Get on the Bus!
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The Freedom Rides -- surely we remember reading and learning about them in history class: buses filled with earnest students back in 1961, black and white riding together to draw attention to the brutality and discrimination committed against African Americans.
Unfortunately, racism never ended. There was no final resolution, no cure-all to racism and injustice implemented after the infamous decade of peace and violence was over. If anything, civil rights abuses have become deeply entrenched in American society, and are manifest in different colors (brown), different language ("terrorist"), and different legislation (The Patriot Act).
Having been subtler and sometimes invisible in the last few decades, the civil rights movement is once again becoming vociferous, invoking the passion, courage and outrage that marked the 1960s. Perhaps this is the sleeping lion that awoke after 9/11.
Four decades later, people are back on the buses to continue the struggle for economic and social justice and civil rights for America's most marginalized population -- immigrants. Surprise, America, it's a never-ending tour until we get it right.
This time, it's called the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride (IWFR), and this time, it's nationwide. Kicked-off last Saturday, buses from ten different cities--Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, Boston, Miami, Las Vegas, Portland and Minneapolis--will travel 20,000 miles of highway, drawing a "new map toward citizenship."
"We chose this because it was bold, risky, and audacious," says David Koff, senior research analyst for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE). "We took it from the Freedom Rides in '61 because of how effective they were in demonstrating to the United States that segregation was intolerable and had no legitimization. So it's the inspiration of the demonstration of a similar build-up of dissent around the status quo of institutionalized racism."
It's not just those living in the shadows -- there are 16 million undocumented workers in the United States -- that will be joining the road trip. The IWFR has a strong, broad coalition of organizers and supporters, including HERE, the AFL-CIO, civil rights groups, students, activists, churches and businesses.
Beyond creating visibility for immigrants' rights, the IWFR is hoping to draw attention to five main goals:
1) granting legalization status to working, taxpaying immigrants
2) clearing the path toward citizenship
3) restoring rights on the job
4) reunifying families torn apart by immigration laws
5) respecting and upholding civil rights and liberties for all
Along the route, these "travelling freedom schools" will stop in 100 cities and towns to educate people about the plight of immigrants, before converging on Washington DC for a hearing with members of Congress on October 1 and 2, and then ending in Flushing Meadows Park, Queens, NY, with a mass rally on October 4.
"The most important thing is immigrants telling their stories," says Steve Williamson, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council, AFL-CIO. "That's what this is a vehicle for. We're going to be doing that in big cities, little towns, all across America, with buses, with megaphones, on street corners."
And they've got stories to tell -- stories of heartbreak, of oppression, of violence and of stark and unabashed racism.
"When I started Hate Free Zone after September 11, one of my first clients was a man from Burundi that came in here and said he wanted to go home," says Pramila Jayapal, executive director of Hate Free Zone. "He had literally walked a year and a half across deserts to get away from an incredibly repressive government. And he wanted to go back. He was 66 and he had tears in his eyes, and he said, 'I want to go back.' And I said, 'Back where? To whom and to what? How can you go?' And he said, 'How can I stay?'"
Since 9/11, immigrants have faced heightened degrees of discrimination, harassment, illegal detentions, deportation and selective enforcement polices. The accounts from immigrants have been so grievous and so widespread that even a Justice Department report found the civil rights of hundreds of immigrants arrested after 9/11 were violated.
That's not to mention, however, the civil rights of immigrants violated on a daily basis before the fear campaign that followed 9/11.
"Look at the contributions that immigrant workers make -- the food that we're eating, the schools they're cleaning, all the different ways in which we know that they're undocumented, and take advantage of that as a society," Williamson says. "They pay taxes and don't get services. It's this whole notion of an imbalance between their contributions and what they get back from society. But the most basic thing is our worth as human beings. That's what's being denied immigrants."
It's easy to evoke Gandhi when asked why Americans should care about what is being denied immigrants: An injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere.
But to Americans, who have been asked to spy on their neighbors, particularly those with origins anywhere near the "Axis of Evil" countries, this notion doesn't always resonate.
The more appropriate answer, then, is that immigrants' rights, or the lack thereof, affect all of us.
"If people think, if native Americans think, that the attacks on immigrants, particularly with regards to civil rights, are not going to affect them, they're walking around with blindfolds," Williamson says. "All that's going on is the Bush Administration continually and very effectively pushes to see how far they can go to take away and erode rights. There hasn't been enough outcry at every step so they just keep going a step further, and they're going to continue to do that."
As the issues that impact the people at the bottom creep upward, the Freedom Rides look increasingly like a platform for Americans to unite around. Just the sheer number of people involved with the Freedom Rides sends a message to the Bush Administration, as well as the 2004 presidential candidates.
"A lot of votes will be affected by the way an individual candidate stands on the question of immigration," Koff says. "By the time this thing is over, it'll be hard for anyone to pretend this isn't a constituent concern out there."
Beyond the elections, the Freedom Rides are ultimately about breaking down the barriers to a more just society and uniting Americans around the conviction, that no, we don't tolerate injustice anywhere.
"There's a huge possibility for building this progressive majority voice that is about human rights, and a more equitable system for everybody, and it can't be ignored," Jayapal says. "It's the power of numbers."
Megan Tady is riding the bus from Chicago to Washington DC.