Freedom Ride Journal: Day One
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I have a seat on the Immigrant Workers' Freedom Ride. My bus left Chicago this morning and now I'm in Detroit. After one day on the bus, I'm no longer just a reporter, an outsider who doesn't look the part or doesn't understand the language. I've been told by the other riders that I'm part of the family now, whether I like it or not. I like it.
I arrived at the Federal Plaza in Chicago at 8:30 am and Freedom Riders were already claiming seats on the bus. Out of the four buses that left from Chicago, I'm on bus B. I watch as riders hug each other like they're just meeting for coffee, as if making history is an everyday thing. I learn later that the embraces are a way to give each other courage, the laughter a way to calm their nerves.
The send-off rally is larger than organizers anticipated and protesters holding union signs keep coming: Jobs with Justice, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 1, ACORN, SEIU Local 800 and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrants and Refugee Rights.
The crowd, mostly immigrants from Mexico, swells and dances, moved perhaps by a hopefulness they haven't felt in months. There is an exhilaration that can't be touched by the Nazi flag that taunts from across the street.
Si Se Puede. It can be done. This is the rally cheer. No, this is the Freedom Ride cheer. It begins with one person, slowly, and erupts into a chant, a song lyric, an entire song written with only three words. It comes unexpectedly, after a good speech or a long silence on the bus. A CD on repeat. Si Se Puede!
I ask someone at the rally what this means. Later, they tease me when I can't tame my tongue around the "uede" sound. I want to sing, too.
I sit by Jose Martinez. The night before, around 11 pm, he had second thoughts about coming on the trip. The last time Jose was on a bus trip, he was being deported back to Mexico City. Jose has lived in Chicago since 1978. He could be what it means to work hard for a living. When his car used to break down, years ago, he would pay for a taxi to take him to work, sometimes not making enough during his shift to cover his losses. He's excited, he says, about helping to change the world his granddaughter is growing up in.
Every Freedom Rider wears an ID badge around the neck. All other forms of identification are stored below, in suitcases. On the bus, we all have equal status. If we get stopped by the police or the border patrol, we enact a Solidarity Action Plan. No one talks. No one gives their name. No one reaches for their papers. We hold hands and chant Si Se Puede.
We drive into Dearborn, Michigan, and the landscape changes. Gone are the cows. Gone are the scenic rest stops. It's concrete and rust, chipped paint and barbed wire for the rest of the night. We pass by the Ford auto plant, the largest factory in the United States. Flames burn from smoke stacks like an Olympic torches. It smells like the aftermath of a fireworks display.
We rally in Dearborn because it is home to the largest Arab-American population in the United States. We rally in Dearborn because Arab-Americans have been cornered here, a deserted, polluted construction zone that nobody else wants. I wonder, as we march down the street, if Dearborn has ever seen a rally before.
Dinner is provided by the local Auto Workers Union. We eat spaghetti and learn each other's stories. After speeches, songs and an appearance from the Raging Grannies, a congo line snakes around the room, dancing to a union-themed version of YMCA. It's fun to be in the UNION.
And it is.
I get back on the bus to drive to our hotel. The girl sitting behind me asks if I speak Spanish. I say no.
"But now you know how to say Si Se Puede," she says.
Megan Tady is riding the bus from Chicago to Washington DC.