Above Photo: James Rotten
“Your neighbor runs a concentration camp!” Last month, 200 people protested at the home of the warden of a private immigrant detention facility in Aurora, Colorado. A member of the Denver Communists provides an inside report on an action that incited a local firestorm.
On the evening of September 19, 2019, over 200 people marched through a quiet suburb to protest at the home of Johnny Choate, the warden of a notorious Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Aurora, Colorado. Abolish ICE Denver and the Denver Communists considered Choate to be the perfect initial target in our campaign, “Confront La Migra Where They Live,” which seeks to raise the level of confrontation against immigration enforcement, to name and shame them, and to reveal the war-crime level injustices they commit.
Choate runs a private, for-profit concentration camp that is so bad it was recently reprimanded by Trump’s Department of Homeland Security over human rights abuses. Two-thirds of its captives are asylum seekers transferred from the US-Mexico border region. It is also the subject of a scathing 42-page ACLU Colorado report, coincidentally released the day before this protest. The camp has claimed two lives through medical neglect and has been the subject and site of regular vigils and protests for years, including one a few months ago that made national news when protesters replaced a US flag with a Mexican one.
Choate oversees the medical neglect, forced labor, overcrowding, torture, and rapid expansion necessary to make big profits, while putting a pretty face on the whole operation. Thus, he was awarded “Warden of the Year” in 2016 by his employer, the private prison giant, GEO Group. And despite demands for his removal, Choate sits on the board of the local business cartel, the Aurora Chamber of Commerce.
The Confront La Migra Where They Live campaign was conceived after Wikileaks published the identities of ICE enforcers, around the time of our 2018 blockade of the local ICE field office. Trump’s openly racist support for mass deportations has exposed ICE and the other public and private agencies that make up “the border-industrial complex” as the terrorist organizations they have always been. Why should an agent of state terror get to retreat to his safe suburban home after overseeing the imprisonment and torture of asylum-seekers in overcrowded, inhumane living conditions?
The demonstration itself was very simple: we marched to the ICE warden’s house, passed out flyers to his neighbors with information about him, and made a lot of noise all along the way. The simple fact that we dared to call a protest at this prison boss’s place of residence was scandalous in and of itself. That controversy opened up rare media opportunities to raise the issues surrounding the warden, the ICE camp, and the cruelties of immigration-enforcement. Without uttering a single falsehood or exaggeration, we trashed Johnny Choate’s name everywhere we could.
The unusual amount of publicity the action received, most of it negative, if there is such a thing, drove participation to more than double our goal. The chair of the Colorado Republican Party denounced “the threatening nature of this protest” and said we “have little regard for the rule of law,” despite our entirely legal plan. The far right was incensed, most notably local talk radio and Breitbart, which chalked up their failure to deplatform us from Facebook as evidence of a pro-leftist Zuckerberg conspiracy. A local newspaper editorial called the planned protest “a thinly veiled act of extortion and terrorism.” It was like music to our ears. To be attacked by the enemy is a good thing!
We didn’t back down, we doubled down. The next day, we released our hardest-hitting propaganda about Johnny Choate and flyered the city with his name, photo, and “rap sheet.” In a series of self-produced videos, we asked: who are the terrorists here, the violent, unaccountable agencies actively hunting, abducting, and caging people or the activists with handmade signs and angry words?
In planning the action, we weren’t sure how much information to make public. We initially announced the protest, but withheld key details in an attempt to preserve the element of surprise and catch the ICE warden at home. The anarchist-led protests at the home of former Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey that inspired us were organized in secret. We wanted to turn that approach inside-out to reach beyond our insular networks, rally the largest numbers, and maximize media attention.
Showing our cards was a contentious issue among the organizers, made more difficult when an ICE spokesperson told an immigrant rights organization we work with that our initial, vague announcement spread panic through the agency. Since we hadn’t announced a specific target, dozens of Denver-area ICE officials were scared we would show up at their homes. Abolish ICE Denver and the Denver Communists found it difficult to give up this advantageous position. Ultimately, our goals of building the broadest possible mobilization and fostering the growth and militancy of the immigrant rights movement led us to name Choate as our target and publish a meetup address. That made it personal and real. The protest became a looming threat that played to the media’s ravenous sensationalism.
We also favored publicity and visibility over secrecy because we believed larger numbers would offer the best protection from police repression. But paradoxically, this decision gave the police time to prepare an extravagant display of force and to use the occasion to practice rudimentary crowd-repression techniques. And it gave our opponents time to do public relations: the police stoked fear in the media and with Choate’s homeowners association, Choate defended himself on local rightwing radio, and the Proud Boys organized a limp, lackluster counterprotest. Even ACLU Denver and a Democrat congressperson went out of their way to condemn us for not going through the “proper channels” of bourgeois democracy⎼all dead ends. These were welcome developments that heightened the spectacle we sought to create and exposed our critics’ conservatism.
By the time we assembled in Choate’s neighborhood, we had embraced this hostile terrain. We worked with the Denver and Boulder chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America, SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), and Front Range WILD (Workers’ Initiative for Liberation and Defense) to organize a militant, legal, and self-disciplined action. In terms of attendance, as reported on It’s Going Down, “It was some real left unity shit. Anarchists, CP-USA, DSA, Denver Communists (former ISO), local punks, IWW, WILD, and more were all there and we all kept tight.” That “more” included members of Jewish Voice for Peace, Extinction Rebellion, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, International Socialist Collective – Boulder, and the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition.
As we marched the half-mile to Choate’s house, the crowd chanted “When immigrant rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!,” “No ICE, no KKK, no fascist USA!,” and “Johnny Choate, quit your job!” A trumpet, a big African drum, and two dozen referee whistles added to the din. Protesters carried banners and signs that read, “Your neighbor Johnny Choate runs a concentration camp,” “ICE = Gestapo,” “No borders, no nations, no racist deportations,” “Abolish ICE,” and “Unite against police terror.”
We canvassed the neighborhood with informational flyers and had a handful of good conversations with curious neighbors, though most we encountered were hostile. Some posted “no trespassing” signs and turned on their lawn sprinklers at the prompting of the police via their homeowners association. Stereo speakers on one lawn trolled the protest with Lee Greenwood’s patriotic country song, “Proud to Be an American.” As the march neared Choate’s house, it passed a cocktail party-turned-counterprotest by angry rightwing neighbors, a few of whom were pulled away by the police before physical conflicts erupted.
When the march approached the warden-of-the-year’s house, we knew we had arrived because seven riot cops greeted us from his driveway. Others may have been stationed behind an open, unscreened second-story window, under cover of darkness in what was probably Choate’s master bedroom. Another dozen or so piled out of an ambulance and lined up in little phalanxes across the street. All in all, in addition to the undercover cops positioned among us, Aurora’s militarized police parade included about 100 cops, dozens in riot gear, tear-gas grenade launchers, bean-bag shotguns, a couple of videographers, dozens of patrol cars, motorcycles, and bicycles, and a helicopter. This over-the-top response served to advance the rightwing narrative that the demonstration posed an imminent, violent threat. To this end, after the protest, following ICE’s current PR strategy that takes a page from the Nazis’ playbook, the GEO Group painted Choate as a victim who narrowly escaped harm: “Tonight we breathe a sigh of relief that our employee’s family and his neighbors are safe and their properties remain intact.”
The police illegally blocked the march from returning the way it came, so we followed an alternate route back, which gave us the chance to shame Choate in front of more of his neighbors. A legal observer with the National Lawyer’s Guild and others were threatened by cops. After a brief closing rally, protesters dispersed in groups to their cars. The police had set up checkpoints at the subdivision’s exit routes to search for protesters they had marked for arrest. It seems clear that the police always intended to make a few arrests in order to justify their excessive presence and vilify the protest. The best they could do was single out a few for making too much noise at a noise demonstration, including the unlucky blower of one of the two dozen referee whistles we passed out.
Aurora Chief of Police Nick Metz took to Twitter to call the protest “vile and disgusting,” then announced his retirement a few days later, after “weeks of soul searching” and a “weekend of addressing protests in our city.” The GEO Group stated that “the spectacle has set a new low in our politics and public discourse” and called for “a return to civil discourse.” Civil discourse means getting out of the streets and into the voting booths, precisely the opposite of what is going to be required to advance the cause of abolishing ICE, let alone eliminating all immigration controls. We need to go low. We need to build a vibrant, well-organized, politically-sharp, militant, international, class-independent movement. Though we chanted “Johnny Choate, quit your job!,” our focus was not so much on la migra’s response, but on building a movement that could break out of the bounds of not only civil discourse, but bourgeois democracy, and take the fight to new fronts.