For the third installment of the Visionaries Project, we spoke to Sara Gozalo about capitalism, fighting ICE and the prison industrial complex, combating burnout as an activist, and her vision of a better world.
The Visionaries Project is a subsection of The Liberty Project dedicated to highlighting the lives, passions, and work of radical activists currently working towards social justice and liberation from oppression. We aim to uplift the perspectives of diverse voices working in media and activism today—and not just the faces who make headlines, but the real people on the ground every day, working towards their visions of a better world.
Sara Gozalo is an organizer currently based in New Orleans. Originally from Madrid, she describes herself as a "queer immigrant who believes in a world without borders and without jails, where everyone has the right to live in dignity." She currently works as a Unanimous Jury Specialist at the Promise of Justice Initiative, co-founded Students for Peace and Justice, and was formerly the Supervising Coordinator of the New Sanctuary Coalition and a member of the Worcester Global Action Network. We spoke with her about the insidiousness of capitalism, her work fighting ICE and the prison industrial complex, combating burnout as an activist, and her vision of a better world.
LIBERTY PROJECT: I was wondering if you could give an overview of your experience in activism and organizing.
SARA GOZALO: I have been organizing for a long time. I've only been organizing professionally for the past three and a half to four years, but I organized when I was at UMass against the war in Iraq. We did a lot of workshopping and teachings about free trade agreements, and how capitalism was destroying the planet.
It seems like that was such a long time ago, and we're still dealing with the same issues. I think that a lot of organizing is understanding that you're running a marathon, and it's never going to be a sprint. It's going to be a lot of small victories along the way, but you're going to fight the same issues constantly. That can be pretty demoralizing, but it also means you can never stop.
I come from a family that's very political. My dad is an attorney in Spain, and when he was a student he got arrested and kicked out of school for organizing against Franco during the dictatorship. My mom was always very political, and I remember hating that when I was a little kid.
While I was going through my own immigration case, I realized how hard it is for someone with a ton of privilege, and I started to look into what it was like for people who aren't as privileged. I got very involved in the immigration issue. Since I moved to New Orleans, I've seen the same patterns in the criminal justice system.
I think New Orleans brings these issues together. It has been very impacted in terms of climate change. Louisiana has the highest numbers per capita of incarcerated people [in the US], and one of the highest numbers of migrants in detention. The city brings everything together, and ties in all the different aspects that I have organized around in my life. In the end, it is important to remember that they're all related to each other.
Where are you at now?
I moved to New Orleans this summer. My wife was born and raised here. I'm working at the Promise of Justice Initiative, which is an organization that does a lot of criminal justice work.
It's clear that all these issues are very interconnected. Lately it seems that there's been a particular resurgence of anticapitalist sentiment, though that was always there…Is that affecting your organizing at all?
I have been organizing with these anti-capitalists since the late '90s. It feels like the "resurgence" has been a long time coming.
When we were organizing around the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003, we were very much organizing under the capitalist lens. Grassroots movements like Occupy and the movement for Medicare for All have ignited something even bigger now. It's become more mainstream.
The fight against capitalism is decades long, and its roots are in the people who are directly impacted, especially indigenous people all around the world. They have led that fight, because they know in their bodies what capitalism is doing to the world. I think it's important that now that conversation is part of western countries, especially the United States, which in many ways is the belly of the beast in terms of capitalism. Anti-capitalist organizing has been there forever; it just now feels like you can talk about it and people won't immediately discard you as someone crazy.
I want to make sure that [in spite of all the] now-mainstream groups that are taking this fight on—which is super important and necessary—we recognize how many people have been fighting this fight for so long and leading the efforts.
I first met you through New Sanctuary Coalition (an organization that provides legal support to immigrants in New York City). You were doing so much for them at once, and I was wondering what your reflections on that experience are.
NSC is one of the most powerful organizing groups that I have ever known, in terms of the numbers of people who are involved. Post-election, after Trump took power, it became very obvious that immigration was going to become one of the issues that he was going to attack the most. NSC grew because there are very concrete ways that people could get involved, and I think that is incredibly powerful. It's led by people who are directly impacted, but it really utilizes the number of people who want to fight alongside people who are directly impacted. That was a beautiful thing to see.
I've worked with other groups where there isn't a clear way for volunteers to get involved, and I think NSC recognizes that people can fight against the system with the support of others with more privilege. It's a great way to utilize the privilege that US citizens have. The [idea] that the people who are impacted lead, and you're showing up for solidarity—not to help or save anyone—is really important.
The accompaniment work, in particular, was hard for volunteers in that it was so boring, but it's such a good example of how much privilege US citizens have, and how important it is to show up and not feel like they're saving or leading. They're just standing in solidarity, which is an incredible exercise for everyone.
It did feel at times overwhelming, which obviously leads to a lot of burnout and the sense of, oh my God, I am never doing enough, because everything is an emergency.
It felt at times that I was just pouring oil on the machine as opposed to throwing a wrench in it. For instance, if a judge said, I need an asylum application in three months as opposed to the year, we became so good at meeting those demands that it felt like in some way we were contributing to them.
I think that's a constant in organizing. There's a big difference between asking, what can you today to help a person who's going to be deported unless they show up with an asylum application, and what can you do to dismantle the system? Of course you're gonna support the person who's dealing with something today and not think in bigger terms, and so those were some difficult moments.
I don't have the answer. Maybe we need organizations that do more direct impact service work, and other organizations that only do the disruptive work; maybe that's the balance that we could work towards.
When I was leaving this summer, a lot of people finally went out on the streets, and people got arrested by the hundreds. I think that's the energy we need in the streets, while organizations like NSC do the day-to-day work that's helping people stay in the country and not be deported.
Speaking of those larger systemic changes, are there any visions you have of changes that you would like to see happen on a large scale?
Yeah, so many.
First of all, we need to realign our belief system. Our bones, our insides, are so ingrained with this capitalist system of oppression. We make decisions on a daily basis that are informed by that upbringing. I admire Decolonize This Place and other groups that are really going to the roots of the problem, recognizing that unless we deal with those root problems, we're never going to affect systemic change.
For instance, we can't deal with climate change from a capitalist perspective. My friend was just fired for his job—which was to install solar panels—because they tried to unionize. We can't keep moving forward from the perspective of putting capital before humans and before the planet.
I really would like to see us having very honest conversations in which we start seeing, within ourselves and within our communities, how colonized we really are. We need to look at the root causes of the problem, if we really want to achieve any change that's going to make a difference, for our planet and for the survival of our communities everywhere in the world.
For instance, in Chile, I love to see the women who are protesting with everyone else and also bringing up the fact that the patriarchy is one of the biggest problems we have. Everything we see as an injustice has a root problem that's attached to racism and capitalism, and we need to address those, otherwise we're really not going to achieve the change that we want to achieve. Having these issues come into the light is an important step.
Women in South America sing against gender violence www.youtube.com
I think I would like to see more compassion in our organizing. I think we're all very angry. We're all very quick to attack each other while not understanding that organizing is hard. Organizing is the hardest thing you can ever do, because there are no models for the world that we want. We have to reinvent the world.
Because we don't have those models, even nonprofits and some of the most progressive groups continue to replicate the systems of oppression that we are fighting against. [We need to ask], what does the world that we want look like, as opposed to fighting against something with means we learned from something we're fighting against.
I've read a lot about how organizations can replicate the systems they're trying to take down—people will be like, let's change ICE, but it really needs to be abolished, and I feel like that's symbolic.
I also really admire abolitionists; their clarity about what they're fighting for could be used by all nonprofits and all other organizing groups.
Do you have any advice as to how to keep going in this long fight?
In your struggle, you have to allow yourself to be led by the people who are directly impacted, because in a way, people who are directly impacted don't have the privilege of giving up. When you surround yourself with people who have to keep fighting, it helps you keep fighting.
I would say surround yourself with a supportive community, with people that you trust and people you can confide in and talk with when things get hard. And I would say be compassionate with yourself. You're going to make a lot of mistakes. That doesn't mean you're a terrible person. Everybody makes mistakes, and learning from those mistakes is the only thing you can do; don't beat yourself up so much that it paralyzes you.
And take breaks. I have been planting trees, I started a compost bin in my backyard, and I am learning how to plant vegetables. Putting your hands on the earth is actually incredibly therapeutic, and it brings everything back to what matters the most, which is life and sustainability and love for each other and our planet. When you bring it back to those core values of what really truly matters, then it allows you to breathe a little bit easier.
The pain and struggle in those camps must be spun into a persuasive narrative; and the phrase "concentration camps" comes with a narrative, with implications, with images of something that we globally swore we would never let happen again.
In New York City there's an organization that sometimes operates out of empty college classrooms and sometimes out of church basements.
Every week, hundreds of undocumented people flow into the crowded rooms, working with translators to fit their stories into I-589 asylum application forms.
One week a woman came in with her eight-year-old son. Her court date was in days, but she had yet to begin filling out her official forms; just part of her story lay in disarray on an intake sheet. As she told her story—which involved rape and murder and decades of abuse—she began to sob. If she went back to Honduras, she said, she would die.
Her story, which would likely make worldwide headlines if any fraction of it was being told by a white woman in America, is not unique at all; abuse of the kind she experienced is one of the most common reasons why migrants come to the U.S.-Mexico border to seek refuge. If you present yourself at the border as seeking asylum, you are legally entitled to a hearing, under domestic and international law; and once she tells her story to the court she may well not receive asylum. Still, for now she is one of the lucky ones: she made it past the camps at the border.
The Semantics of a Human Rights Crisis
This week, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described the camps holding migrants at the U.S. border as "concentration camps." Immediately, she faced protests from politicians across the nation, most of whom have never been to the camps at the border and whose main point of contestation was the argument that the prisons at the U.S. border cannot be compared to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.
Criticism of Ocasio-Cortez's word choice is a convenient and fundamentally flawed distraction from the reality of what is happening. Firstly, both the Jewish people who experienced that genocide and the migrants who are attempting to cross the border are being caged, dehumanized, and denounced as vicious security and economic threats. Arguments that propose the suffering of the Jews is incomparable to the suffering of these migrants are a sort of Olympics of tyranny on the most depraved scale. How can the pain of one group delegitimize the suffering of another?
As a Jewish woman, I feel strongly that any trauma lingering in my bone marrow from the deaths of my family does more to link me to the migrants at the border than it does to separate me from them. We are not solitary in our persecution. Our struggle, as well as the lessons we have learned, means that we should feel a nauseating shock of recognition upon hearing that a group of people is being caged in brutal conditions on the basis of where they were born.
Though the meaning behind words is ultimately more important than the words themselves, semantics and word choice are undeniably powerful. As humans, we cling to symbols and patterns to make sense of our disorderly world. Words have sway over us, which is perhaps why calling the border camps concentration camps has sent such shockwaves across news outlets—more shockwaves than the reports of freezing cages, desert shootings, and persistent abuse in government facilities have created. In truth, words and our ability to freely speak them are often more incendiary than incidents of abuse and human suffering.
This is why calling the camps at the border concentration camps is a powerful act of political protest, one that merits repeating. In order to effectively protest these camps, merely telling stories of the human suffering that occur within them is not enough. The pain and struggle in those camps must be spun into a persuasive narrative; and the phrase "concentration camps" comes with a narrative, with implications, with images of something that we globally swore we would never let happen again.
Image via Esquire
The Holocaust, like most genocides, did not arise spontaneously. It began because of money—because of economic insecurity in Germany, a nation that had once been powerful but found itself suffering after wartime loss and a recession. It began with scattered proposals that Jewish people and other minority groups were to blame for these problems. It took off as a way of making Jews leave the country. The violence started with sporadic murders. The camps came later.
Even if the U.S.'s persecution of migrants at the border never reaches the level of the Final Solution, this does not legitimize the mistreatment and brutality that are occurring in those overcrowded, freezing prisons in the desert. Should the Holocaust be the standard that we expect human rights violations to live up to in order to merit serious criticism?
Andrea Pitzer, author of "One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps," writes that the border camps qualify as concentration camps because the prisoners there are detained "without regard to individual circumstances, treating people as one mass, one group," and that the U.S. government, like the German government, is "presenting them as a national security threat to the country and then using as punitive means as the system will allow to detain them."
Image via CNN
This is a key requirement for the success of concentration camps: prisoners must be turned into shadowy, menacing masses. Through a variety of rhetorical strategies, the U.S. government has implemented this technique. Many Americans are convinced that migrants are criminals who should keep out of this country. They argue that refugees are not deserving of our justice system or our charity, nevermind that the justice system systemically targets poor and non-white people and that we are the richest nation in the world.
Most of the detainees are not criminals. Conditions in these migrants' homes are unbearable; the fact that they are willing to risk death at the U.S. border to escape shows this clearly. Migrants are usually not asking for charity or trying to steal the salaries of U.S. workers. They are asking for asylum. For mercy. For America to be a fraction of what some people once dreamed it could've been.
Image via The New Yorker
Call Them By Their Real Names
Rebecca Solnit writes that once we call injustices by their names, "we can start having a real conversation about our priorities and values. Because the revolt against brutality begins with a revolt against the language that hides that brutality." Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has shown that she is unafraid to put this into practice, to look the murky viciousness of the U.S.'s treatment of migrants at the border straight in the eye. By calling the concentration camps what they are, she is replacing the language that legitimizes these injustices with language that condemns them. Unfortunately, she is largely alone in this.
Here is the name of our American S.S., the group that is fostering the concentration camps at the border: the ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Like the leaders of S.S., they also believe they're simply "doing their jobs").
Image via BuzzFeed News
Here is a number: the ICE held 42,000 migrants in its detention camps last year.
Here is a list of DHS reports about the conditions at the border, including titles like "Lack of Planning Hinders Effective Oversight and Management" and "Immigration and Customs Officials Do Not Follow Federal Procurement Guidelines When Contracting For Detention Services."
Here are just a few quotes from official statements about the camps: A 2017 inspection found "problems that undermine the protection of detainees' rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment." A Reuters report about the Paso Del Norte facility stated that "single adults were held in cells designed for one-fifth as many detainees as were housed there and were wearing soiled clothing for days or weeks with limited access to showers." It also stated that inspectors saw "detainees standing on toilets in the cells to make room and gain breathing space, limiting access to toilets." Additionally, there are reports of extreme temperatures, of physical and sexual abuse, of solitary confinement.
Right now, even the Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner John Sanders is demanding that the Senate pass a $4.6 billion dollar bill in emergency funding. If the bill is not passed, he testified, kids will keep dying.
Here are the names of some of the legally innocent people who have died at the border. Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7. Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, 8. Gurupreet Kaur, age 6, dead of dehydration in the Arizona desert. Roxana Hernandez, dead of untreated septic shock and HIV. Osmar Epifanio Gonzalez-Gadma, Jeancarlo Jiminez-Joseph, and Efrain Romero De La Rosa, all dead by suicide while in ICE facilities. Sergio Alonso Lopez, dead of internal bleeding after prison staff did not administer doses of methadone he needed to survive.
These names don't do justice to who they were and how they lived. No migrant story does, because migrants are whole people who want nothing but to live in America. They come for many reasons; they come knowing that they will be hated and discriminated against all their lives here—because, as poet Warsan Shire writes, "the insults are easier to swallow / than rubble / than bone / than your child body / in pieces."
Here are the names of some of the 200 ICE facilities:
The Adelanto Detention Center in California.
La Salle Processing Center in Louisiana.
The Aurora Detention Facility in Colorado.
Essex County Correctional Facility in New Jersey.
Fort Sill, an Oklahoma military base used to house Japanese immigrants during World War II.
The nameless makeshift camp underneath Paso Del Norte International Bridge, which connects Ciudad Juarez with El Paso, where hundreds of migrants were held outside behind a chain-link fence covered in razor wire.
The Tornillo Camp in Texas, meant to hold 400, now holding 2,400.
Here is the name of what these detention centers are: concentration camps. Remember these names. Imagine what you'll say when someone asks in the future: Did you know?
Image via The New York Times