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Activists And Protesters Rally At Private Prison Company Geo Group’s New Boca Raton Headquarters

Above Photo: GEO GROUP. Protesters march near Geo Group Headquarters in Boca Raton, Monday, Aug. 12, 2019. The group gathered on the day after Tisha B’Av, a day of great mourning for the Jewish community. (Joe Cavaretta / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

As storm clouds gathered over Boca Raton Monday afternoon, so too did two dozen activists, protesters and organizers at the newly opened headquarters of private prison company Geo Group.

Representing organizations including Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs and Never Again Action, an organization that rallies mostly Jewish activists around immigrants’ rights at detention centers and other locations around the country.

They gathered at the location almost exactly one year ago, when construction of the company’s new building was in its early stages. This year, they returned on the anniversary of the deadly Charlottesville, Virginia protests, where a white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens, and one day after Tisha B’Av, a holiday that memorializes temple destructions and mass killings of Jews throughout history.

“Tisha B’Av is a Jewish holiday of mourning,” said Charlie Nolan, local organizer with Food Not Bombs and Never Again Action. “It marks the anniversary of the destruction of the second temple and it also marks a lot of other tragedies in Jewish history, including the first massacre of Jews during the Crusades, the expulsion from Spain in 1492, so it’s a day of great communal mourning of tragedy. Traditionally we fast, we share a book called Lamentations that is really depressing to read, so we specifically picked Tisha B’Av.”

Conditions inside facilities run by the company have been criticized by activists, the Department of Homeland Security — despite being the largest provider of detention services for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement — and is under investigation by the House Oversight Committee.

Local organizers of the action have organized and/or participated in previous protests against the company at its Boca Raton headquarters and at its Broward Transitional Center.

Nolan said she feels it is important for other Jews to speak out on social and political issues they feel strongly about, particularly as it pertains to the treatment of immigrants and refugees.

“Read the Torah, read Lamentations,” she said. “The story of Judaism is the story of being refugees time and time again and suffering because we were refugees time and time again. If you don’t have empathy for these people, you don’t have empathy for your own ancestors and that’s a tragedy.”

While organizations like Never Again Action have been protesting around immigrants’ rights and detention conditions, some Jews and Jewish organizations don’t feel the same way.

“Their misuse of Jewish values and identity is truly painful,” said Rabbi Yaakov Menken, managing director of the Coalition for Jewish Values, in a statement emailed to the Sun Sentinel.

“The event announcement even references Tisha B’Av, trotting out a day recalling Jewish tragedies utterly disregarded in leftist circles as a political prop. Until June 2019, everyone understood that comparing genocidal Nazi death camps to anything short of genocidal death camps was despicable, and had any right-wing politician made such a comparison, all these shofar-blowing justice warriors would have (quite correctly) joined us in strong condemnation. But they are happy to jettison millennia of Jewish teachings to support the mendacious meanderings of a ‘progressive’ superstar. And that is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all.”

Nolan said that that the Holocaust did not start with genocide, that concentration camps are distinct from death camps and that regardless of the terms used, the treatment of people seeking asylum and the separation of children from their families, whose only crime was crossing the border, should be a universal issue Jews and non-Jews should be able to agree on.

At Monday’s protest, attendees hit drums, recited chants through megaphones, held signs while facing passing traffic and crossed the street in front of Geo Group’s headquarters, at times blocking traffic for a moment before police officers told them to move.

Officers and deputies from Boca Raton Police Department, Florida Highway Patrol and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office were set up on Geo Group’s property, watching the protesters, telling them to get out of the road when they obstructed traffic and directing traffic.

“At the very least, I think we ruined their lunch break because most of them have not left the building, I’ve seen two cars leave,” said local organizer Alexis Butler. “Geo Group profits off of blood money, our goal is to harass them at any opportunity. We’re not just going to be out here, we’re going to be at their homes, we’re going to be at their churches, we’re going to be where they go out to eat. They don’t give immigrants peace, so we’re not going to give them peace.”

A Geo Group spokesperson responded to accusations from protesters in a statement emailed to the Sun Sentinel.

“The dishonest narrative and lies that are being spread about the services our company provides is based on the same false rhetoric that has led to the endangerment of our employees, of government employees, and the public,” the spokesperson said. “We have been a trusted service provider to the federal government for over three decades, under Democratic and Republican Administrations, and in that time, we have never played a role in setting immigration policy nor have we ever advocated for or against immigration enforcement policies.

“Like all Americans, we’re concerned about the unprecedented humanitarian and security crisis at our Southern border. While policymakers deliberate on the best way to address this monumental challenge, we will continue to provide the highest standard of humane residential care at all of our facilities.”

“I have been part of a group that has been at Homestead [Detention Center] for the last six months and the children that have been incarcerated there turn 18, they get taken in shackles to the Broward Transitional Center,” said Allesandra Mondolfi.

Last August, a Miami New Times report found that “at least 14 children at the Homestead center have been handcuffed on their 18th birthdays and taken to a jail cell in Broward,” including the Broward Transitional Center without due process. When an immigration attorney filed lawsuits on behalf of seven of those people, they were released.

“The Broward Transitional Center is operated by this lovely, multibillion-dollar international conglomerate, so I’m here to point this out,” Mondolfi said. “I think we need to stand up to every single corporation, every vendor, every supplier, anybody who is involved in this scheme, anybody who is profiting from it, anybody who is supporting it.”

Ben Ferencz, the only surviving prosecutor of the Nazi Nuremberg Trials, himself a Jew and a part-time South Florida resident, called the Trump administration’s family separation and immigration policies “a crime against humanity” in interviews.

“Nationwide, Jews are speaking out about this issue and as South Florida has a huge Jewish community, we need to raise our voices, too,” Nolan said. “If you are a Jewish person, a community leader, a rabbi, a lay leader, get in contact with Never Again Action and do your part because we need you.”

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