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by Donna Lamb
Tuesday, Oct. 07, 2003 at 4:44 PM
As the culmination of Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, on Saturday, October 4th, tens of thousands of immigrant workers joined friends and allies for a fabulous rally in Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, New York.
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About 9 am they began to arrive, first as a trickle and then in great waves. Humanity from all parts of the globe came together in Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, New York for the much-anticipated Oct. 4th rally marking the end of the national Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. By about 12:30, around 100,000 immigrants and their allies had gathered on the lawn in front of the large stage and around the edges where colorful booths offered helpful information and advocacy concerning immigrant issues - and, of course, a wide variety of delicious food.
You could literally feel the joy in the air and the sense of solidarity as people from many different nations joined together for a common cause: to focus attention on immigrant rights and to help force the United States government to make pivotal changed in its current immigration policies.
Cheers rang out as each contingent of Freedom Riders entered the grounds. These were the 900 immigrants from 50 different countries and their supporters who, in order to dramatize their cause, had traversed this nation in 18 buses, visiting more than 100 cities and towns along the way. Inspired by the Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights era, they had traveled some 20,000 miles of US highway, coming from as far west as Settle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Some trips originated in the Midwest in Minneapolis and Chicago, while others rode in from down south - Houston and Miami. From our own neck of the woods, there were the buses from Boston.
At the rally, more than 30 people spoke, including politicians, civil rights activists, labor organizers, religious leaders, and the Freedom Riders themselves. They elaborated on their message to the leaders in Washington and elsewhere that any new immigrant policy passed by Congress must include these key requirements: Legalization and a clear and well-defined road to citizenship for all immigrant workers; the right of immigrant workers to re-unite with their families; protection of the rights of immigrant in the workplace; and protection of the civil rights and civil liberties of all.
"We are ready to come out of the shadows," stated Maria Elena Durazo, national chairperson of the event and the daughter of Mexican immigrants. "We are ready to say we are no longer afraid."
Long-time activist Hyacinth Spence, who hails from Jamaica, welcomed the Freedom Riders on behalf of the people "of the sunshine isle of the Caribbean." She spoke about the importance of what the Freedom Riders have accomplished and said that immigrants "need to be recognized and respected for the contributions we make here in New York, including in Brooklyn, the second home of the Caribbean people."
Congressman John Lewis, one of the original Freedom Riders, recalled how he was "left in a pool of blood in the Montgomery bus station" after they were attacked by a white mob. He said he supports the immigrants' campaign because "we all are in the same boat. We were all immigrants from some place, except the Native Americans."
People attending the rally made strong statements, visually and verbally, as well. Ali Perez, who is with the Community Association of Progressive Dominicans, carried a sign reading, "We Are Not Terrorists!!! We Are Workers!" He said that even though he's Dominican and not Arab, he's experienced an increase in racial profiling since 911. "I believe that the new law passed against terrorism is nothing more than a racist law against minority people in the United States," he stated emphatically. "I'm talking about people who have been in this country for a long time working hard and raising our families. We're professional people in the community, but they don't care about that. They just care about terrorism which is not a real thing going on in the US."
Dahmina, whose sign read, "Just Say No to Religious/Ethnic Profiling," remarked, "Just because a few people did bad doesn't mean we're all bad. The people who did those bad things didn't care about religion. Islam means peace. Stop thinking we are all guilty persons."
New York City Council Members were out in force, especially those with recent immigrant roots such as John Liu, Yvette Clarke, Hiram Monserrate, Diana Reyna and Miguel Martinez. Stated Caribbean-born Kendall Stewart, Chair of the Subcommittee on Immigration, "It is monumental that so many people who share the same concerns came together today. I hope that the federal government will take stock of it and do the right thing: adjust the laws so that immigrants can be part of this community without fear."
Council Member Robert Jackson commented, "We are united today to improve the lives of all people, no matter who you are or what the color of your skin. We must care about each other because if we don't, the world will perish."
Roger Toussaint, President of the Transit Workers Union, Local 100, pointed to the historic meaning of the day. He said, "We have people here from Central America to Asia, from the Pacific to the Caribbean, and a lot of support from white workers who are here embracing the cause of justice for immigrants. This is historic on 2 accounts: 1) immigrants are uniting, regardless of where they come from, around an immigrant agenda, and 2) labor is embracing that agenda."
One of the other wonderful things about the event was the mingling of serious speakers and superb cultural presentations. It was truly a world music celebration as performers from Asia, Africa and all over the Americas entertained the gathered throng.
Like El Prodigious and Bronco, the Caribbean's beloved Mighty Sparrow absolutely wowed the crowd with his electrifying performance. Afterwards he stated in an interview that he thought the solidarity being shown at the rally was very significant. "Everybody doesn't start the same way," he observed. "Some people start undocumented, but as long as they behave themselves and don't contravene any other laws, they deserve a hearing. They bring a lot of benefits to the country." And he said with feeling, "I don't want America to turn it's back on the people who are here, because there are a lot of hardships and deprived conditions that have them leave their countries. They come for a break. Give them a break!"
Topping off the afternoon was a concert by Wyclef Jean, himself a Haitian immigrant. He "flipped it in the language" and proceeded to rap not only in English, but Spanish and French. He brought the house down with Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" and an absolutely great funky guitar rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner." The audience went wild when he jumped off the stage and went out among them, returning at last to the stage to dance, complete with handstands and flips.
Wyclef Jean's outstanding and energetic performance was a fitting end to the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride - which is only the beginning of a mighty movement.
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