Since Nov. 2020, daily protests have been held outside the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, New Jersey, calling for the end of the county’s 15-year-old contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Although their numbers have ranged from several dozen to in the hundreds, activists have remained consistent, canceling rallies and protests only for poor weather conditions and coronavirus (COVID-19) precautions. The protests have been led primarily by activists from Cosecha, an advocacy group for undocumented immigrants.
One protestor who wished to remain anonymous, expressed how important it is to protest on the matter.
“We’ve been here for a while now. It’s really important that we’re here daily,” the protester said. “The detainees, they’re wrongfully held [in] there, due to the fact that they want better lives for their families. No one is illegal on stolen land.”
Another protestor who wished to remain anonymous spoke on the subject of the responsibility of individuals in power.
“We simply just have to hold our elected officials fully and fiscally accountable to the highest extent of the law,” the protester said. “Then we have to strategize and organize around them.”
Protests began after ICE detainees staged a hunger strike against what they say are “inhumane conditions.” Detainees say that they are being denied medical attention as well as medication.
Detainees also claim they are being served “disgusting” and “inedible” food. The Bergen County Jail’s food provider is Aramark, a major food service and facilities provider from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Aramark has been accused in the past of serving “rotten and maggot-infested” food in jails and correctional facilities across the United States, according to VICE News.
One detainee also said that conditions are “miserable” and that guards have not been wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The Bergen County Sheriff’s Office has denied accusations of inhumane conditions.
Protests became particularly ugly on Dec. 12, 2020, when protesters clashed with county and local police. Officers in riot gear responded with pepper spray and “tactical smoke grenades.” Several protesters were arrested on charges of aggravated assault against officers.
Sheriff Anthony Cureton, who is also the former president of the Bergen County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said in a statement that protesters were “biting, spitting and pepper-spraying” officers. Protesters claim, however, that officers began acting aggressively towards them, inciting the violence that occurred.
Sheriff Cureton says he stands by the response his officers had on Dec. 12.
“I’ve led marches throughout Bergen County, against police misconduct; so I get it firsthand; but in this particular case, right is right, wrong and wrong,” Cureton said. “We have to come to a middle ground and say ‘okay, I understand you’re trying to get your point across.’ However, you can’t be provoking.”
Bergen County’s intergovernmental contract with ICE allows for detainees to be housed at the Bergen County Jail. In addition to this, the county gets $110 to $120 per detainee per day, bringing in around $18,000 daily for Bergen County.
Sheriff Cureton does have the power to end the county’s contract with ICE. Despite speaking out against ICE’s policies, he does not believe that it would be beneficial, as it would have to be a “cooperative discussion.”
“If you’re an elected official, I’m pretty sure you would take the same position,” Cureton said.
Despite street-facing windows still being covered, protests continue on, primarily with drum circles and what activists call “musical therapy” for detainees.