Willem Van Spronsen was an anarchist and anti-fascist from Washington who was fatally shot by police on July 13 while trying to set a fire with incendiary devices during an attack at an ICE detention center in Tacoma. Authorities say Van Spronsen was armed with a rifle and threw “lit objects” at buildings and vehicles in the parking lot of the Northwest Detention Center.
Van Spronsen, a Vashon Island musician, was shot and killed by Tacoma Police officers, the Seattle Times reports. No one else was injured.
Van Spronsen also went by the name Emma Durutti on a now-deleted Facebook profile and on an album titled “the audio manifesto” that was posted to Bandcamp a week before he was killed. While some have said the Emma Durutti name indicated Van Spronsen was trans — and Emma Durutti did post on Facebook in 2018 calling Willem Van Spronsen a dead name — friends of Van Spronsen say he did not identify as trans and used Emma Durutti as a pen name. The nom de plume is a reference to two of Van Spronsen’s inspirations: Emma Goldman, an anarchist activist, and Spanish insurrectionary Buenaventura Durruti.
The detention center is run by GEO Group, a private company, and has a capacity to hold 1,575 people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The incident comes amid nationwide protests against planned raids targeting undocumented immigrants announced by President Donald Trump and his administration and outcry against the conditions of facilities being used to hold detained migrants and asylum seekers.
Van Spronsen was previously arrested in 2018 at the Tacoma detention facility when he was accused of lunging at a police officer who was detaining another protester. Van Spronsen later pleaded guilty to obstructing a law enforcement officer and was given a deferred sentence. On Facebook, using the Emma Durutti name, Van Spronsen had posted frequently about issues connected to ICE detention centers and posted photos protesting outside of the Tacoma facility.
The incident occurred about 4 a.m., Tacoma Police said. Officers responded after receiving a call from an ICE employee at the detention center, according to the police department.
“We are extremely grateful to the officers of the Tacoma Police Department who reacted quickly to the incident that occurred outside the Northwest Detention Center this morning,” Michael Melendez, acting field office director for Seattle Enforcement and Removal Operations at ICE, said in a statement to The Washington Post. “This incident could have resulted in the loss of many more lives, were it not for the brave actions of all the officers involved.”
GEO Group told The Associated Press, that “baseless accusations,” about the facility, “have led to misplaced aggression and a dangerous environment for our employees, whose safety is our top priority. Violence of any kind against our employees and property will not be tolerated. We are thankful for the quick and brave action by the Tacoma Police Department, which prevented innocent lives from being endangered.” The company said the Tacoma detention center has air conditioning and other modern amenities, recreational activities, a bed for every detainee and medical care available at all hours.
Police said they were at the scene investigating throughout the day Saturday. “The facility has been operating normally with detainees able to move about inside the building,” Tacoma Police said.
Here’s what you need to know about Willem Van Spronsen:
1. Police Say Van Spronsen Used Flares During the Parking Lot Incident & He Tried to Set a Propane Tank on Fire Before He Was Shot Dead by 4 Officers
Tacoma Police responded about 4 a.m. for a report of someone trying to set fires at the Northwest Detention Center, the department said. According to the Seattle Times, Willem Van Spronsen was armed with a rifle and was also carrying flares that he was using to set things on fire as incendiary devices. Police said Van Spronsen tossed lit objects at vehicles and buildings, causing one car fire. He also unsuccessfully tried to set a propane tank on fire.
In a statement, Tacoma Police said, “It was reported the male was throwing incendiary devices at the Detention Center and then at vehicles in the parking lot. A vehicle was set on fire. The male attempted to ignite a large propane tank and set out buildings on fire. The male continued throwing lit objects at the buildings and cars.” Police said he had a “satchel” and “flares.”
“He was throwing these items at the building in an effort to set it on fire. It didn’t work, it’s a concrete building,” Tacoma Police Officer Loretta Cool told KOMO-TV.
Local activists told the Seattle Times and KOMO that Van Spronsen appears to have been targeting a fleet of buses that are used to transport detainees to the Yakima airport. The detainees are then put on flights for deportation at the airport. It is not known if any of the deportation buses were damaged. An activist group, La Resistencia, said in a statement:
Today marks yet another death linked to the detention center, and another death at the hands of the police. Based on available information, including the police scanner recording, Willem Van Spronsen, the protestor killed, appears to have been targeting not the detention center itself, as has been widely reported in the media, but the parking lot across the street from the detention center which houses the NWDC’s transportation infrastructure. This infrastructure includes a fleet of buses that transports immigrants to be caged at the detention center, and that transports immigrants from the detention center to the Yakima Airport, from which they are deported.
Mr. Van Spronsen was apparently trying to set the deportation buses on fire when he was shot and killed. His actions sadly reflect the level of desperation people across this country feel about the government’s outrageous violence against immigrants, which includes the use of detention centers to cage migrants both currently living in the U.S. and those seeking asylum. This death results from the federal government’s unresponsiveness to the anger and despair people feel at the horrors unfolding both at the border and in the interior, and from the inability of officers to de-escalate rather than shooting to kill.
But for the City of Tacoma allowing the GEO Group’s facility to be built and expanded in Tacoma, this death, and the death and suffering of those inside the detention center would have been avoided. The NWDC has become a liability not just for the tens of thousands who have been caged there, but for the city of Tacoma itself. It’s past time for the city of Tacoma to cancel GEO’s business license. It’s clear that this “business” is a deadly one, that has only brought pain and suffering to our region.
La Resistencia calls on the City of Tacoma to hold immediate public hearings addressing the Tacoma Police’s actions today that resulted in the loss of life at the Detention Center and why the City continues to allow GEO to operate with a city business license.
Tacoma Police said four officers shot at Van Spronsen. Police have not said he fired first or if he fired at all. The four officers retreated and took cover after shooting Van Spronsen. Medics were called, but were staged away from the scene and police said that when officers eventually did approach Van Spronsen, they found he was dead.
An investigation into the shooting is ongoing, police said. The four officers, who have not been named, were all placed on paid administrative leave. The officers range in experience from 20 years with the department to 9 months, according to the Seattle Times.
Shawn Fallah, who heads the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility, told The Washington Post, “This could have resulted in the mass murder of staff and detainees housed at the facility had he been successful at setting the tank ablaze. These are the kinds of incidents that keep you up at night.”
After police identified Van Spronsen at the scene, investigators searched his Vashon Island home with assistance from the King County SWAT team, the Seattle Times reports.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president in the 2020 election, wrote in a statement on Facebook, “Along with many Americans, I object with every fiber of my being to Donald Trump’s inhumane treatment of immigrants in America. But if today’s attack was motivated by opposition to the federal government’s actions, it was totally unacceptable. Violence is not acceptable.”
Inslee added, “Our democracy is strong and we are a resilient people. But it is, again, unacceptable to turn to violence. Hate crimes are on the rise, as is divisive and incendiary rhetoric. We must be better than that and find non-violent ways of pursuing the better world we want, as many groups are doing.”
Officer Cool said the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and the ATF are assisting in the ongoing investigation of the incident.
2. Van Spronsen’s Friends Say He Likely Planned to Die During the Attack & Had Sent a Manifesto Out Before His Death Saying ‘It’s Time to Take Action Against Evil’
Van Spronsen was arrested during a protest at the Tacoma detention facility on June 26, 2018, according to court documents. Court documents show that Van Spronsen was accused of lunging at a police officer who was trying to arrest a 17-year-old protester. Van Spronsen was accused of wrapping his arms around the officer’s neck and shoulders. Officers found a collapsible baton and a knife in his possession when he was handcuffed.
The officer was not injured. In October 2018, Van Spronsen pleaded guilty to the lesser obstruction charge and was given a deferred sentence, meaning he would not have to spend time in jail as long as he did not violate the conditions of his probation. Prosecutors said he had no known criminal record prior to that arrest.
Willem Van Spronsen’s friends said he likely planned to die during the attack on the ICE facility, the Seattle Times reports. He mailed a manifesto to several of his friends in recent days.
“He was ready to end it,” Van Spronsen’s friend of 20 years, Deb Bartley, told the Seattle Times. “I think this was a suicide. But then he was able to kind of do it in a way that spoke to his political beliefs. … I know he went down there knowing he was going to die.”
Van Spronsen said he was “just saying goodbye” in the message along with the manifesto. Parts of the manifesto have been posted online:
“There’s wrong and there’s right. It’s time to take action against the forces of evil,” Van Spronsen wrote. “Evil says one life is worth less than another. Evil says the flow of commerce is our purpose here. Evil says concentration camps for folks deemed lesser are necessary. The handmaid of evil says the concentration camps should be more humane. Beware the centrist.”
He added, “I have a father’s broken heart. I have a broken down body and I have an unshakeable abhorrence of injustice. That is what brings me here. This is my clear opportunity to make a difference, I’d be an ingrate waiting for a more obvious invitation.”
“In these days of fascist hooligans preying on vulnerable people on our streets, in the name of the state or supported and defended by the state, in these days of highly profitable detention/concentration camps and a battle over the semantics, in these days of hopelessness, empty pursuit and endless yearning, we are living in visible fascism ascendant,” Van Spronsen wrote.
Van Spronsen said “rich guys,” including Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, Tim Cook, Bill Gates, Betsy DeVos, George Soros, Donald Trump, and others, “really dig government” and “fascism serves the needs of the state serves the needs of business and at your expense.”
Van Spronsen said that when he was a boy in post-war Holland and later France, he had his head filled with stories about the rise of fascism in the 30s and, “I promised myself I would not be one of those who stands by as neighbors are torn from their homes and imprisoned for somehow being perceived as lesser. You don’t have to burn the motherf*cker down, but are you just going to stand by?”
He said, “To my comrades: I regret that I will miss the rest of the revolution. Thank you for the honor of having been in your midst. Give me space to be useful, to feel that I was fulfilling my ideas, has been the spirited pinnacle of my life. My trans comrades have transformed me, solidifying my conviction that we will be guided to a dreamed of future by those marginalized among us today. I have dreamed it so clearly that I have no regret for not seeing how it turns out.”
Van Spronsen wrote, “I am antifa, I stand with comrades around the world who act from the love of life in every permutation. Comrades who understand that freedom means real freedom for all.”
Van Spronsen said he was “radicalized in civics class at 13 when we were taught about the electoral college. It was at that point I decided that the status quo might be a house of cards. Further reading confirmed in the positive. … I am not affiliated with any organization. I have disaffiliated from any organizes who disagree with my choice of tactics. The semi-automatic weapon I used was a cheap, home built unregistered “ghost ar15. I had six magazines. I strongly encourage comrades and incoming comrades to arm themselves. We are now responsible for defending people from the predatory state. Ignore the law in arming yourself if you have the luxury. I did.”
3. Van Spronsen Called Himself an Anarchist & Others in the Community Say They Are ‘Inspired’ by His Actions & Was Also Once a Part of the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club
Will Van Spronsen called himself an anarchist and was active in the Washington state anarchist community. He was also once a member of the left-wing defense group called the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club.
A post on the Puget Sound Anarchists website reads, “All we know about what lead up to this comes from the cops, who are notoriously corrupt and unreliable sources for such a narrative.”
“We find his actions inspiring. The vehicles outside the detention facility are used to forcibly remove people from their homes and deport them, often to situations where they will face severe danger or death. Those vehicles being destroyed is only a start of what is needed,” the Puget Sound Anarchists wrote. “We wish the fires Will set had freed all the inmates and razed the entire Northwest Detention Center to the ground. And we miss our friend and wish from the bottom of our hearts that his action had not ended in his death.”
The anonymous author wrote:
Will Van Spronsen was a long-time anarchist, anti-fascist and a kind, loving person. Here in Olympia some of us remember him as a skilled tarp structure builder from the Occupy encampment in 2011. Others remember him from the protests outside the NWDC last summer where he was accused of lunging at a cop and wrapping his arms around the officer’s neck and shoulders, as the officer was trying to arrest a 17-year-old protester. The very next day when he was released from jail he came right back to the encampment outside the center to support the other protesters. He is also remembered as a patient and thoughtful listener who was always willing to hear people out.
We are grief stricken, inspired and enraged by what occurred early this morning. ICE imprisons, tortures and deports hundreds of thousands of people and the brutality and scale of their harm is only escalating. We need every form of resistance, solidarity and passion to fight against ICE and the borders that they defend. Will gave his life fighting ICE we may never know what specifically was going through his head in the last hours of his life but we know that the NWDC must be destroyed and the prisoners must be freed. We do not need heroes, only friends and comrades. Will was simply a human being, and we wish that he was still with us. It’s doubtless that the cops and the media will attempt to paint him as some sort of monster, but in reality he was a comrade who fought for many years for what he believed in and this morning he was killed doing what he loved; fighting for a better world.
In August 2011, he wrote a letter to the editor published in the Vashon-Maury Island Beach Comber in opposition to the support for regulations that allow households to capture rain.
“Are we really willing to submit to laws regulating every little detail of our existence on this planet? Inane laws imposed by those who simultaneously allow and encourage the exploitation and despoiling of the planet and life upon it for the sake of ‘progress’ and ‘growth’ and a house of cards called ‘the economy,’ he wrote. “There’s staggering change on the horizon; it would behoove us to take note and learn the skills, among them how best to use rainwater, to cope with the radically different world bearing down upon us. Regardless of silly laws and regulations.”
The Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club says on its website, “PSJBGC is an anti-fascist, anti-racist, pro-worker community defense organization committed to accountable, community-led defense in the Puget Sound (aka Salish Sea) region of western Washington, in the Pacific Northwest, USA. … We believe in active resistance to the corrosive and destructive social effects of white supremacy, sexism, bigotry, and economic exploitation. We stand in defense of the well-being of the community over the enrichment of the individual, and we stand in solidarity with those who share our mission for a just future.”
The John Brown Gun Club said on Facebook:
Early in the morning on July 13, Willem Van Spronsen, a former member of Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club, was killed in an altercation at a facility adjacent to the Northwest Detention Center. We’re stunned, shocked, and saddened by his death. Will was known for his kindness, gentleness, and warm heart. He was a father, a folk singer, and friend.
Will cared deeply about making the world a better place and he felt injustice towards others as personal as a wound. He took direct action to protect traditionally marginalized and threatened communities. The rounding up of our neighbors into for-profit detention centers was not a semantics debate for Will, it was an abomination.
We are mourning and hope that in the days, weeks, and months ahead, people who knew and loved Will can find a way to grapple with his loss and honor his memory. Will often talked of being useful. If you need to take something away from his action we hope it’s that if the rest of us were all more useful towards compassion and justice then he could have stayed with us.
Seattle Antifascist Action wrote on Facebook, “martyrs never die.” The antifa page added, “When our good friend and comrade Willem Van Spronsen took a stand against the fascist detention center in Tacoma, he became a martyr who gave his life to the struggle against fascism. He was kind and deeply loved by many communities; we cannot let his death go unanswered. Throughout history we idolize figures like John Brown for their courage to take the ultimate stand against oppression, and today we stand strong in our support for yet another martyr in the struggle against fascism. May his death serve as a call to protest and direct action.”
Direct Action Alliance said on Facebook, “This is Willem Van Spronsen, he was killed by Tacoma police on the morning of July 13 while attempting to destroy transportation infrastructure of an American gestapo prison in Tacoma, WA. As far as we know, he is the first American to die in an attempt to liberate the current internment/concentration camps in the stolen lands of America. He joins a long legacy of anarchists who have fought and died for the liberation of the oppressed. He is a #hero. #RestInPower #NeverAgainIsNow #CloseTheConcentrationCamps #ReturnTheChildren #AbolishICE.”
4. He Had Been Going Through a Divorce & Child Custody Battle Since 2013 & Was Accused of Domestic Violence by His Estranged Wife
In his manifesto, Van Spronsen mentioned having a “broken heart” as a father. Court documents and an online fundraising campaign started by his daughter show that he had been going through a bitter divorce and custody battle since 2013. Van Spronsen had been accused of domestic violence by his ex-wife and had been limited in the amount he was allowed to see his young son, his adult daughter wrote.
“In March of this year, my dad’s wife Shelley left him and accused him of domestic violence. I can’t imagine what prompted Shelley to take such dramatic action, but Will has never, ever been threatening or violent in the entire time I’ve been alive. Unfortunately in the state of Washington, hearsay evidence is enough to have orders placed against anyone regardless of evidence to the contrary,” Ariel Van Spronsen wrote on Indiegogo. “This accusation has prevented Will from being able to see his son Boots more than 4 supervised hours per week. Boots needs the love and care of both of his parents. This is a balance that is very important. Will has tried up to this point to defend himself because he is unable to afford an attorney.”
During his divorce case, Van Spronsen’s estranged wife received a domestic violence protection order against him four times. Those four orders were issued after hearings. The protective orders were issued in 2013, 2014, 2016 and in February 2019.
After her father’s death, Ariel Van Spronsen wrote on Facebook, “Hi everyone, thank you so much for the outpouring of love regarding the loss of my father. My heart is broken but I am ok. Thank you too for all of the messages I’ve received. If I don’t get back to you please know it’s only because I’m overwhelmed right now. I am receiving, and feeling, your support. I’m going to need it in the coming shitstorm. I have subjected myself to a very small part of the hurricane of media, tweets, posts, etc. about the shooting. I am too deep in emotions and basic logistics to engage in a conversation about it. All I ask is that people remember that he was a human being, with a family and friends who loved him.”
She added, “I believe he carefully planned his actions so as not to harm any innocents. I have yet to physically ID it, but based on media photos I believe the car that was burnt was my old 2002 VW GTI, which I had loaned to him. It was on its last legs anyway. He operated alone, at a time of day (4:00 am, I am told) where no one else would be around. I believe that was intentional. I’m not condoning it. I’m just asking for people to try to chill out about characterizing it. You don’t know even the half of it.”
5. Van Spronsen, Who Was a Folk Singer & Posted an ‘Audio Manifesto’ a Week Before His Death, Worked as a Carpenter & Contractor
Will Van Spronsen was a self-employed carpenter and contractor and was also a folk singer. He played at events and venues around his Vashon Island home.
Since his death, a Facebook page created by Van Spronsen under the name Emma Durutti has caused some confusion. A friend wrote on Twitter, “As far as we (friends of the fallen) know, this isn’t accurate. Emma was likely a nom de guerre for the purposes of antifascist work online. And while no shortage of love for us trans comrades was shown, he used exclusively male pronouns and hadn’t hinted otherwise to any of us.”
Another friend wrote, “Will self-identified as a cis male. This is a conversation had as recently as 2 weeks ago. He used a nom de plume based on the names of 2 of his inspirations online. That does not reflect his chosen gender. However, the Trans community and protecting it was very important to him. His song ‘I Was a Girl’ is about someone very important to Will, it was not autobiographical. That being said, please know that the Trans Community was important to Will and just last month he helped ensure the safety of participants in a TransPride event.”