On Oct. 8, around 7:30 p.m., three armed police officers entered my home and arrested me while I was changing my 18-month-old’s diaper, my 3-year-old sitting feet away at our kitchen table. I was certain it was a mistake until they took out the handcuffs. My first thought was: Can we at least not do this in front of my kids?
I want Philadelphians to understand that I never saw the warrant for my arrest, apparently from Virginia, and was never told clearly why I was being detained and separated from my family.
An hour later, after I was handcuffed and sitting in the back of the van, the officers showed me a print out of an email that looked like Morse code. I made out something about trespassing and dumping. No officer could answer my questions. Later, on my wristband it would say trespass — I guess littering would be too laughable of a charge.
When my family and beloved community of supporters called into the Philadelphia Police Department’s Civilian Affairs Unit, they were told that the U.S. Marshals had retrieved me; that ICE had custody of me (I am a U.S. citizen, in case that’s a question); or that I was en route to Virginia — all while I was detained in the basement of the Roundhouse without PPE to protect myself and other detainees during a huge spike of COVID transmission in Philadelphia.
Millions of Black and brown community members, immigrants, and refugees nationwide face this inhumane treatment. I was lucky to have behind me a gargantuan mobilization effort, led by organizers at VietLead and comrade organizations such as Asian Americans United, Juntos, and Movement Alliance Project, coupled with love and support from across the country. Young people set #FreeNancy afire on social media, Vietnamese parents made calls to the police station, Southeast Asian elders gathered — masked, of course — in front of the Roundhouse for over 12 hours seeking my release.
Local electeds such as progressive Councilmembers Helen Gym and Kendra Brooks, both of whom I have been able to organize with, sounded the alarm. How could, as Councilmember Gym has been quoted to say, two misdemeanor charges result in arrest and interstate extradition?
After this outcry, I was released. Twenty-one hours later, I walked onto Eighth Street into my partner’s arms, crying tears of amazement at the sound of laughter and cheers from supporters. The truth is, people free people from jails and prisons and detention centers.
But questions remain: If I were a Black woman, like Breonna Taylor, would I have survived this? If I were trans or queer, how much more dangerous would the situation have been for me in prison — over charges of what basically amounts to littering at a peaceful protest?
On Sept. 8, I did participate in a nonviolent protest before the house of acting Immigrations and Customs Enforcement director Tony Pham. ICE did not exist before 2003, and in its short life span, the federal agency has had a hand in some of the worst human rights abuses in my lifetime, from the forced separation of thousands of children from their parents at the border to the forced sterilization of migrant women.
Pham is also a Vietnamese refugee, a fact used by the Trump administration as cover for said human rights abuses. So I joined a protest to reclaim that narrative: You don’t get to use the stories of my community as a cover for violence.
I want Philadelphians to know that what is happening to me is an attempt to criminalize nonviolent peaceful protest. I believe this arrest was an attempt to silence and intimidate me, and my community, people of the Viet diaspora, Asian Americans, and immigrants broadly, from doing what we need to do as active citizens: speak truth to power.
“Ultimately, I hold the Philadelphia Police Department and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw responsible for participating in this retaliatory arrest.”
Ultimately, I hold the Philadelphia Police Department and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw responsible for participating in this retaliatory arrest. Local law enforcement should not assist the dirty work of Trump-appointed officials seeking to use public dollars to settle personal vendettas.
Unfortunately for Mr. Pham, his plan has backfired. Instead of intimidating, he has only emboldened. Instead of deterring, he has only exposed to many more people even more ways our immigration officers have abused their power.
Philadelphia, we have a country to save. An election that will define our lifetime arrives at our doorstep in the next few weeks, and much hangs on Pennsylvania. I urge everyone to be vigilant because anything we do on Nov. 3 will only be the beginning of the long road toward a more just and sustainable future.
Nancy Nguyen has been an organizer in the social justice movement in Philly for 10 years, supporting Southeast Asian families in fighting the unjust deportation of their loved ones.