OPINION: Willem Van Spronsen and John Brown Both Chose to Die Opposing Human Bondage

by Casey Jaywork

In the early morning of July 13, Tacoma police shot and killed Seattle-area man Willem Van Spronsen at the Northwest Detention Center, where the federal government imprisons refugees awaiting deportation. According to police statements published in various media, Van Spronsen was in a parking area attempting to damage vehicles used to facilitate prisoner transport, carrying a rifle and throwing “incendiary devices” near a propane tank. No one except Van Spronsen — shot and killed by police — was physically harmed.

In his manifesto, Van Spronsen said that his action was in opposition to American concentration camps and fascism more generally.

“We are living in visible fascism ascendant,” he wrote. “When I was a boy, in post-war Holland, later France, my head was filled with stories of the rise of fascism in the ’30s. I promised myself that I would not be one of those who stands by as neighbors are torn from their homes and imprisoned for somehow being lesser.

“Detention camps are an abomination. I’m not standing by. I really shouldn’t have to say any more than this.”

Moderate and right-wing pundits will surely construe Van Spronsen’s actions as a kind of terrorist attack, analogous to the September 11 attacks and further proof that radical leftists like Van Spronsen are “the real fascists.”

In fact, a better “terrorist” — or insurrectionist — for comprehending Van Spronsen’s actions is John Brown, the white abolitionist who famously tried and failed to launch an anti-slavery rebellion at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. Brown led a small group of volunteers in a raid on the government armory in town; they were ultimately trapped inside a single building, surrounded and outnumbered. Though Brown refused to surrender, he was beaten into submission by government soldiers, then hastily tried and hanged. In death, he became a symbolic martyr to militant abolitionists. The American Civil War ignited less than two years later.

The eminent American naturalist and thinker Henry David Thoreau is best known for Walden and Civil Disobedience, but he also wrote “A Plea for Captain John Brown” while Brown was waiting to hang. The comparison between the Brown and Van Spronsen — both chose to die for their opposition to human bondage, and saw themselves in a larger, historic struggle — is so obvious that Thoreau’s eloquent defense of Brown easily applies to Van Spronsen with just a few nouns replaced:

“It was his peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the [secret police], in order to rescue the [immigrant]. I agree with him.” To those who object to Brown’s use of violence, Thoreau replied, “We preserve the so-called peace of our community by deeds of petty violence every day. Look at the policeman’s billy and handcuffs! Look at the jail! Look at the gallows!”

Anticipating antifa arguments in favor of Nazi-punching, Thoreau says, “The question is not about the weapon, but the spirit in which you use it.” And how did Brown and Van Spronsen use their weapons? Trying to uncage human beings.

“It was the fact that the tyrant must give place to him, or he to the tyrant, that distinguished him from all the reformers of the day that I know,” wrote Thoreau.

In fact, the difference between Brown and Van Spronsen lies primarily in how much violence they were willing to use against the oppressors they opposed. Brown killed several slavers before Harpers Ferry, during skirmishes with pro-slavery Border Ruffians (which in some ways resemble contemporary street fights between anti-fascist and MAGA factions). By contrast, though armed, Van Spronsen reportedly did not physically harm a single human being. Instead, he targeted vehicles used for transporting immigrant and refugee prisoners.

Police did not respond with similar restraint. And it’s the fact that he attacked the vehicles anyway, even though he must have known state authorities would kill him for it, that makes Van Spronsen significant, alongside Brown. Thoreau: “[This man], in teaching us how to die, [has] at the same time taught us how to live.”

Right now, humans, including children, are piled on top of each other in cages inside the U.S. border. This is an atrocity and must be stopped.

But what can regular people do about it? If you’re not rich or politically connected, you don’t have much influence over government, especially above the local level. Is writing yet another letter to some hand-wringing Democratic senator an appropriate response to concentration camps?

What can anyone really do?

Van Spronsen gave his personal answer to that question: “In these days of fascist hooligans preying on vulnerable people on our streets … this is my clear opportunity to try to make a difference, I’d be an ingrate to be waiting for a more obvious invitation.”

Van Spronsen’s position is morally correct, and his example should lead Americans to self-interrogation about our own responsibilities as citizens in an empire. Yet his self-sacrifice is not the only reasonable response to fascism ascendant. There are myriad alternatives between “die a martyr” and “do nothing.”

In recent weeks, #NeverAgain activists have been arrested in “nonviolent” direct actions such as blocking traffic, and there are more examples in an article I previously wrote for Seattle Weekly about how to protest. However, in weighing one’s own responsibility and options for action, it’s important to consider the effects of conventional rhetoric used in arguments around “violence” versus “nonviolence.” This rhetoric tends to obfuscate government violence by normalizing it, while emphasizing and exaggerating the magnitude and effects of illegal, often symbolic violence. Thus the de facto slavery, kidnapping, and consequent deaths of immigrants is normal, but the burning of vehicles that facilitate prisoner transport is “violent” — a mentality that Van Spronsen and Brown died fighting against.

Conventional approaches like letter-writing may also help close our modern American concentration camps, but without action (that is, non-hypothetical disobedience, which may or may not include violence against property or even human bodies) they are impotent distractions: a veneer of #resistance over a reality of compliance. Van Spronsen asked Americans to stand up against immigration police and other fascists any way they can. His method of resistance is justified by the extreme government violence he was fighting.

Van Spronsen’s death — its manner and his reasons for accepting it — thus throws down a gauntlet to any American who purports to oppose fascism, who claims to be against locking children in cages. He has raised the pressure on performatively-“woke” liberals who love to complain about oppression but fear action, echoing Brown’s famous exclamation, “These [polite abolitionists] are all talk. What we need is action—action!” Van Spronsen died in action, rather than stand by and watch an atrocity continue to unfold.

Using incendiaries to damage empty vehicles that exist to lock up immigrants is not the only legitimate way to resist fascism. Willem Van Spronsen, a man who died rather than give place to the tyranny of concentration camps, says as much in his manifesto:

“You don’t have to burn the motherfucker down, but are you just going to stand by?”

An earlier version of this article misstated the state where Harpers Ferry is located. It was in Virginia, an area now West Virginia. The Emerald regrets the error.


Featured Image: Facetime screengrab (Wikimedia Commons)

 

2 thoughts on “OPINION: Willem Van Spronsen and John Brown Both Chose to Die Opposing Human Bondage”

  1. No, Spronsen’s position wasn’t totally sound. While any comparison to September 11 would be absurd, bringing a firearm into one’s plans invites temptation, and far from helping migrants, the brawls with bigots and cops help attitudes toward them harden, lengthening their odds of getting a fair hearing. Sincerity as in John Brown’s case isn’t enough by itself to effect change. The fact of abolition enjoying stronger public support, a thing that predated Brown, is what doomed slavery in the long run, and even then, Lincoln initially meant only to stop the Confederate rebellion and confine slaveholding to states where it was legal in 1860, keeping it out of the Western territories.

    The sole immediate response Brown inspired was a vicious repression of slaves throughout the South. Was the boost to abolitionists up North worth the harms befalling these? Though the planters and overseers are to blame for what they did to the other slaves, Brown had to have known, from Nat Turner’s precedent, what was likely to happen. In contrast, nobody expected a general war until Fort Sumter had already been shelled.

    Moral calculus requires more than noting the evil in one’s opponents and the encouragement in one’s friends. Consequences of an act that may rile those opponents without weakening them also matter. Antifa should understand the civil rights protests succeeded because they were massive and, for the most part, had the public on their side. Few liberals approve of Antifa methods, and balance of opinion on immigration is less favorable than it had been for desegregation.

    I can’t judge Spronsen, given the limited data on the ICE episode. But I’m not sure he asked the toughest questions before going there that night.