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ONE THING is for certain — William Van Spronsen, the 69-year-old with a life-long hatred of fascism, expected to die.
His plan appears to have been to burn as many buses as possible in the car park across the road from Northwest Detention Centre in Tacoma, which are used to take detained migrants to the airport for deportation.
Although extremely risky in a country where you can be shot by police during a routine traffic stop, torching vehicles with incendiary devices is not obviously a kamikaze mission.
His choice to go armed with a home-built AR15 rifle, a “ghost gun” assembled from untraceable parts obtained or 3D printed via the internet, then using it to engage in what has been called a shoot-out by the police, supports his friend’s assertion that this was suicide.
But it is his goodbye letter that leaves no doubt that he did not expect to survive. Ahead of his attack on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility, he wrote: “I set aside my broken heart and I heal the only way I know how — by being useful. I efficiently compartmentalise my pain… and I joyfully go about this work. To my comrades: I regret that I will miss the rest of the revolution. Thank you for the honour of having been in your midst.”
Shawn Fallah, who heads the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility, attempted to portray the attack as a deranged and arbitrary: “This could have resulted in the mass murder of staff and detainees housed at the facility had he been successful at setting [a propane] tank ablaze.”
The likelihood of a man who had protested at the centre for at least a year, and even earlier that day, putting the lives of the imprisoned migrants in danger is laughable.
Neither was this an impulsive crime of passion, as some commentators have suggested, a bleeding heart pushed over the edge by innaccurate liberal propaganda against ICE. His action and his politics were consistent with one of the US’s most enduring revolutionary ideologies: anarchism.
Indeed, there is even perhaps a reference to the most famous insurrectionary anarchist Alfredo Bonnano when Spronsen wrote of the the joy of his mission. In his infamous 1977 work Armed Joy, Bonnano wrote that the anarchist carrying out an armed action would “realise themselves as human beings. They realise themselves in joy. The reign of death disappears before their eyes.”
Like Spronsen, at similar age — 71 — Bonnano acted, and was jailed for his part in a political bank robbery in Greece.
Elsewhere in his “goodbye manifesto” Spronsen mentions Emma Goldman and Howard Zinn, and declares that pictures of the YPJ — the left-wing women’s army fighting to defend an experimental revolutionary zone in Northern Syria — should inspire his co-thinkers to action.
It is this reference to a contemporary armed movement, the source of the US’s other recent anarchist martyrs, Michael Israel and Robert Grodt, who died fighting Isis in 2016 and 2017 and his declaration — “I am antifa” — that places his anarchism and his actions in the present day.
There is no doubt Spronsen’s identification as “antifa” contributed to President Donald Trump last month stating his intention to designate antifa as a terrorist organisation — which is laughable as antifa is concept or an attitude rather than a membership group. But was Spronsen a terrorist?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a terrorism as “the unofficial or unauthorised use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims” — charges that Spronsen meets all of.
Legally too, he probably “was a terrorist.” But in common parlance, in our ethical classification of terrorism in day to day speech, it’s unlikely anyone but the hard right will call him such.
A terrorist today means someone who strikes against soft targets, like packed buses or aeroplanes, for an end which is often in itself apocalyptically violent.
Spronsen’s attempted arson attack against buses has more in common with the green-anarchist inspired arson attacks against SUVs and urban sprawl of America’s last left-wing “domestic terrorist group,” the Earth Liberation Front. Like them his tactics are deliberately unprofessional and unspecialised, so as to be easily replicable.
And revulsion towards the ICE detention centres is only growing. Fox News’s attempts to scandalise anti-fascist and migrant advocacy groups by association with the attack fell flat when many of them justified and endorsed it.
In a widely shared statement, La Resistencia, the local grassroots collective led by undocumented immigrants in Tacoma, whose protest against the facility he had attended on his last day, wrote: “His actions sadly reflect the level of desperation people across this country feel about the government’s outrageous violence against immigrants, which includes the use of detention centres to cage migrants both currently living in the US and those seeking asylum.”
Since the policy of separating parents and children was supposedly ended by Trump in 2018, using legal loopholes at least 700 more families have been ripped apart.
On any one day in June 2019 an estimated 2,000 children were in custody and at least five detained children have died. Those still alive are kept caged behind chain link fences in open pens, under strip lights 24 hours a day, not adequately supplied with toothbrushes or soap — leading to outbreaks of lice.
Conditions are so bad that after visiting a child detention centre in Texas Dr Dolly Lucio Sevier wrote in her medical declaration that the “conditions within which they are held could be compared to torture facilities.”
However, as Trump’s border wall has turned out to be economically impossible — now estimated to cost a staggering $59.8 billion over 10 years — detention centres are the coldly rational reality of the state response to irregular migration.
Add to this the pressures of climate change, which is expected to create one billion climate refugees in the next 31 years from less developed and equatorial regions — Latin America in particular — and the detention system that Spronsen called “concentration camps” will become further institutionalised.
It would make sense to divert the funds from the preposterous wall and the military spending that is behind much of today’s migration crises to making the conditions in which the unfolding catastrophe is dealt with by the world’s richest country humane, sanitary — dare we dream, even sympathetic.
At the very least, they should be treated better than convicted prisoners. Instead their conditions are worse — and the US’s fetish for sadism against the victims of its own social system, its cruel penchant for “punishing the bad guys” is extended to migrants and their children.
Until this changes, Spronsen’s perception of Trump’s America as “fascism ascendant” is hard to contend with — and it’s easy to see how actions like his coming from within the radical scene and from those migrant communities affected, will become widespread in a nation that is coming apart at the seams.
Alexander Norton is a former volunteer in a communist militia aligned to the YPG in Syria and deputy features editor for the Morning Star.
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