UPLAND, California - January 26, 2008
Supporters of the human rights of immigrants and workers filled the Upland City Council chambers tonight to support speakers decrying injustices against Upland day laborers. The Minutemen, who are themselves responsible for many of these injustices, also arrived to address the council. And while the council may have been more receptive to their racist rhetoric than to our pleas for justice, we maintained the moral high ground and refused to retreat.
Two weeks ago, two members of the anti-immigrant Minuteman Project "alerted" the members of the Upland City Council to the "problem" of people of color looking for work in the community. This farce of a presentation might have been comical--day laborers have been asking individuals in the city for work for years --if the slanderous accusations levied against the day laborers were not so serious.
The Minutemen made a series of unsubstantiated accusations: "[W]e have seen them flash us and grab their crotch," and "we've found broken crack pipes, syringes and there are beer bottles everywhere," were the worst.1 Mayor John "JP" Pomierski feigned outrage: "I believe the entire council shares my concerns, and I would venture to say they were as surprised as I was to hear that was happening at Home Depot," and even ask the Minutemen about ways to legislate free-speech violations, like the city council of Lake Forest did.
It was very shortly after that meeting that day laborers began complaining of police harassment of themselves and of their employers. Area activists associated with educational and religious institutions immediately held a meeting with the mayor and the sheriff to request a halt to the police harassment and the installation of a port-a-potty, which would have been provided at no cost to the city. They were flatly denied.
At tonight's council meeting, the two Minutemen were again given preferential treatment. They sat in the front row, and were the first to speak, doing so in succession. They ranted about the "improvement" in the situation outside the Upland Home Depot. After the first speaker, the mayor admitted the city's responsibility for repressing day laborers, and alluded to further anti-day laborer actions:
"Thank you for bringing that [the day laborers] to our attention, because, just because we've seen a decrease, in fact, Councilman Willis and I went to lunch I think a day or two after the meeting a few weeks ago and actually drove through the [Home Depot] parking lot and didn't see anybody, so, um, I also want to thank the police chief because I know he got the message loud and clear that night, and I know there's been some stuff in the works, and on another note I know the city attorney is also working--are gonna come up with some other stuff with regard to that, so, it's not gonna be forgotten."
The second minuteman followed, boasting about the latest "triumph" of the nativist movement, Bush's last-minute commutation of the sentences of Border Patrol agents José Compeán and Ignacio Ramos, which he mistakenly referred to as a pardon. He went on to embarrass himself much in a much worse fashion: "The reason that we raise awareness wherever we go is because we wanna correct what I call 'affirmative discrimination' against the American culture, against the American people, and uh, American ethnicity and diversity. Multiculturalism has always been a part of America; the problem today is it's--instead of individual rights, each an every one of you, me, everybody, it's group rights. And group rights have manifested themselves in illegal alien--illegal aliens--on American soil. The Hispanic organizations--and I call 'em Hispanics 'cause I don't know where Hispania's at--they, uh, tend to, uh, back up the rights of illegal aliens on American soil circumventing our rights, uh, impinging on the quality of life in Upland and all the time calling themselves immigrants."
He went on to give his phone number. "What I'm about is the American culture. Our culture is an Anglo-Protestant-core culture-society. Morals and common decency are shared by each and every one of us, from the cradle to the grave. Our fathers defended in World War II. We refuse to see its demise and we ask the City of Upland to maybe, uh, join us, and maybe we can incorporate some clubs that, um, promote the American culture." On the recording you can hear my compañera say what we were all thinking, "What, like the KKK?"
Finally, day laborer advocates were allowed access to the speaker's podium. The first speaker was a well-respected attorney and veteran community activist, who also happens to be a skilled musician. She began by reading Matthew 25:34-40 (when the King talks about being "a stranger," and favoring those who "invited Me in"), following it with the First Amendment. Finally, she said a word about Compeán and Ramos. "I think that we need to be more afraid of people who shoot--officers--who shoot people in the back, because you know, even if the guy had a whole boatload of marijuana, it's no capital crime. And yet, he took it in his own hands to shoot him in the back, and there should be some kind of response of government when officers shoot people in the back!"
The next man, another veteran whose children were in the audience, brought up the memory of the late day laborer and organizer José Fernando Pedraza, who was killed in a traffic accident during a Minuteman protest of the Rancho Cucamonga day labor site about a year and a half ago. A neighbor of the site, he recalled, "On that day, this group, the Minutemen group, they had a protest, and there was a fatality on account of the group. So if it weren't for those people, that person would be alive right now, I think."
The last speaker for the cause of the day laborers was a young organizer and a resident of Upland. He introduced himself and explained his ties to the community.
"I have come to speak to you today because, like some people who addressed the council two weeks ago, I too am concerned about our city's day laborers.
"I'm concerned that workers aren't being paid a fair wage. I'm concerned about their labor going unpaid, and the limited access they have to legal means to have their grievances against employers redressed.
"I am concerned that they work under often-dangerous conditions, and are not receiving any health benefits from their employers.
"And I'm particularly concerned about this borderline-racist anti-immigrant sentiment I see brewing in my own community, and it makes me fear for our democracy and our future. I'm concerned that our very own city council seems to be lending a sympathetic ear to the anti-immigrant activists, many of whom hold extreme political positions. And I am concerned about the border wall going up between the US and Mexico and the corresponding militarization of an important social and economic region.
I urge Upland-area residents not to get caught up in the hyper-nationalist, anti-immigrant hysteria that always seeks fault in the Other.
"We need to realize the historic roots of the current economic situation and the United States' deep ties to Mexico. And we need to look at the question of what to do with our future as a humanitarian one.
"I also urge the members of the city council to educate themselves on the issue of day labor. A concise but comprehensive academic study, titled “On the Corner,” was released in 2006. Among its primary conclusions is that where day labor centers are established, they create a “win-win” situation for laborers, employers, and communities. Day labor centers address the concerns of community members by providing such amenities as toilets. I have brought a copy of the report for the councilmembers to read at their earliest convenience, and I ask the council to seriously consider providing our city's day laborers with such a center. Often, cities do not even have to allocate any public funds for such centers, which are operated by private organizations such as charities and religious groups.
"I would also like to remind the council that the Supreme Court has found that asking for work in public is an activity that is protected by the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, and any citywide ban on solicitation would surely bring opposition from civil rights groups and defenders of civil liberties."
While the speakers and their supporters realize the limited impact their words were likely to have, they felt that they had accomplished their goal of bringing up important issues and making a strong presence with numbers and strong words. And the struggle continues.
1. Emerson, Sandra. "Upland officials and residents concerned over day labor site." Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, January 19, 2009. http://www2.dailybulletin.com/ci_11454869 accessed January 26, 2009.