Midweek Message Public Witness

National Day of Lament and Mourning

Allison Tanner

June 1, 2020

Memorial for Choung Woon Ahn outside ICE headquarters in San Francisco, photo by Deborah Svoboda

Mourning and lament are powerful ways to express grief, anguish and heartache. And there is much to lament in this moment. Over 100,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.S. Our nation is on fire with rage at ongoing and unchecked police brutality, racial inequality and the ubiquity white supremacy. Our lives and our world have radically and unexpected changed in the last few months and we live with uncertainly of what’s to come. We mourn. We lament. We cry out to God in anguish.

Last Thursday, I co-lead a memorial service filled with mourning and lament. We honored the life of Choung Woon Ahn, a 74-year-old who needlessly died in ICE detention. We held the service outside of ICE’s regional headquarters in San Francisco, holding them accountable for his death. Below are the words I shared with the gathered crowd, as well as the video. I share them as another reminder of state violence that is killing black and brown lives all around us. Let us lament and mourn. Let our outrage become a transforming fire.

We gather as family, friends, community advocates, faith leaders and concerned citizens to honor the life and mourn the death of Choung Woon Ahn – a beloved brother and uncle and long-time resident of Bay Area who was unjustly forced to endure the last months of his life in ICE detention at Mesa Verde, where he died in isolation. Our service will lift up those who knew Mr. Ahn and the joy he brought his community. It will lift up those who worked with him for his freedom and it will highlight the inhumane treatment he endured at the hands of ICE and GEO group, the for-profit prison operator that ran the detention center. We will offer prayers from multiple faith traditions as we remember and mourn Mr. Ahn, as well as voice our outrage at the abhorrent conditions that caused his death.

Welcome to Mr. Ahn’s family – we can’t begin to know your pain but we share our deepest condolences, we share our rage at this needless loss of life, and we share our commitment to demand accountability for your brother’s death. 

Welcome to all who are gathered together, those who are physically present, those who are watching online, and those who will watch the recording of this service – this memorial transcends both space and time as we unite in our grief, our lament an our cries for justice. Our physical gathering is outside of ICE regional headquarters in San Francisco to hold them accountable for the death of Choung Woon Ahn. It was their insistence on unnecessary incarceration, it was their refusal to release Mr. Ahn with his medical conditions, and it was their inability to provide for his safety and care that we are here today. ICE and GEO group are responsible for his death.

Mr. Ahn’s death is not an isolated event. We have with us a tombstone of Carlos Escobar Mejia – the first ICE detainee to die of COVID related causes – and we lift up Santiago Baten-Oxlag, who died in detention in Georgia this week, also due to COVID. In addition, we mourn the tragic and needless deaths at the hands of the police of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others. We decry all forms of state violence that are killing black and brown lives in our country. Black and Brown Lives Matter. Immigrant Lives Matter. Every Human Being Is Sacred Across All Borders and we as a community stand together in grief, rage and commitment to our community.

We are surrounded by the hearts of loved ones who are still in detention, and we pledge our commitment to these brothers and sisters – to work for their freedom, release and return to community. As an interfaith community, we believe in the power of redemption – we are ALL so much more than any mistake we have made, we believe in the need for restoration – of individuals to community and of community to each of its members – and therefore we demand release of all who are unjustly, needlessly imprisoned. 

All photos by Deborah Svoboda. 

Video of the memorial can be viewed here.