Poor People's Campaign

By Kathleen Shaw | Daily News-Record (Harrisonburg)

Jul 21, 2020

Poultry plant workers have been fighting for better treatment for the past few months as COVID-19 cases in the region have grown. Carlos Ramos said his mistreatment in the plants has lasted for nearly two decades, however.

Over 100 individuals gathered at Court Square on Monday evening for a Rally in Solidarity with Workers and People of Color in conjunction with the nationwide movement, Strike for Black Lives, organized in part by the Service Employees International Union.

An immigrant from El Salvador and beneficiary of the Temporary Protected Status program, Ramos has worked for 18 years at a Dayton poultry plant. With the world in lockdown, he is now claimed as a vital worker, but he said the recognition has led to no improvement in treatment.

“Even though we are considered essential, the companies don’t care about us,” Harrisonburg resident Paloma Saucedo translated for Ramos at Monday’s rally.

The crowd’s demographic encompassed people of various ages and races on the courthouse lawn to vocalize concerns for the intrinsic violence on Black and brown people in local industries and institutions.

Hosted by local chapters of Black Lives Matter, Community Solidarity with Poultry Workers, Poor People’s Campaign and Virginia Organizing, the crowd of racial-justice advocates knelt, chanted and listened to speakers who demanded several local policy changes such as a $15 minimum wage, universal healthcare, unions for all and justice for structural racism in schools and workplaces.

After host and former Harrisonburg City Council candidate Luciano Benjamin opened the event at 6 p.m., Poor People’s Campaign area coordinator A.J. Young, Jr., read a list of Black people who have died at the hands of police before leading a moment of silence for eight minutes, 46 seconds.

The time stamp has been adopted as a form of solidarity to Black lives, representing the time George Floyd was pinned under former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee before dying on May 25.

For those roughly nine minutes, Court Square was still all but for the sound of rustling branches, chirping birds and chugging motors driving past.

“The Poor People’s Campaign has aligned itself with poultry workers, fast food workers, health care workers. … It is concerning how all of a sudden these workers are considered essential when they have been essential all along,” Young said, citing Kroger, McKee Foods and Hershey as leading examples of corporations that “sprinkle” benefits to appease frontline workers instead of implementing hazard pay or supplying personal protective equipment.

“While people can’t afford to eat everyday,” Young continued. “It took us 401 years to get to $7.25 an hour. It’s abominable.”

A second moment of silence was also held in memory of civil rights icon John Lewis, who died over the weekend.

Harrisonburg couple Gabe Huck and Theresa Kubasak have attended nearly every racial-justice rally over the past few months, carrying a different banner each time. Monday’s sign read, “The VOTE is the Most POWERFUL NON-VIOLENT TOOL WE HAVE…,” quoting Lewis.

“Our sign today is honoring John Lewis, may he rest in peace. He taught us so much about justice in the ‘60s,” Kubasak said.

Two local rappers, Raiquan Thomas and Maleke Jones, who individually perform under the names Raiquan and Meechy Jay, performed several original songs about seeking justice and accountability. Thomas, a recent James Madison University graduate and Harrisonburg High School employee, performed tracks “Changed Up” and “Put In The Work,” which ended by leading the chant, “arrest the cops that killed Breonna,” referring to Breonna Taylor, who died after being shot by Louisville Metro Police Department officers upon forced entry of her home on March 13.

Various facets of Black Lives Matter were discussed throughout the rally, but intersectional injustices shared by all people of color were addressed by several advocacy groups.

Locally formed Coalition for Latino Advocacy, Response and Organization (CLARO), which works with groups such as Harrisonburg’s chapter of National TPS Alliance and Faith in Action, was represented by member Carlos Aleman.

“Su lucha es mi lucha; your fight is my fight,” Aleman translated for the crowd, speaking to how racism is intertwined with the country’s history, dating back to the 1700s and into modern policies like the Patriot Act and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “These are different forms of anti-Black violence.”

On the steps leading up to the courthouse, Virginia Organizing had a table with applications for voter registration and restoration of rights for convicted felons.

Patrick Fritz, a 1996 Fort Defiance graduate, spoke to his experience and observations as a Latino growing up in the Shenandoah Valley. At 13, he began working in food service to help his family pay rent and eventually aspired to become a chef, but he said his financial options after graduation were military, methamphetamine or poultry plants.

“They all lead to physical and emotional trauma and an early grave. … Not much has changed since 1996,” he said. “The industry thrives off exploiting Black and brown bodies.”

Ramos said he sees change coming on the horizon and hopes one day industries can respect all people equally, as seen in God’s eyes.

“We’re all part of this beautiful country. We’re currently going through hard times, but together we can get ahead. No one is superior or above anyone in this country because we are all God’s children,” Ramos said through a translator.

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