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'His heart was tender and large.' Daughter of antifa killed at Northwest Detention Center reflects on his life

caption: Dozens of murals hang on the walls at the Northwest Detention Center. They're painted by immigration detainees.
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Dozens of murals hang on the walls at the Northwest Detention Center. They're painted by immigration detainees.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

On Saturday, a 69-year-old man named Willem van Spronsen, 69, of Vashon Island, was shot dead by police outside the Northwest Detention Center, a jail for immigrants in Tacoma.

He'd set fire to a car, and he was equipped with flares and a rifle. In a manifesto, 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 perceived as lesser.

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

Van Spronsen's daughter, Ariel van Spronsen, wrote about her relationship with her father, reproduced in full below.


t’s been three days since my father was shot by police while protesting the ICE immigration roundups at the Tacoma ICE Detention Center.

I have been silent because I have needed some space to simply process that this is happening … but also because I know that I can’t control what people say about it.

I’ve sheltered myself from the majority of the overwhelming amount of media around this — both press and social — but what I have seen has been a whole lot of conjecture posing as fact. So it's time.

I will offer some thoughts about my dad in a bit, but first a small reminder that the vast majority of the people in his life are just everyday people trying to live everyday lives.

My dad was a human being, imperfect and flawed, but he was also one of the people most connected to what is beautiful in the world that I know of. His heart was tender and large, and in some ways I think, as a friend of mine said, he felt too much too strongly.

One of my favorite memories is when we would sit together quietly, listening to some amazing piece of music, and then at the same time we would both look up and smile because there it was, that amazing feeling, that moment of sublime beauty in the music. And by turn, between us. He felt it all.

I am very much like him in that way, but I am also my own person. My dad and I had many conversations about the activist work that he was doing, and when it came down to it we agreed on many principles: that love is the answer, that community is the way, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

But we also agreed to disagree on some principles, such as the use of force and weapons in the fight. He was always accepting of who I am, with my liberal pacifism, and I was always accepting of his anarchist radicalism because we knew without a doubt that each of us came from a place of goodness.

I don’t condone violent action, but I am proud of him for saying all the things I am too scared to say. For standing up while I cower behind my privilege and comforts, which I received through being raised primarily by my mother and stepfather.

The journey of our relationship with my dad wasn’t clear or clean or what one could consider “normal.” He was never “normal.” I have grown up accepting that this man was exceptional, in both positive and negative ways, but any negative effects to me were never mean, crazy, or hateful. Naive, perhaps.

In the 45 years that I knew him, he was always principled, always idealist, and always passionately committed to his cause.

For many years the commitment was his role in Alcoholics Anonymous. As a sponsor he was never out of reach for his sponsees. He spent countless hours unselfishly there for them, doing the work, listening, helping.

I was not as familiar with how he interacted with his activist groups, but I could tell that he was the same for them. He had a demeanor that drew people to him, a great voice, and a giant heart.

As I said before in my one Facebook post about this, I believe he planned his actions for the morning of Saturday July 13th to be as victimless as possible.

The car he blew up was (I believe) his own (a 2002 Volkswagen I had loaned to him). He made sure no other protesters were around. He meant to make a big statement, and he did. I knew he wanted to go out that way. He had talked about it before — not the ranting crazy thoughts that you might imagine — but the calm and passionate discussion of something that he wasn’t afraid to face for the greater good.

I wish like crazy that this hadn’t happened, and I am utterly conflicted about it, and I love and miss him … but I believe he died happy.

That is all I am able to elaborate on about the incident at this time and it is not my position to talk about any of his other relationships.

Thank you,

Ariel van Spronsen

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