Every once in a while in our organizing we need to step back and take a look at how our movement is doing and how we are doing ourselves.
How are you doing? What is giving you hope right now? What connections are you building that nurture and inspire you?
I have to admit, when I walk out my front door and see another “For Sale” sign pop up on my street, I start to feel pretty despairing. When I hear about the increased need at every food bank, the growing number of homeless people, when one more of my friends loses a job, I wonder what we’ve been fighting for. We put so much work into challenging the Bush years and then organizing for a change in the White House but when I look at the daily struggles in my community I feel saddened and frustrated. We supposedly “won” last November, but why does it not feel like we’re winning at all?
But then I get in the room with my peers and neighbors and we talk through this. I hear the stories of ROP board member Bill Whitaker while he was on a national “Mad As Hell Doctors” tour. Or when learning about a Central Oregon leader’s time supporting a nursing mother who was on ICE hold while challenging local police/ ICE collaborations. This is when I remember I am part of a larger movement; it’s the people and it’s the human dignity groups across rural & small town Oregon that I belong to. Then I feel inspired and grounded in what we’re doing, what we’re building, and how we’re going to get there (together, step by step over the long haul).
ROP board member Steve Milligan and longtime ROP friend Jerry Atkin recently took their frustrations, their sadness, and their hope to the streets (actually, on the bus!). They joined a multistate caravan from the Northwest to San Jose to protest deportation and promote just immigration reform. And they came back inspired, moved and feeling connected to that larger, long-term movement community we all belong to. Scroll down to read their reflections.
It’s about taking the time to sit around with our progressive peers in our home communities to digest where we are in this moment in time (like I will be doing with Human Dignity Advocates in Crook County next week) or jumping on the bus to join a protest in Southern California with our friends and allies (like Jerry and Steve) or helping with your local Food Bank Victory Garden Project (like Jefferson County leaders are doing). It’s connecting to and spending time with those of us that make up this movement for change that will guide us through this moment in time.
So spend a little time with Jerry & Steve! Check out their reflections about their time on the bus connecting with others who care passionately about immigration fairness while letting Janet Napolitano (and the media!) know how deportation policies are impacting real people and real families right now.
And let us know your stories. What is giving you hope right now? What connections are you building that nurture and inspire you? (Email firstname.lastname@example.org)
We Make the Road by Riding
(Se Hace El Camino al Viajar)
Reflections from Jerry Atkin
Our paths cross at the lunch table in San Jose. Theresa, a rider on the Seattle bus, has a beautiful smile that I can only describe as earnest. I suspect she is neither an organizer nor an activist and that she has chosen to come more than 750 miles to protest our current national detention and deportation policies because the issues matter to her personally. She smiles her beautiful earnest smile and begins talking to me in Spanish. Even after supporting farmer worker and immigrant rights for more than 40 years I don’t speak Spanish. Well, I am pretty good with common nouns, but verbs are only a vague rumor. I smile and introduce myself in English, a language she is only beginning to learn. I say a few nouns, she struggles to respond in English. We are trying very hard to communicate with each other between bites of burrito. We smile a lot and eventually we reach common ground, agreeing that the heart/corazon speaks a single language/lengua.
On to Santa Clara. On October 13th I found myself riding on a bus all night from Oregon to California for a Family Unity march and vigil outside the University of Santa Clara. Janet Napolitano, the Director of Homeland Security and the muscle behind the administration’s detention and deportation policies, would be speaking there the next day. It had been six years since I had been one of the representatives of the Rural Organizing Project (ROP) on the cross country Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride of 2003 and here I was again, an ally for immigrant workers and their families. The ride was sponsored by a variety of immigrant rights and community organizations including CAUSA, Oregon’s statewide immigrant rights organization. (Other Northwest sponsoring organizations included the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations, Seattle-based One America, and Community Action Networks in Washington (W-CAN) and Idaho (I-CAN)). P.T. Barnum, the great circus showman, said that there’s a sucker born every minute, and when it comes to long uncomfortable road trips for justice, I’m living proof. Two buses with nearly 100 riders from Oregon, Washington and Idaho left the First Congregational Church in Salem at 7:30 p.m. Organizers, and activists, people from the community, young people involved in their first political action climbed up into the bus. Speaking a half dozen languages, from Spanish to Russian, we settled in for a long night. Twelve hours and very little sleep later we pulled up alongside the curb in front of the United Methodist Church in San Jose, at least marginally ready for a day of training and preparation for the press conference, march and vigil that had brought us here.
The focus of the protest in Santa Clara would be on the impact of immigration policies on breaking up families and on the importance of legislation (The Dream Act) that would allow immigrants who were brought here as children and raised in this country to go to college, get drivers licenses, and work legally. Ultimately, for either of these problems to be corrected, there will need to be comprehensive immigration reform that creates a path to citizenship for the 11,000,000 undocumented workers in the United States. Most of these undocumented residents are law abiding people who have been in this country for decades, who pay taxes, including unemployment and social security taxes that they will never be able to use.
The Obama administration claims that it is necessary to be tough on enforcement in order to have public support for comprehensive immigration reform, but the cost in human tragedy may be too high. Fear of re-crossing the border means that people cannot attend funerals or risk visits to see children or grandchildren who grow up without one or both of their parents and may never know some of their grandparents. Part of the current problem is that local law enforcement officers have been deputized to check immigration status and cooperate with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Though aimed at finding and deporting criminals, abuses of the plan have led to racial profiling and police intimidation in immigrant communities. This year more than 400,000 immigrants will be detained and more than 100,000 will face deportation hearings. Between 1997 and 2007 more than 100,000 immigrants whose children are US citizens were deported.
When I returned from the Freedom Ride in 2003, I wrote that our bus was filled with stories and dreams (cuentos y sueňos) and this ride was no different. Statistics are good for putting a problem in context, but statistics really don’t have much impact on people’s attitudes toward immigrants and the current state of our broken immigration system. Stories do, and that is why we were on the road again, to tell our stories. We told them to each other, we told them in meetings and at rallies, and we told them to the media. The fact that deportation breaks up families is abstract until the story is told by Maria, a young woman who has five brothers and sisters, all of them US citizens, whose father was deported after a workplace raid and whose mother faces her own deportation hearings. She is trying to understand why her father has vanished and why as a US citizen her government is trying to take her mother away as well. She is trying to understand what will happen to the children if her mother is deported, what will happen to her and what will happen to her dreams.
The Press Conference. When Maria told this story at the press conference in San Jose, on a warm sunny day at another local church, Maria’s fear and her anger were palpable. She was joined by others at the podium. One man from a troubled border area in India told of his application for political asylum being held up because he had been a victim of extortion at the hands of the insurgent political group that was seeking independence for the area. Because he had paid protection money, he was accused of supporting the insurgents. Political asylum requests are supposed to be settled quickly, but he has been waiting for eight years, even after the Bush administration agreed that people who had been forced to pay protection money would not be penalized. Another woman appeared with her two children. Their father had been going through the legal application process to get a visa to join his family in the US. He had been in that process for 17 years. Speakers from Columbia, Guatemala, and Korea told similar stories. After the press conference, TV reporters interviewed the people who spoke, and others who hadn’t. Two of the more eloquent speakers were Javier, a young man in his early twenties from Seattle, and Adan from Boise, who was more than half a century older than Javier. They told the same story, anger and hope intertwined with determination. It was a morning of stories, a morning of sunshine and tears.
The Rally and March. Later that day, after a break for lunch and sign making, we gathered in the park near Santa Clara University along with local immigrants and their supporters and two busloads of riders from Los Angeles complete with drums and banners. The late afternoon sun cast shadows across the park as we gathered. And then the band began to play. If you ever wondered about the power of music, Los Jornaleros (The Day Laborers) would have erased all doubt. From the bed of a truck, with a great sound system, they began to play. With drums, congas and bells driving the beat, Los Jornaleros played a salsa-meets-hip-hop mix with lyrics about immigrants and la migra (ICE). The lead singer put into words and music what we were all feeling. He sang passionately from the heart of this struggle for dignity and justice. And the people began to dance. To the driving rhythms of the drums, teenagers in caps and gowns danced with their grandparents, Koreans danced with Latinos, men danced with men, women danced with women. I wasn’t the only one who had tears in his eyes because there is something so beautiful and powerful when, in the midst a serious political action, there is a serious outbreak of joy. Lifted up by the music and each other, we were ready for the march.
Perhaps a thousand strong, including dozens of children, we exercised our right to assemble peacefully. As the sun was setting, we walked on the sidewalk with our banners and drums, our stories and dreams. The organizations who had sponsored the march had decided that we would do nothing to create a public disturbance; we would protest peacefully, make our voices heard, let Janet Napolitano know that the harsh enforcement policies of the Obama administration amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, that those policies were being abused, and go home. We marched for about two miles through Santa Clara and around the perimeter of the university. The police blocked intersections for us and kept the curb lane protected in case anyone strayed from the sidewalk. March monitors and photographers scurried like ants up and down the line of the march that stretched for many blocks along the streets of Santa Clara. The Secret Service was concerned about the possibility that some disruption might happen during Director Napolitano’s speech, so we had agreed not to stop when we reached the area where she was speaking and to keep on marching. Which we did. The original plan had us making a loop through a residential neighborhood, but a decision was made to continue the march, still on the sidewalk, through a commercial area near the University for the vigil. It was now completely dark and candles were lit and passed out among the marchers.
It was then that the police decided that they would like us to not continue exercising our constitutional right. While negotiations continued, marchers were asked to calmly sit down and wait for directions. This went smoothly, for the most part. Some local groups who weren’t part of the event planning, wanted to be more confrontational. A tall cheerful young man with a bullhorn was chanting along with some of his friends, “We have the right/to fight tonight.” I went up and told him, “Actually, that’s not the message the march is trying to send.” Still tall, cheerful, and young he said, “Oh,” and sat down on the sidewalk. After ten minutes or so a decision was made, our message delivered, to continue the march back to the park where we had originally gathered. We stayed at the park and debriefed by candlelight and bullhorn and then spread out through the neighborhood to boost the local economy with our voracious appetites. We had accomplished our goals: we had brought our message of family unity and fairness to someone who has the power to address our grievances, we had brought these issues out of the shadows, and we had gotten the message out to local and national media (Univision). And as we did these things, we built and deepened the connections among ourselves and the organizations who worked together to create and support this action.
Some Reflections. ROP, CAUSA, and the Oregon Farm Workers and Tree Planters Union (PCUN), have been working together for more than a decade on human rights issues, including the human and civil rights issues of immigrant workers and their family. It has also been an important collaboration between the progressive white community and communities of color. For communities of color, the white community often represents the institutions that threaten them and the difficult conditions they often face. When white allies step up to support them it is an important part of overcoming that tension. When white allies are there to hear the stories of immigrant workers and their families it makes a difference. It makes it a little easier for those communities to come out of the shadows and become visible, to stand up for their rights and their dreams, whether those are their dreams of having their families reunited, or to seeing their children have access to education and jobs, or their civil rights on the job or in the community. Martin Luther King’s dream of judging people by the content of their character is the dream of immigrant communities as well. This is a core American value. Immigrant workers built, and continue to build, this country and their deep commitment to family and community is an important part of the glue that holds the American Dream together.
Another important part of this mini-Freedom Ride was the ride itself. The experience of people coming together across generations and cultures in order to accomplish something for the common good is the practice of democracy in action. We do make the road by riding and the road is a blueprint for the multi-cultural nation we are building, one bus ride at a time. The support we give to the immigrant community, both as an organization and as individuals, makes a difference. It’s always an honor to represent ROP out there on the road. That may journey may physically take me somewhere in Oregon or it may spiritually take me somewhere into that larger body politic which is America at still another crossroads. Do we want an inclusive democracy that brings the cultural riches of people from more than a hundred countries around the world into the mix? Or will we settle for a world that defines the idea of citizen narrowly, a world that is divided into us and them? Or will we realize the truth of the motto that came to define the Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride of 2003. We started that journey chanting: Si se puede! Yes we can! and ended it chanting Somos Uno. We are One.
If anyone is interested in reading stories from the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride of 2003, contact me by email and I’ll send you an article that was printed (with pictures) in Radical History Review in 2004.
We shouldn’t always go to sacred places to have ceremony; we should always take ceremony to create sacred places.
On October 14th many pathways were being created as people from Idaho, Washington and Oregon set their intentions on voicing unity, dignity, justice, respect and love. These pathways connected up with others on Thursday the 15th. Throughout the day we worked on making sure that we had a safe peaceful rally and march. Stories were told by individuals who had been directly impacted by the current immigration laws and enforcement practices.
Families who lived together for years, due to a lack of enforcement over the past few decades, are now torn apart by more aggressive and inconsistent enforcement. We went with the intention that these voices need to be heard and actions need to take place, soon, to restore dignity to those hurt by ineffective policies and to prevent more horrors like these happening in the future.
In the warm California evening we gathered to bring all of our voices together. As we marched to the sound of drums and symbols, nearly 400 voices rang out. Voices from many nations. Voices from many walks of life. Voices from many generations. Voices from many sacred pathways, creating a new sacred place.
I now carry that sacred place with me as I continue my path. A place to understand others. A place to better communicate. A place to join for greater voice. A place to change. A place to heal. A place to help. A place of dignity for all.
If you want to read more about the San Jose actions, check out the below media links from The Mercury News, El Observador, Telemundo 48, Sing Tao Daily, KTVU Fox 2, The China Press, The Korea Times, Univision 14, Filipino Channel, KCBS, & Bay City News/ CBS 5.