Mass arrests at immigration protest spur coalition to remake America

WASHINGTON – In a jail cell in the nation’s capital Thursday, top leaders of 40 powerful labor and progressive groups found they had plenty of time (six hours) to talk and hash out plans for essentially remaking America.

Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen and Greenpeace Executive Director Phil Redford were among the 40 immigrant rights, labor, faith and community leaders arrested Aug. 1 for bringing traffic to a halt in the streets around Capitol Hill. Protesting what they say are unjust immigration policies, they told House Republicans that they intend to fight relentlessly for a comprehensive bill that benefits 11 million undocumented immigrants.

At a press conference today, Cohen and Radford announced that more than 80 organizations have now joined The Democracy Initiative – a coalition formed earlier this year by the CWA, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the NAACP.

The two said the 40 jailed activists agreed strongly yesterday that the coalition’s aims should be getting: big money out of politics; immigration rights; voting rights; and stopping GOP obstruction in Congress. Everyone in the holding cell, they said, was celebrating what they considered at least one victory already against Republican obstructionism – Tuesday’s Senate confirmation of all five of President Obama’s nominees to the National Labor Relations Board and nominees for other Cabinet positions including the Environmental Protection Administration.

Asked what immigration rights had to do with the environment, Greenpeace director Radford said, “Justice for workers and for immigrants, both of whom are marginalized, is important. They need to be included in the political process not just because they face environmental hazards daily on the job but also if we are to elect lawmakers who will take global warming seriously.”

“We’re not going to have a clean-energy economy if the same companies that are polluting our rivers and oceans are polluting our elections,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.

“It was exciting and frankly wonderful that we all had the chance to be locked up together like that with nothing more than our clothes, ID cards and bail money,” said Cohen. “I learned more about them [the environmentalists] in those six hours than I could have any other way. When you bring together so many groups, or at least the leaders of them, like that you are bound to get good results.”

For his part, Radford said, “Talking in that cell to Arlene Holt-Baker [AFL-CIO secretary treasurer] was absolutely amazing. No better way to learn about the voting rights and labor movements and see what connects us all.”

“For decades now,” Radford said “the conservatives have aimed to shrink government – local, state and federal, by introducing new laws and installing like-minded politicians and judges. It has been a 40-year strategy by the Exxons, the Coors and the Kochs of the world to take over the country.”

“The Democracy Initiative is a progressive answer to that,” said Cohen. “Our CWA members and leaders know that we can’t end the frustration of current collective bargaining without a real movement not just for bargaining and organizing rights but for social and political change. That’s why we’re here. Working together is how we’ll win economic justice.”

The others thrown into the same jail cell Thursday represented a who’s-who of organizations including the League of Conservation Voters, Friends of the Earth, the Farmworkers, the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, the Service Employees, Common Cause, Voto Latino, the Demos think tank, Piper Fund, People for the American Way, National People’s Action, the National Organization for Women, the National Wildlife Federation, the Center for American Progress, the United Auto Workers, the Steelworkers, and Color of Change, to name only some.

Photo: Capitol Hill police officers arrest immigration reform protestors as they blocked a street on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 1.  AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

An earlier version of this article reported that Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington was among the many groups represented among individuals who were arrested and jailed after carrying out the above-described peaceful civil disobedience. This was an error. No one from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington was present at the demonstration and no one from the group was among those arrested. We regret the error.



John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.