Chicago Freedom Rides - Day 1- (long essay from Teo Reyes )

Freedom Rides, September 27
Chicago to Dearborn

Riding the Pueblo Sin Fronteras Immigrant Freedom bus from Chicago to New York to demand justice, respect, and dignity.

I was invited by Emma Lozano, director of Centro Sin Fronteras to join their bus, so I am keeping a blog of the Pueblo Sin Fronteras Immigrant Freedom Rides experience. This is my first attempt at a blog, and I wouldn’t be able to do it without the support of Mark Dilley, Simone Sagovac, and others who are lending much needed help. As with the Rides themselves, this account is a joint effort.

The send-off was beautiful. Thousands of people gathered at the Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago to send off the Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides. Large contingents of working families distinguished by their t-shirts – red shirts for ACORN, yellow shirts for UFCW, orange shirts for LIUNA. SEIU, UNITE, and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) were also clearly in force. Sin Fronteras riders had white shirts with an eagle tearing apart a barbed wire fence on the front, Pueblo Sin Fronteras emblazoned across the top and Puerto Rican Cultural Center and Comunidades Eclesiales de Base (CEB’s) across the bottom. The CEB’s are based in Chicago and Waukegan, and likely modeled on the liberation theology Christian base communities that flourished in Central America and Brazil. The back of the shirt had a Virgen de Guadalupe with Viaje de la Libertad across the top, and “Respeto, Justicia y Dignidad” and” Para Todos, “Todo” emblazoned across the bottom – for everyone, everything.

The crowd was tightly packed in a semi-circle around the stage and Freedom Riders, so it was clear the crowd was fired up. Several politicians, union leaders, and community activists addressed the crowd. Flags from around the world surrounded the Freedom Riders seated directly in front of the stage. The crowd behind them waved Puerto Rican, Mexican, Polish, Bolivian, and US flags.

Across the street a small group (ten?) of white supremacists sig heiled, waved Nazi flags, and held up signs imploring the Police to arrest the “illegal Freedom Riders.” They also were fixated on how Mecha – a Xicano student group – hated white people. A strange and inaccurate point to make, since Mecha had no visible presence at this event. But it does continue the theme being pushed in California about Bustamante

Three buses headed out to take their message across the country on their way to New York City. A fourth bus, a bus organized by ICIRR, set off to take the same message to communities across the state of Illinois before heading to New York for the grand finale on October 4th.

The Freedom Rides started a few days earlier in Seattle and Los Angeles, and had already managed to face down Homeland Security outside of El Paso. Immigration has several checkpoints inside the United States on highways that lead from the Southern border, and they are trying to set them up near the Northern border as well (a coalition of groups and individuals has been fighting attempts to set up such checkpoints in the Mexican neighborhood of Detroit).

The Freedom Riders are well prepared for any questions by immigration. All Freedom Riders have a special badge with their name, picture, and originating city. The badge comes with a card that states the following:
To Whom it May Concern: I am a participant in the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, a peaceful campaign by citizens and immigrants in support of equal rights for all workers. I wish to exercise my right to remain silent. I will not speak to anyone, answer questions, respond to accusations, waive any of my legal rights, or consent to any search of my person, papers, or property until I have first obtained the advice of an attorney. If I am detained, I wish to contact the following person in order to obtain legal advice . . .

If for any reason a bus is detained, all the riders have pledged to give no information and present only this ID. That way, if there are any undocumented riders, they will be protected by everyone’s non-violent resistance. This strategy worked in El Paso, and the riders were released after a few hours. Marisela Garcia, an immigrant and health and safety organizer in Detroit told me that she saw the Freedom Riders on Univision stating they were exercising their right to remain silent. She was thrilled that immigrants across the country saw that exchange and would be emboldened to also remain silent if interrogated by immigration. Two buses were detained and all 90 riders remained strong, even though they were separated and in some cases interrogated individually. The Cardinal from Los Angeles called and asked why they were detaining his parishioners. Eventually someone from Tom Ridge’s office made the decision that the Riders be released to continue their ride.

I also heard that Kim Bobo of National Interfaith Network had unpleasant words with a Homeland Security officer who refused to let her talk to a superior who could make a decision to release the riders. I also had a similar troublesome exchange with Homeland Security after I asked for the name of the person I was speaking with about a Colombian unionist they had arrested and interrogated at the Miami international airport. The trade unionist was on his way to speak at Labor Notes, but instead had his visa cancelled, was held overnight, and returned to Colombia. The official became infuriated that I had dared ask his name, and began interrogating me, asking me for my name, date of birth, profession, etc. He calmed down a bit after I told him I was a journalist. It’s good to know people are challenging their authority, however difficult that might be.

“With or without documents, we’re all equal,” Emma Lozano told the Sin Fronteras bus, explaining why everyone had to remain united and only show their Freedom Rides ID if we were questioned or detained.

Pueblo Sin Fronteras asked its folks not to bring US flags – the other buses will have them, someone explained – and consciously kept the statue of liberty, the official symbol of the Freedom Rides, off of their t-shirts. Instead they took the Virgen de Guadalupe as their symbol of freedom. La Reyna de los inmigrantes, (queen of immigrants) they call her.

The bus ride to Detroit was spent learning about the history of Sin Fronteras, the civil rights movement, and the immigrant rights movement. Every bus has a curriculum planned out to educate Freedom Riders about the struggle of immigrants and the original Freedom Rides in the South. HERE received criticism early on that they were appropriating African American history (the NEW civil rights movement?), but the IWFR seem to have successfully answered these concerns by integrating the riders and paying clear homage to the civil rights struggle. According to Rev. Coleman from San Adalberto Methodist Church, HERE is using the IWFR to build unity between its Latino and African American members – together a majority within HERE.

On the Sin Fronteras bus we integrated the African American and immigrant struggles by watching two movies – Bread and Roses, and Deacons for Defense. Bread and Roses shows the struggle of undocumented janitors in Los Angeles who organize a union. Deacons for Defense is the story of how one African American community in Louisiana formed a self-defense militia to ward off the Klan and secure its rights. During Bread and Roses, the loudest cheering came when everyone was arrested for trespassing and instead of identifying themselves they gave the names of famous revolutionaries. Folks on the bus shouted names of other important freedom fighters from across Latin America, adding to the mix. By the end of the second movie, folks were chanting “Deacons for Defense” along with the actors.

Sin Fronteras has successfully built unity among the Puerto Rican and Mexican communities, joining the struggle of Vieques and Amnesty for the undocumented. Several members of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center are on the bus, and several Mexican members of Sin Fronteras traveled to Vieques to participate in May Day rallies earlier this year.

Michael Reyes, a poet and activist at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center told the bus:
“We understand that our past and our histories have been one of struggle and of resistance and we are together making history. Why would Puerto Ricans or Xicanos support amnesty for undocumented? We take responsibility for each other and are moving towards the future. Even though this doesn’t concern me directly it concerns family members or people close to us. We are looking to the future and seeing that our struggles are one and the same on many levels.”

Betty Guevara, assistant pastor in the San Adalberto Methodist church and organizer for Centro Sin Fronteras, added:
“On behalf of all Puerto Ricans, we are in solidarity because this is a humanitarian cause. If a child dies because of a lack of health insurance, this is a cause for all people. When we have a case like Elvira’s that they want to separate her from her child, it is a humanitarian cause. The people of God have spent many years crying. We all have the same rights and we are not the immigrants. The real immigrants are the Europeans – this land is part of the Americas. Half of the United States belonged to Mexico.

“We are going to beat this empire, this Bush government. It is always willing to collect our taxes but it doesn’t want to give anything back, We are going to make the mountain move this week.

Privately, Betty told me, “I support the Freedom Rides because I work with a lot of immigrant kids and can see the injustice. Kids can’t go to school. Some die right before my eyes. So I’m here as the voice of the immigrant child. As soon as they finish high school they can’t go to the University – they can’t get financial aid because they don’t have a social security number. They can’t get a driver’s license because they don’t have a social security number. They can’t get health insurance because they don’t have a social security number. They don’t have the right to dream in their own land – the Americas.”

Sin Fronteras is also building unity with African American communities in Chicago, particularly the Nation of Islam. Emma told the bus:
“We have important alliances with the African American community. They were brought as slaves. They’ve led tremendous struggles and they were the first to organize a freedom ride like this one. So it’s important that we learn to struggle with them and them with us. They are citizens and can help throw Bush out – and we need them to do that, We have good relations with Louis Farrakhan, Some people say he is a devil – but he is a prophet and he has said that the Mexicans are going to retake these lands, said he had a vision about this. And I think it’s already coming true – we’re everywhere, even in small towns in Tennessee. And in Utah, the undocumented can now get drivers licenses.”

On the bus, workers from Target spoke about how they had worked with Centro Sin Fronteras to get their jobs back after they were fired for receiving No-Match Letters. It started at one store where thirty people were fired, but it added up to hundreds over several stores. After a community boycott and pressure they convinced Target to rehire everyone they had unjustly fired. Other workers from companies such as Party Lite spoke about the same issue and the campaigns they were working on to force those companies to rehire unjustly fired immigrant workers.

A company is not legally required to fire a worker if they receive a No-Match letter from the Social Security Administration. They are only required to inform their employees that there is an issue with their social security number. Most companies immediately fire employees that receive these letters – sometimes out of fear, other times out of a desire to fire folks with seniority and rehire entry level workers or the opportunity to get rid of “troublemakers.” Centro Sin Fronteras has shown that even where there isn’t a union, the community can mobilize and force employers to do the right thing.

The bus arrived in Dearborn in the evening for a rally at ACCESS, an Arab American Community Center in Detroit. About 200 folks were gathered, many in yellow UFCW t-shirts. After energetic speeches, including one by Elvira Arellano – a fired worker arrested under Operation Tarmac for working at an airport with improper documentation – we were led by children carrying a Chinese dragon for a dinner and event at UAW Local 600 – a Local with a storied history of forcing Ford Motor Co. to accept the union after a bloody fight. The event included Mexican and African dancers, spoken word, and the freedom riders.

Earlier on the bus, folks were singing gospel music and chanting, and the chanting carried on throughout the night:
queremos amnistia para tu tia y la mia
cuando? ahora, cuando? ahora,
cuando, cuando, cuando? Ahora, ahora, ahora!
arriba, abajo, la migra para el carajo
boricua y mexicano, luchando mano a mano
boliviano y mexicano, luchando mano a mano
somos un pueblo sin fronteras.

Someone stated, “Who is Pueblo Sin Fronteras? The moment you crossed the border, you joined the people without borders.”

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