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“Rising Voices for a New Economy” Connects the Dots

Ten immigration reform activists were arrested Monday, April 28, 2014, in front of the White House in an act of civil disobedience.

(Photo: Sam Knight)

“Rising Voices for a New Economy” brought over a thousand activists together in Washington, DC, to protest rising economic inequality, poverty and family-destroying deportations in the absence of immigration and other structural reforms.

Ten immigration reform activists were arrested Monday, April 28, 2014, in front of the White House in an act of civil disobedience.

The demonstration was designed to frame the issue in the context of increasingly gaping economic inequality and post-recession poverty, and to hold President Obama’s feet to the flames over record numbers of deportations, despite promising in 2008 that he would enact reforms to stop family-destroying expulsions.

Those detained by US Park Police – including several undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation – smiled, sang and chanted, as they were detained and led away in plastic zip ties. While they were being loaded into the police van, roughly 1,000 supporters from all over the United States, organized by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), the National People’s Action (NPA) and its affiliates, joined their melodic protests.

Prior to refusing officers’ three orders to refrain from “blocking passage” by sitting on the sidewalk directly adjacent to the perimeter fence of the north lawn of the White House, some of the activists told the assembled crowd how the deportation of some 2 million undocumented immigrants during the Obama years has impacted their lives.

Carolina Hernandez, 18, who has lived in the United States since she was three years old, recalled how an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid on her family’s apartment traumatized her when she was 12.

“I saw four families get separated and eleven men were deported.” Her own undocumented father, she said, “thankfully wasn’t home.”

“Their strategy was get the man; deport him; families will follow,” Hernandez continued. “From that day on, I knew that at any moment my family could be separated.” While the raid was carried out during the waning months of President Bush’s second term, President Obama’s policies have not assuaged her anxieties.

“As I grew older, I knew I had to do something in order for the fear to go away,” she said, briefly explaining her three years of activism. Deferred action for childhood arrivals – a policy implemented by the Obama administration in the summer of 2012 – means that she is currently safe from the threat of deportation, “though my parents are not.”

Nancy Arroyo, an organizer with the Women’s Collective in San Francisco, recounted how her own family was split up, needing to pause for nearly half a minute after being overcome with emotion.

“They deported my daughter’s father,” she said, her voice quivering. “Since then, it’s been hard raising my daughter by myself and I’m here because I don’t want families to be torn apart.”

The arrested demonstrators’ legal costs are being covered by the NPA and NDWA, which organized a conference in Washington that weekend designed to bring together activists seeking to “build a more democratic, sustainable economy.” Before the civil disobedience, conference participants crashed office lobbies in downtown Washington DC to protest General Electric’s tax-dodging and Koch Industries’ support of fiscal austerity and deregulation. After the White House arrest, NPA umbrella organizations and NDWA members and organizers, alongside Restaurant Opportunities Center affiliates, lobbied Congress after a march that snaked through the streets of Washington. The Congressional pitches focused on minimum wage and effective upper income tax increases in addition to immigration reform with a track to citizenship for undocumented residents.

Speakers at the conference, “Rising Voices for a New Economy,” made the case on Sunday that hardships created by the current immigration system are intertwined with an increasing share of national income being siphoned off by a shrinking percentage of the richest Americans. Influence-peddling businessmen conspiring to keep benefits and wages down, they argued, also benefit from millions of workers being without legal protection while the threat of family separation dangles over their heads.

“This unequal economy disappears people,” said NDWA director Ai-jen Poo, railing against the vast prison population, deportations and “poverty wage jobs” codified by policies enacted in Washington.

“The rooms where deals are cut don’t look like this one, but they should,” she said. Speeches at the “Rising Voices” conference were translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Nepali and Tagalog. Both “Si se puede” (“Yes, we can”) chants and calls of “That ain’t right!” emanated from the audience throughout the day.

Barb Kalback, a member of the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, told the audience that she has seen corporate lobbyists consistently weaken family farms in her state by supporting politicians who gut regulatory regimes. Their initiatives, she said, echo predatory banks and private prison companies that have torn apart communities of color by lobbying for draconian drug laws and an unforgiving immigration regime.

“This didn’t happen by accident,” she said.

The most energetic speech, arguably, was delivered by Bobby Tolbert, a member of the New York City-based Voices of Community Activists and Leaders (VOCAL). Formerly homeless and HIV-positive since 1996, Tolbert told the crowd that he was only alive because of benefits that some city politicians have tried to rein in. He said progressives need to go on the offensive by endorsing and supporting their own candidates and policies and offered one such idea – a “bad business tax” designed to levy a fine upon employers with staff members who require public assistance. The proposal, he told Truthout, is one that he came up with on the spot. Tolbert finished his speech by getting the crowd to join him in a call-and-response chant – “I believe that we will win” – that electrified the room.

After speeches, conference attendees, led by organizers, dispersed into breakout sessions to hash out how they would attempt to counter what one leader described as “forty years of this narrative jammed down our throat.” Truthout sat in on the workshop, witnessing activists – mostly older women of color – from Cincinnati, Detroit, Massachusetts, Chicago and the Washington, DC, area grow in both confidence and anger as they discussed how, contrary to a refrain commonly sung on Capitol Hill, lower class Americans aren’t hurting due to their own lack of work ethic.

“This country was built on the backs of hardworking people,” the group concluded after a Socratic questionnaire. “They deserve their fair share.”

The involvement of the NDWA and ROC, organizations founded last decade, and the efforts to cultivate new activists indicate that if the labor movement is to survive in the 21st century, a growing percentage of its next generation of organizers will, most likely, be neither in the unionized manufacturing sector nor white. In 2013, labor journalist Josh Eidelson described the NDWA and ROC as “Alt-Labor … often-ignored, little-understood array of groups organizing workers without the union label.” Research he cited has shown that the number of similar groups has grown from five to 214 in the last twenty years. That they and “Rising Voices” are sponsored by older labor unions is part of an ongoing tacit concession that new organizational approaches are needed – with new organizations sponsored by the AFL-CIO, the SEIU, and the CWA, organizations that have been unable to reverse the tide of decreasing union membership and real wages since corporations started stepping up influence peddling in the seventies.

If Alt-labor groups have been encouraged by the Occupy Wall Street movement, their approach last weekend was markedly different. Monday’s demonstrations were carefully coordinated by organizers who managed every aspect of the march – with “marshals” and “police liaisons” directing participants along the route. “Police need a raise” was a chant employed by organizers – a bid to diffuse tension and foster class consciousness, but one that isn’t met without grumbles by some activists, as anyone who attended an Occupy demonstration can attest to.

That roughly a thousand people were able to participate in sometimes cagey demonstrations without being detained, beaten or pepper-sprayed, while being allowed to enter Congressional office buildings afterwards suggests that a middle ground between Zucotti Park and rigid politics of respectability exists.

And if Occupy Wall Street feared that formal participation in electoral politics would risk co-option by the Democratic Party, “Rising Voices” didn’t completely shy from criticism of Democrats, even if it did target the Koch Brothers – a pair often attacked by Democratic politicians who, themselves, don’t shrink from fundraising and hobnobbing with corporate lobbyists. Protest target General Electric has given almost half of its more than $37 million in campaign donations since 1989 to the Democratic Party. Although the firm gave more money in campaign donations to Mitt Romney than it did to President Obama’s reelection effort, its CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, worked as an economic adviser to the current administration between 2011 and 2013.

Nor did the White House’s recent repeated insistence that immigration reform is being stalled by House Republicans shield the administration from “Rising Voices” criticism. The Monday morning civil disobedience, flanked by allies with signs that read “President Obama: Your legacy, our future,” was on the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Ave. NW for a reason. Ileana Lopez, a single mom, domestic worker and a representative from the Albuquerque-based Encuentro who participated in the non-violent resistance, told the crowd that she was holding the president accountable for the hardship foisted upon her hometown and 1,100 families each day.

“My own family was torn apart when my brother was deported,” she said through an interpreter. “He paid his taxes and contributed to his community. So how can it be said that they’re only deporting people who pose a risk to this country? In what category do they put these brothers, children and parents who just come here to provide a better future to their families and are deported every day?”

“No more family separations. No more children made orphans by this broken system, she pleaded. “Please, Mr. President. Not one more.”

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