested on June 30 outside an ICE detention center in Elizabeth are “deserving of our attention and support.” At least 70 other protesters were arrested during demonstrations in Boston and Philadelphia, as well as outside a detention facility a few miles north of Providence in Central Falls, Rhode Island.

Arturo Robledo, an immigrant from Mexico wearing a Texas Rangers hat, was walking on Market Street where the protest began and stopped to record the action on his phone.

“It’s good,” said Robledo, who said he knows people personally who have experienced mistreatment on the border. “There’s still people willing to fight for what the U.S. really stands for.”

S.F. lead organizer Aaron Goldstein, sporting a tallit and kippah, herded protesters from place to place. A 27-year-old Bay Area native, Goldstein said efforts to disrupt the everyday course of business were meant to raise awareness.

“This moment is a crisis,” he said. “And yet it has not been raised to that level of urgency within the general American population.”

Media reports have painted an ugly picture of the migrants’ situation, including children who have no access to soap or toothbrushes and are forced to sleep on the floor. A July 2 report from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general cited “dangerous overcrowding” and “prolonged detention of children” at five detention centers in the Rio Grande Valley.

For adults, the report listed unsanitary and unsafe conditions such as “standing room only” cells, detainees going a month without showers, eating only bologna sandwiches leading to constipation and other problems, and having limited access to changes of clothes. More than 220,000 migrants have been apprehended since October, the DHS said, including close to 24,000 unaccompanied children

In downtown San Francisco, there was a palpable Jewish vibe to Friday’s action, which at times seemed to transform the area into something like an outdoor shul. At various points protesters sang the Shema, said a Mi Shebeirach for migrants who are ill or have been harmed, said a Shehechiyanu and even recited the Mourner’s Kaddish. Full of song and rhythmic chants, the protesters even sang a couple of rounds of “nai, nai, nai.”

Many but not all of the attendees were Jewish. Linda Judah, a middle-age woman wearing a Kamala Harris hat, said her family is Armenian, and she was “raised with stories of her family members fleeing Turkey.”

“Whether it’s one person killed, or thousands,” she said, “it’s unacceptable.”

Activists and organizers delivered speeches through a megaphone, including 16-year-old Kai Levenson-Cupp, a student at Alameda Science and Technology Institute who is also a climate activist.

“If my grandfather were still alive, I’m sure he’d be out here with us,” Levenson-Cupp said. “His parents fled the exact same violence that people from Central and South America are facing.”

Rabbi Dev Noily of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, looking on from outside the Federal Building, echoed Never Again Action’s view that Jews bear a historical connection with today’s migrants.

“What I see happening at the border, and what I see happening around the country in an intellectual and historical way, is reminiscent of what was happening in Europe in the 1930s,” Noily said. “People are being mistreated under the guise of law.”

Some prominent Jewish institutions, such as Yad Vashem, have pushed back against comparisons between the migrant crisis and the Holocaust, particularly the use of the term “concentration camps” to refer to migrant detention centers. The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York said it was “deeply disturbed” by Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the term, as well as the phrase “never again,” to describe the treatment of migrants.

But Noily said that the current situation — including a “creeping desensitization” toward treating people inhumanely — justifies the comparison.

“We don’t know where this road is going to lead,” Noily said. “That tragedy suffered by our people might have been different if early on, people” took a more proactive approach to opposing discriminatory laws and policies, Noily added.

The desensitization to cruelty, Noily said, “is something that has to be fought immediately, vigilantly and constantly.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is a J. staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.