After two hours of discussion and waiting, Wichita police left protesters outside an Immigrations and Customs building in Wichita without making any arrests.
Wichita police and Department of Homeland Security officers had told about a dozen protesters Monday that they had to leave the parking lot of 555 N. Woodlawn or face possible arrest. The reason they had to leave, officers said, was that the property owner didn’t want them there.
Most of the protesters said they would leave, but three moved to the front door of the building and said they planned to stay until forcibly removed. They were not arrested and eventually left. Some planned to move to a nearby sidewalk that is public property.
“We proved our point,” said Elle Boatman, one of the protesters. “We gave them the opportunity to arrest us for what they thought was a criminal activity.”
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When asked whether the police decided not to arrest the protesters, Officer Paul Cruz said in a statement, “They left peacefully at 120 pm.” He did not say why police left the area before the protesters.
Jeff Greenberg, who owns the property and leases it to the federal government, told protesters to leave or they might face prosecution.
“I would’ve asked anybody to leave that doesn’t belong there,” Greenberg said. “That’s private property. That’s mine. To know people were hanging out in the front of your house, wouldn’t you ask them to leave too? It had nothing to do with what they were protesting… They just didn’t belong there. They were creating a nuisance.”
Jeffrey Jackson, a professor of constitutional law at Washburn University in Topeka, said federal officials could legally remove the protesters but that the landlord can't.
He said the parking lot of the ICE detention center could at best be considered a "limited public forum" under the law, meaning that the public can come there for the purpose of transacting public business, but officials can exclude those who interfere with that business, including protesters.
Because the landlord has leased the property to the government for public use, his is not the deciding voice on whether protest can take place there — that's up to the government to decide, Jackson said.
Demonstrators would be within their rights to protest if they moved the demonstration to a public sidewalk near the facility, he said.
The protest began Sunday night at about 6 p.m. when more than 100 people gathered to oppose immigration policy that has separated children and families. Several people set up tents and stayed overnight, a part of the nationwide Occupy ICE movement. The tents were removed by the protesters late Monday morning, after they received word that the police were coming.
A decal on the door and a piece of paper listing “immigration hours” are the only indicators that the nondescript building is a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Protesters referred to the building as an “immigration detention facility,” but Greenberg said it was not a detention facility. A detention facility locator at ICE’s website does not list any such facilities in Kansas.
The group also wanted to bring attention to the fact that ICE exists in Wichita.
“This is happening in our city,” said Jackson Hoffmann. “This is not a detached thing that is going on at the border that we have no connection to. It is literally five miles from my house. … Everything we’re reading about, families being torn apart, it happens right here.”
Homeland Security officers watched the group throughout the night. Monday morning, they spoke with Greenberg and contacted the Wichita police.
Police arrived at around 11 and told the protesters they had to leave since the property owner didn’t want them there.
Protester Mike Shatz told officers the group would leave if necessary, but was not “going of our own will.”
“We’re doing it because you’re forcing us to do this,” he said.
During the conversation between protesters and the police, Hoffmann moved to sit by the front door of the building. He then said that he wouldn’t leave unless forced to do so. He later was joined by Boatman and Pamela Bromme, all of whom said they were willing to face arrest.
Shatz and the other protesters also remained, saying they wanted to witness and document the arrests of the three.
In the end, police left after telling protesters “we hope you do the right thing,” Shatz said.
Messages to the Department of Homeland Security were not immediately returned.