I kept apologizing to the man beside me every time I asked him to get up so I could go use the restroom at the back of the plane, it was a five-hour flight and I drank a lot of water. When I finally settled back into my seat, I asked youth leader Mauro Barrera about what we should expect when we land in Cleveland for the Republican National Convention. Together, we were joining the It Takes Roots People’s Caravan, a national mobilization of grassroots leaders and a call to action from communities of color and anti-racist white folks against racism, misogyny, and xenophobic polices from the RNC to the DNC. Our answer- we did not know what to expect.
The picture was painted as we walked towards the baggage claim at the airport. Turn your head left, multiple giant flags for the Republican Party. Turn your head right, white folks flooding the lines for the restroom in their “Make America Great Again” propaganda. Rotate yourself 360 degrees, and you see cops for miles. We met up with fellow delegates and made the one-hour drive to our first meeting. On our way there, I remember reading a billboard sign that asked folks in Ohio to call in any suspicious activity. We are a multi-racial group with Latin@, Black, Asian, Muslim, and Indigenous Peoples, as well as those in the movements for working class people, Vets Versus Hate, and Undocumented and Unafraid. I could only image how many folks would consider us “suspicious” in the heart of Republicanism. Nonetheless, I pinched the urge to make any assumptions about the community until I actually met folks. I never got the chance. Locals locked themselves away and left the streets silent and empty as the RNC dominated their hometown. The only people I saw were the army of police officers, the herd of Republicans, those from out of town, and the small population of protestors like myself. We were David trying to fight off Goliath.
There was never time to rest. Every single day there was something to do and someone to support. I woke up anxious to see what the Wall Off Trump action (coordinated by MiJente) would look like. The idea was to bring organizers and artists, parents and kids, and direct action specialists together to stand against Trump’s hatred and xenophobia by creating a wall stretching thousands of feet to surround the RNC. I was nervous because media outlets back home sent the message that if you protest, you will be pepper sprayed in the face, confronted by Trump supporters, or violently arrested. Although we were watched by the police like hawks, this was not the case. What I saw was black and brown unity. I was amazed to be a part of an action where folks from all around the globe networked to showcase solidarity- this action cleared my doubt, and at that moment I knew why I was at the front steps of the RNC.
With a clear mind, I woke up the next day ready to announce and launch The People’s Caravan by getting folks to participate in our Pledge of Resistance. We took a pledge to stand up against racism, sexism, US-centrism and to indict what is happening in the RNC because we know that there will be long-term impacts on this white rage on communities of color for decades to come.
We also pledged to support each other’s local movements. We began canvassing with the Ohio Organizing Collaborative to help build people power. After discovering the routes around Cleveland, we approached locals about registering to vote. In Ohio, people who have not voted recently do not know they have to reregister in order to vote for the next election. Usually, people do not discover this until it is too late. Many people also do not know their voting rights, specifically those who have been imprisoned. One of our delegates met a man at a train stop who was released from prison a week before. This man was trying to adjust back into his community and was excited when the conversation about voting came up. Like hundreds of other people released from prison in Ohio, this man did not know he had the right to vote. He registered then and there! After a long day in the sun, we hopped on the bus to head to Pittsburg. We networked with locals and other organizations and most importantly, shared our narratives.
The next morning, we made our way to Baltimore. I remember having my face glued to the window believing I was in an apocalyptic world. Down every single block, there were abandoned houses, burned down buildings, and heat waves rising from the black concrete. However, when I stepped off the bus into neighboring Gilmor Homes, I was greeted with happiness and smiles. I could hear the loud music coming from the community center. I could smell the smoke coming from the BBQ open to neighbors that were hungry. I could see children running, laughing, and dancing around the block. Although it is a place suffering from corporate greed and political corruption, I saw the beauty of this community. Folks from the Coalition Friends and the Friend of a Friend program gave us a tour of their city, and with each step, I learned something new. Folks in the community created the Tubman House, a community center with a garden in an abandoned, burnt-out, building complex in one of the most low-income neighborhoods in Baltimore.
On the walls of one of the buildings is the memorial dedicated to Freddie Gray– the very sight where he was beaten by law enforcement. As I stared at the painting, tears started to fill my eyes. It was a very emotional experience as we chanted, “It is our duty to fight for freedom” knowing that those who broke the neck of Freddie Gray will face no criminal charges for murder.
As angry and frustrated as I felt, I was inspired by the people who are reclaiming their neighborhoods. Eddie Conway, a former Black Panther who was imprisoned for over forty years, is one of those people. There was not one ounce of anger in his loving heart. When he was released, he immediately came back to his home to help create and maintain safe community spaces. One example was creating a space for community members to play basketball. At first, there were basketball courts with no rims above the sizzling black concrete. Against the demands of the government, the community then created Freddie’s Court. When we asked folks why the government would prevent folks from creating such a space, chills went down my spine as we got the answer, “They rather us shoot each other than shoot baskets.” I know the day I spent in Baltimore will be a day I will reflect on for the rest of my life.
After another long bus ride to Pittsburgh and a few hours of sleep, we made it to Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention. We made our messages loud and clear. We were there to build with the Movement for Black Lives, which is one of the most important social justice movements for all of us in this country. We are communities of color and indigenous peoples here to build and strategize with the black community around state violence. We were there to demand justice for Berta Cáceres, another victim of state violence. Berta Cáceres was an indigenous womyn who was assassinated under the watch of Hillary Clinton for fighting to protect her people and land. Her struggles continue to be our struggles, and that is why we believe that “Berta didn’t die, she multiplied.” On July 24th, we had our Thousand Bertas Action in the spirit of the Honduran social movement that continues to organize to stop environmental destruction and violent persecution. Two of our delegates from the organization COPINH based in Honduras shared their stories and experiences. One of those delegates was the daughter of assassinated Berta Cáceres. Listening to her testimony of the last night she spoke to her mother was heartbreaking, but her words were empowering. I admire Laura Yolanda Zuñiga Cáceres for her bravery and for continuing the fight beyond the footsteps of her mother.
After racing from the RNC where republicans deny climate change, we continued to do actions around the DNC where democrats embrace false solutions. On July 26th, we participated in the toxic tour with Action United, Philly Thrive, and LeftRoots. We gathered on a playground in south Philly surrounded by a refinery looking to expand. As I swung on the swing staring into the smoky sky, I felt like I was back in Los Angeles. I closed my eyes, remembering the toxic tours I give back in my community. I could smell the rendering plant that boils carcasses and road kill to make cosmetics, pet food, and other products. I could hear the sighs of community members after telling them 11 pregnant teachers who worked beside a power plant had birth defects, 7 of them being miscarriages. I could feel my heart racing and palms sweating after having to explain to another set of youth that aside from worrying about school, responsibilities at home, or jobs, they also have to worry about environmental racism. I could picture a hand being raised to ask the question, “What is that?” Gripping the swing tighter, I mouthed the familiar pitch, “It is the fact that low-income communities of color are disproportionately affected by pollution.” I heard a roar of clapping in the distance and then remembered I was on a swing in south Philly- we started our march across the playground towards the refinery gates. As frontline communities, we stood together during this last action to organize and to resist.
Just as I started to truly get to know the dozens of other delegates and the neighborhoods we were visiting, it was time to part ways. I made my way to the airport. After a few long lines, security checks, and delayed flights, I had a lot of time for reflection. As expected, I felt more motivated to continue to do the work I do back home. What I could not understand was why I felt so different. I handed my boarding pass to get on the transfer flight from Texas to Los Angeles. I located my seat and rested my weary feet and drowsy eyes. I woke up two hours later because I had to use the restroom located all the way at the back of the plane. I asked the man beside me to move about three times. Then it hit me. I did not apologize. I discovered why I felt different, and that was because my attitude became different. I refuse to be apologetic towards the basic necessities I require in life. I refuse to feel the need to say sorry when I do not have to. I refuse to stop fighting for my community.