IT STARTED WITH chickens.
Chicken is the most popular dish at the Pine Prairie Detention Center in Louisiana, a facility of the Immigration Customs Enforcement, known under its acronym ICE, and run by a private contractor, Geo Group. The detainees receive chicken once a week. Otherwise, they are served with bread, cabbage and beans. When chicken is served, the chow hall is crowded, and faces are lightened. Such was the case on Monday, August 10, 2020. Each of the forty-five detainees, mostly Cameroonians, but Kenyans and Ghanaians as well, asylum seekers all of them, took his plate, and then one by one slid it through the window to be discharged. They then silently entered a hallway where they sat and held their hands above their heads, stating that they were starting a hunger strike. Having their hands above their heads was their way of showing that they did not intend to use violence.
Simple gestures, a clear message.
The August 10 protest was the second act of a hunger strike they had started in March, and that was interrupted on assurances that proved false. According to the report by the Cameroon-American Council, the detainees were protesting:
...their indefinite detention; racist treatment and conditions of confinement; blanket parole denials, particularly to Cameroonians and other Black applicants; across-the-board failure to respond to pro se parole applications; false promises and statements from ICE regarding the sincerity of their custody reviews; and the inhumanity of being imprisoned during a global pandemic.
This time the penitentiary authority reacted with violence. Fifteen guards fell on the detainees, covering them with pepper spray, and beating them. They were all hand-cuffed and dragged into solitary confinement—Seg, or Echo, to use the language of the facility. All the material they had on them to verbalize their grievances—Black Lives Matter t-shirts and written signs—was confiscated. Still, their message reached a wider audience because a video that was made from their detention cell went viral on Twitter and captured the attention of the media and of human rights organizations.
The detainees wanted to be heard.
Here are their voices.
‘We are asylum seekers
When we go to court
One of the points the judge talks about
Is that we are criminals
But I believe none of us here has any criminal record
But the judge keeps saying that we are criminals
He doesn’t believe what we are saying.’
‘We are really suffering
Please you people should really help us.
Anybody who can help us, do help us.
We are suffering in here.
The fact that we are speaking like this
And you are seeing our faces
Even puts us in danger.
We are really suffering.
We are really suffering.
We are suffering.
It is really hell in here.
They don’t even give you the opportunity to speak out
Because right now we are scared that if you speak out.
They might catch you and lock you up.
That’s how they made it.
It’s like a slave under a master,
A slave who has no place to go to.
That’s how we are now.
We are slaves under the master, which is ICE.
We tried for our voices to be heard
The facility caught all of us
All of us Africans
And locked us up in solitary confinement.
For over one week they locked us up
Just because we went on hunger strike
So that our situation can be addressed.
And also, when we were locked up in solitary confinement
We stayed there for two days
We could not speak to our families
We couldn’t speak to our lawyers
And we couldn’t even take a shower.
So we are pleading with the people outside
All the NGO
The United States as a whole
Please help us in here.
We are dying.
We are dying for real.’
Patrice Nganang was born in Cameroon and is a novelist, poet, and essayist. His novel Temps de chien (Dog Days) received the Prix Marguerite Yourcenar and the Grand prix littéraire d’Afrique noire. He is also the author of La Joie de vivre, L’Invention d’un beau regard, and Mont Plaisant (Mount Pleasant). He teaches comparative literature at Stony Brook University.