August 22, 2012
Members of the No Paper No Fear ride visited a group of day laborers in Hoover, Alabama, who had requested support in organizing. Eleazar is himself a day laborer in Tucson, Arizona, and he was part of the team that helped these workers organize themselves.
It was a great experience in my life, to witness how a group of day laborers organized for dignity in their living conditions and the right to look for work. They were being harassed by the police, ignored and criminalized by their housing administrator, and fearful of being deported. On Friday, we took a small group of No Papers No fear riders, to learn from them about the conditions they lived and worked in, and support their organizing; on Sunday, we held a meeting with the tenants and the day laborers, and on Tuesday we brought the entire group to support a demonstration led by the day laborers for their right to work and good living conditions.
The first day we were there I heard the stories of the workers. They had been gathering outside these apartments looking to get hired for the last 6 years. Many of them lived in the apartment complexes as well, where the living conditions had been deteriorating. Most of them were immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and many of them were indigenous, and didn’t speak fluent Spanish, and less English. It was hard for them to communicate and defend themselves.
I got to see one of the apartments, where I was taken by one of the day laborers, German. It was a two-floor, small apartment, where the walls were covered in mold and small red and black dots. He told me the dots were from killing insects, their bodies and blood left on the wall. The water from the bathroom, on the second floor, routinely leaks through the living room ceiling. In the second floor there is also a bedroom. The ceiling of the bedroom is missing a bit segment, about 4 feet by 4 feet, which fell on top of German’s bed.
A few months ago many had decided to leave their apartments and look for better housing, but the building administration had told them that their complaints would be addressed, and that they should sign for one more year. Many did, but time passed and the apartments were not being fixed, and slowly they realized that their complaints were being ignored by the administration. When they would go to the office, the administrator would turn his back, and pretend he couldn’t hear them.
Meanwhile, the police began to come by and kick them off the property while they were looking for work. They would leave the property, which they were told was private, and head out to the sidewalk. There, they were told by the police that they could not look for work there either, and some neighbors would even call the police. Some were arrested, and of those who were arrested, at least two had been turned over to immigration. One had paid a large fine, and has to go back to court. The other had a prior immigration history, and he was not given the chance to go in front of a judge, and he got deported. This had created even more fear amongst from the police.
The plan after the first meeting was to talk to others in the apartment complex and other tenants, to see if they would like to do something together. They passed out flyers to everyone, and agreed to have a larger meeting on Sunday.
When we showed up on Sunday there were some 50 people at the beginning of the meeting, and over 70 by the time we ended. We met inside the apartment complexes, so as to not be out in the street. Some half an hour into the meeting, right after we had begun to share with people about their rights in front of the police and for fair living conditions, the police came by. Right away the workers began to talk about leaving, scared, but we told them they should stay, and we accompanied them in having a conversation with the police. The police officer told us that those who lived in the apartment could stay, but that everyone else had to go, even if we had been invited. So we went across the street to meet in the parking lot, and continued our meeting. It was a significant moment though, because for many of them it was the first time that they saw that they didn’t have to run away from the police.
When we started the meeting in the parking lot, at first people didn’t want to speak. But little by little, people began to talk about their stories. One family came by, telling us that they too used to live at the apartments, but that when they began to complain about the conditions, and instead of fixing, they were told to leave. They were there to help organize. We heard stories like this one over the next two hours, and towards the end asked people how they wanted to organize and respond. They told us they wanted a change in the management, good living conditions, and a change in the building administration. I shared with them that the only thing they could do is organize, form a worker’s committee. They agreed, and said they wanted to hold a public event and protest against the abuses and for the right to work. That night we went back to Tuscaloosa, AL, where the rest of the No Papers No Fear riders were, and we told them the plan asking also for their support.
On Tuesday August 21st, No Papers No Fear riders went on Tuesday to support the workers. We got there and there were about 15 workers. One van came by to ask for painters, and the workers told them that today was not the day, today they would protest. We lined up outside in the sidewalk and began to talk about the stories. I stayed behind, because I saw that people stayed behind, some hiding. I asked them if they knew what the protest was about, and I explained it to them. Some would say that they were waiting for work, but I think they were scared.
I saw two women towards the back of the apartment complex, one of whom was carrying her child. One told me that she had lived there before, and that she too had been kicked out. I don’t know where the words came to me from, but I tried to convince them. Slowly, they started walking towards the protest, and got pretty close. Although they didn’t make it all the way, they were part of the group. I then asked them if they would be interested in telling their stories to our media crew, and at first they said no, but then I told them how important it was for them to speak out, because they had experienced abuse, and that they managers wanted to intimidate them, but that they had a right to fair work and good housing conditions. I told them that I was on the bus, that I was undocumented, and that we needed people like us to come out and declare that we had rights. They walked with me, and shared their stories.
There was a moment when we were standing at the protest when I first saw the police that I felt hessitation. The police officer was walking towards me, and my first instinct was to walk away. But instead I stood firm, holding my sign, remembering that I too had to show others that I would be okay. So I just stood there holding my sign. The police came, and just told us we had to stay on the side walk.
This experience strengthened my belief in the work that we are doing. It was a moment of inspiration to know that they too needed to face fear, and that by sharing what we knew about our rights as workers, day laborers, undocumented immigrants, and people, we were sharing tools for them to defend themselves and become unafraid. It gave me more energy to continue to come out of the shadows, and tell people our stories, and continue to show that unity is power.
Pictures by Fernando Lopez.