On Sunday morning, Rachel Kotok stood outside the Contra Costa West County Detention Facility in Richmond, hanging colorful “We All Belong Here” posters on the cement columns that hold up the covered walkway outside the jail. Visitors, mostly women, passed by on their way to see their loved ones inside. Kotok hung a poster with a drawing of a woman holding a sleeping child. The title above the picture read in Spanish “to migrate is not a crime” and “enough of deportations”.
Kotok, 46, a teacher and a writer from Oakland, is a co-organizer of Let Our People Go. Every second Sunday of the month, the group runs an hour-long program outside the detention facility, which holds an average of 200 immigration detainees at any time. Immigration and Customs Enforcement pays Contra Costa County for use of the detention center.
Hillary Brooks, the associate director of Mobilize the Immigrant Vote and a co-founder of Let Our People Go, helped Kotok set up and greeted the activists and musicians who would speak and play at the event. “It’s different every time,” Brooks said about the protest. “I do feel it growing with more attention and more attendance.” This Sunday’s group was less than 40 people.
Ever since the election of President Donald Trump, Brooks has felt anxious about the effects of the new administration on her family and her community. This motivated her to take action and speak up for immigrant families who live in fear of being deported and separated from their loved ones. In April, she started Let Our People Go. Through her temple, Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, and with the support of a rabbi, Brooks gathered a group to meet once a month at the detention center and hold a short protest where parents could bring their children. At Sunday’s protest, a drawing table was set up for the kids of both protesters and visitors.
At the first Let Our People Go event, Kotok said, a mother with a four-year-old son stopped to listen to the protesters on her way to visit her husband in detention. Since the husband was the wage earner, the mother was in danger of being evicted. The group helped connect her to legal help, which eventually led to her husband being released on bail.
Kotok played many roles at the protest. One of her tasks was intercepting people who have come here to visit detainees. She offered numbers for nonprofit legal and social services for these visitors, mostly detainees’ family members. Most of the visitors said that they had no idea about the services available to them.
Juan Prieto came to the protest “to challenge the narrative that is constantly being put on by the mass media.” According to Prieto, this narrative focuses on “Dreamers or undocumented youth who were brought here at a young age. And doing so it criminalizes a lot of the people who are here in the detention center.”
Prieto, a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, told the group, “I’m illegal and I’m fighting to not be anymore.” Since Prieto was brought to this country as a minor, he was able to benefit from the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Child Arrivals Program. Prieto said he wants to shift the focus away from DACA recipients and give attention to his aunt and other adult immigrants who have been deported because they crossed the border illegally.
Brooks said she has never had any negative interactions with the employees of the detention center. Once a sheriff asked her, “Is this that religious service?” He was referring to Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, which has been leading a monthly Saturday vigil at the detention center for seven years.
The protest opened and closed with the banging of drums, shaking of tambourines, clapping, and calls from the protesters. As Brooks told the group, “folks can hear us when we make noise.” This is how they let the detainees inside know they are not forgotten.