Sherrie Anne André (they/their/them) is a radical BIPOC LGBTQQIA+ activist based in Providence. A cofounder of the FANG Collective, established in 2013, they are going to trial on January 7 for participating in an August 20, 2018 blockade of the Bristol County House of Corrections in solidarity with an incarcerated workers hunger strike. The action was the launch of a larger #ShutDownICE campaign FANG has been operating ever since. We recently sat down for a conversation with them, which is presented here in a slightly-edited form.
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Q: Tell us about yourself, your political history, and the history of the FANG Collective.
A: I am a Southeast Asian and Puerto Rican queer person who started organizing pretty young. My family is mixed [immigration] status and I think coming from that background of folks of color and we have always tried to take care of each other and take care of the community and find ways to create resources outside of what the government “provides” us so that we can be self-sufficient. I think that’s mostly where my start came from. My mother is from Thailand and my father is from Puerto Rico and I fully believe that Puerto Rico should be its own independent space, separate from the United States. I feel both places, because of the Vietnam War and continuous US presence in Puerto Rico, has been impacted by US imperialism, I have very strong feelings about that.
I got my start with the FANG Collective because I was originally working as a domestic violence and sexual assault advocate for mostly undocumented and Indigenous women. I started to see this connection between climate change and what was happening within our shelters. I was working in a shelter in South Dakota where people were starting to get ready for the Keystone XL [pipeline] and not just get ready for the environmental impacts but the social impacts, such as an influx of male workers setting up a “man camp” outside of tribal housing and what would that do for the resources that were available for people that were on the reservations, whether it be domestic violence and sexual assault shelters (because the rates of sexual increases around man camps, as well as alcohol and drug usage rates for various reasons, such as the workers need to stay up for long hours and have their own poor working conditions, there is a correlation between those impacts)… “Man camps” usually in the Midwest look like miles of trailers that can house up to many thousands of men who are there to work on fracked gas infrastructure.
So I came back home and wanted to see what those impacts are like here. We don’t necessarily have fracking in Rhode Island but we do “benefit” from fracking being done in the shale fields of Pennsylvania, about 90% of our energy comes from fracked gas. So we wanted to see how we were connected and wanted to see what these social costs are here. Man camps don’t look the same as they do on the East Coast as they do in the Midwest… Here on the East Coast it looks like entire camp grounds being rented out or hotels being rented out so that they have a place to live.
So we started the FANG Collective to organize at these intersections where we’re really being mindful that we are not just trying to fight climate change by opposing these infrastructure projects and fracking but we’re also bringing to light social costs. How are these infrastructure projects actually impacting communities in a different way? For example, sometimes there are people who are opposing these projects and people in their own families support the project, just family division and how that impacts people when they are fighting these projects.
Q: So you are involved in multiple issues. How did immigration become part of your efforts?
A: It’s always been part of our work but maybe not something that has been part of our open narrative to people who follow us on social media or our website. The people within the organization are people of color, children of undocumented people, children from other mixed-status families, queer and trans people. I think we have always organized with an intersectional perspective or approach but it hasn’t always been at the forefront of our narrative. Once it became part of it and we openly expressed that we had this campaign called #ShutDownICE, targeting prisons that have 287(g) agreements and IGSAs, we started to see this shift in how environmentalists responded to our work. People who were so happy that we would fight fracked gas infrastructure projects in their community would start to troll us and leave negative comments. Specifically we started off targeting 287(g) agreements. These are contracts that police departments, via their sheriff, can make with ICE. That in turn deputizes sheriffs to do the work for ICE, they can detain and hold people until they are deported.
The reason why we started to target these particular departments with these agreements is because, before the Wyatt began detaining people in Rhode Island, undocumented people were being sent to Massachusetts and New Hampshire. So the question was how to address this immediate issue where these police departments are allowed to do this. It’s something so simple as they just don’t have to have these agreements. These contracts could end at any time! We don’t have to wait until a year passes for us to not have them! We had particularly targeted Bristol County House of Corrections because that’s the facility that we identified where a lot of community members were being held and detained. I don’t think prisons should exist and I don’t think these positions should exist. But Bristol County has one of the worst sheriffs, Sheriff [Thomas] Hodgson, who intentionally runs this facility where there are high rates of suicide and high rates of solitary confinement. People have written to us and let us know they haven’t had access to their medications and about the general conditions of the facility. And so for us, a lot of people don’t realize we’re just targeting the detention facility, we’re targeting a prison. For us, that’s really important.
We’ve received letters and documentation from folks who are detained [at Bristol County HoC] and also people who are incarcerated there. They are not being given prescribed medications for severe illnesses or mental health concerns. People are not having access to affordable phone calls, the charges are ridiculous and they are not able to contact family or community. People cannot afford the things in commissary or access things inside commissary. People experience a lot of verbal abuse from the prison guards as well. Prison in itself is not meant to be rehabilitating, it is something that the system wants to be punishing. But it sounds like people here are being held in extreme circumstances, people are being held in prolonged solitary confinement. People are being denied monthly bleeding products, just basic necessities people don’t have. There isn’t a way for people to cook food even if they were to purchase it from the commissary.
We have some letters we posted online at ShutDownICENow.org as well that people can look at if they want.
Hodgson is very strange, he insists he is following the law. He is making decisions on policy with the 287(g) agreements and there are community groups that have told him that they do not want these agreements for many years. He has such a strong opinion about protesters that he has insinuated on radio that he has weapons and he knows how to use them. He has encouraged others to use violence towards us at protests. He has a lot of opinions about what is the “best” way to protest or bring attention to an issue but he continues to ignore the community that he serves. New Bedford has a very high Portuguese population, many of those folks are there because of immigration, and attends the Portuguese feast [carnivals] every year and is just so pompous and certain he is welcome there but is very unaware about how he brings so much harm and pain to those communities.
The ACLU recently realized over 140 email correspondences between him and [White House policy advisor] Stephen Miller. He is essentially is constantly tattle-tailing on any service or resource that is being provided to immigrants, regardless of documentation status (to me that doesn’t matter). He is trying to keep tabs on anything trying to support a population of people that he does not support because he is a white supremacist. He benefits from working in these prisons and wants to keep them running, he benefits from having these agreements, and he is making no effort to hear what the community wants, then he individually decides this facility should have this agreement and detain people.
Q: Let’s talk further about how people who supported you on climate change and environmentalism were not with you on immigration.
A: People outside our organization who in the past who had supported our work when we were just solely expressing vocally our work about fighting these infrastructure projects. It’s really been a shift in how I have started to view my work. We’ve always had to address people’s inability to recognize environmental racism within our work. But if we fight these projects in your community and they are not built and you are still racist, I don’t know that I feel safe. I don’t feel that I actually want to campaign and so I feel that is more work that we need to do as an organization to address this disconnection between what people actually think is a “safer” (with the caveat that are various people with gender and racial identities who may never feel safe) in a way that we might fight the bad of these structures but we are also addressing the bad within ourselves.
I think we’re at an interesting time where people are starting to believe that climate change is real and are still not releasing themselves from this internalized and enacted racism that they hold within themselves, they refuse to acknowledge that.
I remember we had been working in a particular community helping them oppose an infrastructure project, you would drive around during election time and see infrastructure opposition signs next to Trump signs. So not really fully-understanding how deeply rooted and interconnected climate change is with white supremacy. I think that is really interesting and there is a lot of work to be done around education and supporting people and understanding that there are many elements causing climate change and one of them is capitalism. Who holds the majority of the world’s wealth and how these corporations stay in power. We have essentially a capitalist as a president! So I think that people are not able to acknowledge these internal struggles they have within themselves and how to actively work within themselves to dismantle them. I think that’s work we all have to do, including myself, we need to be mindful of it.
People have always approached environmental work with this NIMBY, not in my back yard mindset, which is still racist and classist. I don’t know how to fight all of these things but it is something I hope to do more work on.
Q: And so what’s going on with your case?
A: Last August I participated in an action with four other individuals where we blocked the exits and entrances of the Bristol County House of Correction, which is a prison that has a 287(g) agreement. This facility is in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts. I personally climbed up a 26 foot tripod and was there for a little while before the police came and violently removed one of my co-defendants who was also in the structure, they slammed her body from 26 feet into the ground and let these metal poles fall onto her body. They did the same to me.
We told them prior that they would harm us and they expressed that they didn’t really care at all. In general that’s interesting to see because there were people filming them and taking picture of them! If they have no problem physically harming us in front of the press, I can only imagine what they are doing to people within the facility. Once they brought me down they utilized pain compliance to try to remove me from the rest of my structure and eventually arrested me. Two other people at the back exits were also arrested and we were brought to the Ash Street Jail in New Bedford.
The court process has been really interesting, we’ve mostly seen Judge [Katie Cook] Rayburn, who has her own history. She originally did not accept the prosecution’s original plea deal, a six month probationary period with community service. She thought we should have a harsher punishment with restitution. We went back and forth for a long time and eventually were sentenced to ten days in jail with the option to go to trial. Two of my codefendants accepted the ten day jail sentence and have already served their time. The third codefendant was charged the entire $3,000 in restitution and a suspended sentence.
I am the only one left who is choosing to go to trial. I will be fighting a trespassing charge which carries up to 30 days in jail and a disturbing the peace charge which carries a $150 fine.
I am not certain how it will work out for me. I feel like if I lose I will go to jail anyway. So why not try to fight?
My codefendants made their own choices for why they took those deals and I totally respect that. If anyone is planning on doing these kinds of things, they should do whatever feels best for them when it comes down to taking a deal. They dragged this out for over a year and I have a lot of support and I understand why people would take a deal based on their own access to resources. Again, I want to acknowledge that privilege that I have.
For me, it is another opportunity to continue to bring to light what is happening within that facility, even to document it and raise awareness about these 287(g) agreements and Sheriff Hodgson. I wanted to use this opportunity to hopefully educate more people here or about 287(g) agreements at a prison near you.
There are various ways to take action, people don’t have to do what I did. Hopefully people will be activated to do something.