Freedom Ride Journal: Day Six
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It's Immigrant Workers' Freedom Ride Lobby Day in Washington D.C. Only some riders didn't get to lobby. Some riders, who came with stories to tell, have to pack them back into their suitcases between dirty laundry and toiletries.
All the Freedom Riders meet at the Capitol in the morning, pulling up to a building that looks like it's been polished just for us, a gleaming white smile, with lips curling around teeth. A Richard Nixon smile.
The riders break into groups according to their voting districts. I join a group with 17 other people. We're meeting with Senators Dick Durbin and Jesse Jackson, Jr. Our friends. Our allies. Just six days ago, Senator Durbin gave a rousing send-off speech in Chicago, where cameras flashed and newspapers noticed he was there. We think we'll be greeted with open arms.
We bring a "Dear Colleague Letter" for them to sign. If they sign it, it means they're supporting positive immigration reform, that they're fighting for it on the floor of the Senate. The walk to Durbin's office is difficult for Maria Bueno. Her leg gives her constant pain, and she needs someone to hold onto her arm, to support her, as she walks. But she tells me she doesn't care about the pain. She tells me she's here to tell her story. She's been waiting a long time.
We wait in Durbin's office for 15 minutes. Jose Sarabia is nervous. He's supposed to talk about his daughter, who can't go to college, who doesn't have a future. The suits in the office are flashy, the photos have important people in them. The interns answering the telephones talk quickly and the chairs are uncomfortable, not really meant for sitting. But he knows how important this is. He'll tell his story.
Durbin shakes everyone's hands and sits in a chair in the middle of the room. The riders have rehearsed what they'll say, what questions they'll ask, who will present Durbin the letter. They've driven six days for this moment.
A moment is what it is. Or rather, it's five minutes of the grandest theatrical event, every minute staged to perfection. Three minutes are spent while Durbin, glancing at the ticking clock, passes around his mother's naturalization certificate. It's a distraction tactic, a time filler. On cue, his secretary opens the door, announcing we have two minutes left. It's a frantic 120-second finale as Maria speaks quickly in Spanish, the story she's been waiting to tell cut off by the credits rolling. He has to vote today. He's a busy man. As he leaves, I think about the way the crowd cheered in Chicago when he wished the riders luck. I think of the cameras flashing, of the newspapers printing his name.
I leave angry because Jose didn't get a chance to tell his story. I leave angry because Maria lifts her fist and says "Si se puede." I leave angry because some people thank him when they leave, they act grateful for the time he's spared for them, and no one tells him that five minutes is inappropriate. I leave angry because this is a victory for some people, who never imagined themselves in a senator's office. I leave angry, because I know it's not a victory.
But we have another senator to see: Jesse Jackson, Jr. We're fired up. As Francine walks to his office, she talks about how excited she is to meet him.
Only he's not there. The secretary says he was never supposed to be there. She says we made an appointment with Charles Dujoh, Jackson's legislative director. Our lobby guide tells her we'll wait for Jackson, but we're told he's out for the rest of the day. It's Charles or nothing.
I see shoulders sag and eyes drop. I see, in an instant, what disappointment looks like. I watch some of the riders cry silently as they stand there, in the middle of the waiting room, when Charles puts his hands on his hips and doesn't ask their names or invite them to sit down. I cry too, as Jose tells his personal story to a man that looks right through him. I cry when Bobbe tells about abuse on the job and employees push past him, on the way to their offices. I cry when Charles doesn't say a word, when we leave without Jackson's business card because they don't have any left, when Maria comforts me afterward.
In the elevator, on the way down, I overhear two men in suits speaking in Spanish. They say if you want to get in to talk to people here, you have to come with a bag full of money.
I find out later that some of the other Freedom Riders had the same experience. Appointments made weeks ago were met by secretaries, by legislative directors, by interns who, confused by our visit, say they've only been working in the office for two weeks. Riders are told their stories will be related back to the senators, but no one takes notes. No one writes anything down. It's a disgrace.
But there are victories that happen today. A few senators speak with riders for an hour. Some are moved to tears. And some promise action. Still, it's unclear when we leave, how successful the day has been.
At dinner, we watch footage of the Las Vegas bus that was stopped by border control in Texas. The riders were made to get off the bus, were questioned for four hours. During that time, nobody talked, nobody gave their name. They simply pointed to their Freedom Ride IDs, one status, singing "We Shall Overcome."
Megan Tady is riding the bus from Chicago to Washington DC.