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The Joy of Justice: Marching with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers

April 2010

Below is a blog from our colleague Stephen Bartlett of Agricultural Missions entitled “Praying with our Feet Journal.” Along with 1,000 others, he participated in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) Farmworker Freedom March, a three-day trek of 25 miles ending in Lakeland, FL where Publix supermarket chain corporate headquarters is located. The farmworkers are calling on Publix to pay them a penny more for every pound of tomatoes they pick, which would nearly double their meager wages. CIW and other marchers are also asking Publix to sign onto a code of conduct which would prevent the from buying tomatoes from any growers that did not meet certain basic working conditions.

  Stephen’s journal is below. You can also view pictures and commentary from the march on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers website. Grassroots International gave a grant to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers last year for their Fair Food and Anti-Slavery Campaign.   Praying with our Feet Journal…By Stephen Bartlett   The CIW sound truck was festooned with rippling yellow flags framing the large ‘Farmworker Freedom March’ banner. A funky James Brown song came on as the 500-strong march headed up North Nebraska Avenue in Tampa, Florida on April 16, 2010. The march cadence got more lilt in the collective step, joyful to the core in the sea of green t-shirts denouncing Publix supermarket chain for ignoring the call to justice for farmworkers who pick tomatoes sold across the U.S.   A woman of African heritage at the wheel of an SUV idling at a red light couldn’t contain herself, and got out of her car and started dancing in the street in a white linen dress, her teeth flashing in the sun, such was the contagious joy of the moment. A runner with bright reflector vest dashed across the street to give her the CIW flier Why We March.. A happy cheer went up from dozens of marchers at the site of such spontaneous and energetic solidarity. The woman ground her heels into the right of way, her arms in the air, even as the light changed green and cars behind her waited to pass her stationary vehicle. She just kept on smiling, and dancing. The crowd cheered some more. Finally the woman got back into her car and drove off, waving wildly out of her window, following by the joyful whoops of the marchers!   The target of this latest mobilization by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) was Publix Supermarket chain, the largest privately owned company in the state of Florida. Publix would be the ninth major corporations to come to the negotiating table in the campaign for fair food, following the historic Taco Bell/Yum! Brands victory of 2005, the McDonalds agreement two years later, the Burger King capitulation a rowdy year of corporate missteps after that, followed close behind by Subway, Whole Foods, Bon Appetit, Compass Group, and most recently the food service giant Aramark, after a withering attack on numerous campuses by students organized by the Student Farmworker Alliance (SFA). On the horizon beyond Publix are Krogers, Stop N Shop, Grant, and Ahold, digging deeper into the food retail sector heading toward a grand finale of epic proportions represented by the largest purchaser of tomatoes in the U.S. and possibly the world, not to mention the corporation whose business model is most harmful to worker dignity and well-being, Wal-Mart.

Marchers hailed from at least 23 states! Many of the marchers were recent additions to the struggle, fresh on the heels of their Aramark victory on various campuses. The CIW themselves were a growing and reproducing crowd now well represented by men, women and children of various ages. None of them stayed home when this much fun could be had! People from faith communities and ecumenical circles were there as well, as well as ally community organizations, many of them led by grassroots leaders in urban centers across the U.S. in crisis.

Day 2 of the march saw swelling numbers of freedom marchers joining the movement, as we ate breakfast in a rural stretch near Plant City at a Mexican sports bar turned mass serving venue for scrambled eggs, beans and coffee. There were more farmworkers, harvesters of citrus and strawberries, some from Homestead and othrs from Immokalee on hand, men and women who could as easily speak with each other in the Mayan Mam language as in Spanish. And the numbers kept swelling.  A movement was maturing and reaping the fruits of countless months and years of public education and strategic alliance building. And the numbers kept swelling. In chartered buses and a fleet of vans some 600 to 700 marchers picketed at a Publix in downtown Plant City and then walked the 11 mile stretch from Plant City to the headquarters of Publix corporation on the outskirts of Lakeland, Florida. To our surprise, rural Florida showed itself to be quite receptive and even outright exuberant to have this Peoples’ Parade come into their lives, however briefly.   And not just among latinos and other people of color, but also among lilly white folk too, enthusiastically blowing their horns. Even drivers of Publix 18-wheelers pulled their mega-horns in thundering solidarity! What was going on here? Were those truck drivers also feeling a bit exploited?   A few folk, as would be expected, showed an irate antipathy to our march, making the police escorts nervous. But not the CIW and ally team running fliers all over the march route, who would approach and firmly question the logic of the counter-protest slander.

Informal conversations with CIW leaders revealed that Publix appeared to be taking an ideological approach to resisting the Campaign for Fair Food. Using language linking the CIW with “socialists”, for example, Publix was attempting to lump CIW together with “socialist Barack Obama” as the ‘Teabaggers’ are wont to do. The reactionary ideological tenor of some of those public expressions by Publix spokespersons will probably make for a lively and media-friendly war of ideas in the weeks and months to come!   Of course Publix photographers were dogging our march throughout the three days, taking reams of photos of us in our transparent joy and collective strength, even setting up an umbrella over their expensive-looking camera and tripod on Day 3.

Day 3 began with some social movement work, first visiting the mobile Modern Day Slavery Museum curated by the CIW with the help of victims of actual modern-day slavery cases! The replica produce truck that doubled as an overnight prison for modern day slavers and the panels of historical context that accompany it were a highly educational and emotionally moving experience. Then we broke into groups to discuss strategies for grassroots organizing. The exchange of experiences was fascinating and inspirational, with many tactics and strategic approaches for making structural change shared. Then it was off to protest and march for the final time!

As the CIW website wonderfully expressed as the rains began to fall on Day 3 in Lakeland, Florida, as we picketed some 1,000 strong at a local Publix supermarket, “When it Rains, WE Pour!” And pour we did, pouring like a clear human river of justice in several hours of intense public expressions of solidarity and determination, followed by the rally and concert, not in an outdoor park as originally planned due to the rain, but back in the church gymnasium where we had assembled the previous day, eaten our meals and had our meetings. I will shortly send you to the CIW website to read the report for Day 3 to get the full flavor of this convergence.

The march on Day 2, it should be noted, coincided with International Peasant Struggle Day of Via Campesina, April 17 in commemoration of the assassination of 19 peasants of the Landless Movement of Brazil, the MST.

So as we marched on Publix headquarters in Lakeland, Florida, hundreds of thousands of small-scale farmers across the world were marching on their local adversaries, from gold mining corporations in Cotui, Dominican Republic, to GMO fields in India and Mexico, to purveyors of genetically modified seeds in the Philippines. The CIW had chosen a weekend of marching for justice and freedom that put them and all of us, intentionally or not, smack dab in the middle of the global struggle for food sovereignty. As they rightly belong!! Moving corporations toward structural changes in how they do business, right in the proverbial belly of the beast, (that is the superpower, read “empire” which is today another way of describing the corporate elite entrenched in the power structure of the U.S. society and government).

After what for me had been a hiatus from the direct action that has made the Campaign for Fair Food so inspirational and effective, I was re-energized once more by the focused and comprehensive vision of CIW, and grateful to remain a “moving” part of that proverbial “freedom march.” Though for me the hunger strike of 2003 and the Taco Bell/Yum Brands! precedent-setting victory are rather recent memories, some of the young adult marchers and even some of the young farmworker leaders saw the Hunger Strike shirt I put on to get dry and warm after the rain and said: “Old School. That is really Old School.”

Have things moved so fast and far in this campaign, eight corporate agreements later, that the bone-rattling hungry struggle of eight years ago seems like old school? I guess it does! One student leader said: “In 2003 I was in primary school.” But for me this is an ever-blossoming path that is self-renewing, following the formula that CIW teaches: Consciousness Plus Commitment Equals Change. Conciencia mas Compromiso igual Cambio. If only Publix could understand what is coming! But their intransigence will only play a role in polarizing and clarifying this struggle, and in growing the fair food movement in the heart of places like Florida that have seen slavery, debt peonage and modern-day forms of servitude in the fields in a changing but continuous history of exploitation and oppression. As our multitude marched across the Florida landscape as determined and happy as larks seeking their nourishment, the very roots of the fields seemed to call out for justice.   Freedom, we knew in our bones, was not an individual rebellion against the restraint of selfish desire as preached under capitalism, but the effective pursuit of our common necessity. Publix’ owners, quite simply and to their shame, cannot conceive of this!

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