By John Larson
A man armed with a rifle and Molotov cocktails carried out a pre-dawn attack on July 13 on the Northwest Detention Center, a facility owned by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and operated by the GEO Group. It has been a flashpoint of demonstrations for years, and while some prior protests have resulted in vandalism and arrests, the actions taken by Willem Van Spronsen represent a drastic escalation of violence. The 69-year-old Vashon Island resident apparently attended a rally on the evening of July 12 then remained on the scene. At about 4 a.m., he lit the objects and began throwing them at buildings and vehicles in the parking lot, setting one car ablaze.
Tacoma Police Department sent officers to respond. TPD provided this information to the media: An employee of the facility, which is located at 1600 E. J St., reported that a man outside was armed with a rifle. The suspect began throwing incendiary devices at the center and vehicles. He attempted to ignite a large propane tank and set outlying buildings on fire.
Officers arrived at the scene and located the suspect. They called out shots were fired. Officers reported that in addition to the weapon, the suspect was wearing a satchel and had flares.
Officers retreated to a position of cover and contained the area. Medical aid was staged a short distance away. Officers located the suspect, who appeared to still have his weapon. Officers approached using cover and were able to determine he had been shot. He was pronounced deceased at the scene. The officers involved were a male, 45, with 20 years experience with TPD; a male, 27, with four years with TPD; a male, 28, with one year experience with TPD; and a male, 24, who has been on the force for nine months. The four were placed on paid administrative leave, per department policy.
Officer Loretta Cool, public information officer with TPD, said the department has been conducting regular patrols in the area for some time. Officers are assigned to be at planned protests to maintain order. Several protests at NWDC are planned over the next few weeks.
Cool said many people posted comments on TPD’s Facebook page regarding the incident. Many expressed gratitude to the officers who responded and Cool said the department appreciates such positive feedback.
However, a review of the Facebook posts reveals that some people are disappointed by how TPD responded. Luna Egan wrote: “Rest in power, Willem Van Spronsen. He was a hero and his death should be a call to action. What TPD did was not a service for the people; they were protecting ICE and allowing concentration camps to continue in our backyard. Shame on all of you.”
Scott McElhiney wrote: “Back to people not charged with crimes being used as slave labor at $1 a day and their overseers not having to worry about the crimes against humanity they may one day be charged with.”
Lance R. Gibelyou wrote: “You should be protecting the people from private police forces, but you are murdering senior citizens instead.”
Trisha Harden questioned the level of response used by TPD: “Although I appreciate the police and all they do, why did they use deadly force when a Taser could have taken the man down long enough to handcuff. Deadly force is used way too much in this country.”
Tanya Roman, the public affairs officer for ICE for the Northwest, responded to a request for comments from Tacoma Weekly. She replied that she cannot answer all the questions posed, as the incident is still under investigation. She provided a press release, which included the following statements: “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will not be deterred by the destructive actions of these criminals or others who seek to spread misleading propaganda. We will continue to do our sworn duty to identify, arrest and remove aliens who present a danger to national security or are a risk to public safety.”
“No one housed at or working in the Northwest Detention Center was injured as a result of armed gunman, Willem Van Spronsen’s, vicious attack on the installation.”
“ICE respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference and will continue operations as normal.”
“This could have resulted in the mass murder of staff and detainees housed at the facility had he been successful at setting the tank ablaze,” said Shawn Fallah, resident agent in charge of the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility. “These are the types of incidents that keep you up at night.”
Van Spronsen was arrested at the facility in June 2018 during a protest. He went after a police officer who was detaining a young protestor. Van Spronsen wrapped his arms around the officer’s neck. He pleaded guilty to obstructing a law enforcement officer.
A vigil for Van Spronsen was held at the center on July 14, attended by about 50 people. Messages written in chalk on the blacktop included “police murdered our comrade” and “avenge Will.” Tacoma resident Kathy Lawton wrote on Facebook: “Willem deserves for us all to read his manifesto. He did not snap, he decided to fight by his chosen method, and he was well-informed.”
Van Spronsen was originally from Holland. It appears actions taken by the Nazis in Europe during World War II, which ended several years before he was born, may have inspired him to attack ICE.
The following is from his manifesto: “I am not affiliated with any organization. I have disaffiliated from any organizations who disagree with my choice of tactics. The semi-automatic weapon I used was a cheap, home-built, unregistered, ghost AR 15. It had six magazines. I strongly encourage comrades and incoming comrades to arm themselves. We are now responsible for defending people from the predatory state. Ignore the law in arming yourself, if you have the luxury. I did.”
“I am Antifa. I stand with comrades around the world who act from the love of life in every permutation. Comrades who understand that freedom means real freedom for all and a life worth living. Keep the faith! All power to the people! Do not let your silly government agencies spend money investigating this one.”
The following is a statement from La Resistencia, formerly known as Northwest Detention Center Resistance. The Tacoma-based group has staged a number of protests at the facility: “Based on available information, including the police scanner recording, Willem Van Spronsen, the protester killed, appears to have been targeting not the detention center itself, as has been widely reported in the media, but the parking lot across the street which houses NWDC’s transportation infrastructure. This infrastructure includes a fleet of buses that transport immigrants to be caged at the detention center, and that transport immigrants from the detention center to the Yakima Airport, from which they are deported.
“Mr. Van Spronsen was apparently trying to set the deportation buses on fire when he was shot and killed. 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 centers to cage migrants both currently living in the U.S. and those seeking asylum. This death results from the federal government’s unresponsiveness to the anger and despair people feel at the horrors unfolding both at the border and the interior, and from the inability of officers to de-escalate rather than shooting to kill.”
“But for the city of Tacoma allowing the GEO Group’s facility to be built and expanded in Tacoma, this death, and the death and suffering of those inside the detention center, would have been avoided. The NWDC has become a liability not just for the tens of thousands who have been caged there, but for the City of Tacoma itself. It is past time for the City of Tacoma to cancel GEO’s business license. It is clear that this ‘business’ is a deadly one that has only brought pain and suffering to our region.
“La Resistencia calls on the City of Tacoma to hold immediate public hearings addressing the Tacoma Police’s actions on July 13 that resulted in the loss of life at the Detention Center and why the City continues to allow GEO to operate with a city business license.”