Here’s Why Activists Halted Traffic on World’s Busiest Bridge

Jesse Rubin Oct 28, 2016

During Wednesday morning rush hour, ten immigrant rights activists and supporters blocked traffic on the George Washington Bridge’s upper level for 45 minutes. It was a bold inauguration of the #SomosVisible or #WeAreVisible campaign.

Participants in the Somos Visible campaign seek to operate outside traditional power structures like party politics, corporate media and all the other establishments preserving what they describe as serving a “fake democracy.” They intend to take back political and economic power from a two-party system they see as teetering between corporate neoliberalism and outright racism.

From the 6 million kept from voting by their felony records, new restrictive voter ID laws and the 11 million undocumented immigrants whose voices have consistently been absent from the political process, the time for radical movement is here, organizers said.

“Basically, we launched We Are Visible in a radical way in order to show other immigrant workers in other cities that we are here and the movement is confirmed,” Mahoma López, co-director of the Laundry Workers Center, told The Indypendent.

With banners reading "Resist, Organize, Act Up!” and demonstrators declaring “Somos Visible!” for commuters to hear, the grassroots organization demanded their rights as immigrants, workers and New Yorkers.

“The immigrant community is tired of being in the shadows” said López in a press release. “For many years we are here, we contribute, we pay taxes, we build this country, but in the end, we don’t have the right to participate in the decisions at the local and national levels.”

Port Authority of NY/NJ police arrested all 10 activists who chained themselves together across the New York City bound lane, but not before halting the busiest bridge in the world.

Returning to the streets Wednesday night, the Laundry Workers Center and a coalition of other supporting groups such as Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), the Internationalist Group, New York Workers Center Federation (WCF) and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United New York (ROC-NY), held a rally in Union Square to solidify their demand to be “part of the decision-making process in our communities.”

Lopez, who spoke at the rally, told The Indypendent that “community control” is essential to justice for immigrants in the city. As the United State’s Latino population grows, so should its political clout. But he added, with over 11 million lacking citizenship, this large constituency is denied the right to political representation in their own communities; even at low levels like the school board and local city council.

Without proper legal and financial resources, undocumented immigrants are routinely subject to deportation raids by the secretive Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. Individuals are taken from their homes — some 13,000 in just five years, according to ICE-Free NYC — often languishing in crowded detention centers before eventually being sent back to their home countries.

And all of this, Lopez continued, has been exacerbated by the Obama administration. Although “Obama won with Hispanic, Latino and African Americans, he has deported more immigrants than any president in US history.” Under either a Trump or Clinton presidency, activists worry, immigrant communities would see these raids and deportations continue.

Their demands for visibility include equal voting rights for immigrants and, more broadly, the right to self-determination.

Underscoring #SomosVisible’s goal of full immigrant rights is worker solidarity and worker’s rights. The two are inextricable, according to Daniel Quiroz, a member of the Internationalist Group and himself an immigrant.

If all the “immigrants working in New York City organized,” Quiroz told The Indypendent, they would “definitely be visible.” New York City’s immigrant population today is approximately 3.1 million or one-third of the entire population of New York City. Immigrant economic power correlates to their population. Immigrants accounted for some $257 billion in economic activity, or almost one-third of total gross product in 2013.

Because demand for cheap labor in New York is high, the city employs more than twice as many immigrants than any other U.S. city.  The majority of undocumented immigrants are relegated to working in service industries, at jobs in which employers often pay below the state minimum wage and aggressively threaten against unionization. The assumption is that thanks to high demand, most restaurant workers are easy to replace. Concurrently, because workers are perennially underpaid and oftentimes lack legal status, their resources to defend themselves are few.

Immigrants, mainly undocumented Latinos, are so ingrained in the New York restaurant business that it would cease to exist without them. Yet because so many are without citizenship, employers get away with paying well under the fair value of their work, effectively extorting their most essential workers. Without the right to vote, these workers can never achieve political representation within the party system.

In poll after poll the economy — not necessarily immigration — is the most important issue for U.S. Latinos. This suggests that the people, tired of their exploitation, are looking to broad worker solidarity as the means to self-determination.

Darrel Sukhdeo, Vice President of the Indian Diaspora Council and member of ROC-NY, spoke about his organization’s mission to connect and defend workers by providing legal advice, training and general improvements for workers in varied industries. ROC has recently submitted legislation in Albany that would develop “one fair wage.” “While the minimum wage is $9 per hour in New York,” he explained, it is common practice for restaurants to calculate tips as part of that minimum. Many waiters and waitresses ultimately end up with a $2 hourly wage.

“Could you survive on $2 per hour?” asked Sukhdeo.

Amid the excessive police presence in Union Square — no doubt a result of the morning’s action — #SomosVisible members explained why they chose the George Washington Bridge to become visible.

The bridge not only connects New Jersey to Washington Heights, which is a working class and immigrant community in upper Manhattan, but the bridge is named after the first U.S. president George Washington; “a slave master,” as one speaker described him.

#SomosVisible activist hope to inspire a collective awakening.

“As a very grassroots and autonomous movement,” Mahoma López explained, they believe by connecting immigrant struggles across the United States they will “inspire other workers in other cities to organize and demand for themselves community control and their rights to self-determination.”

All ten activists arrested on the bridge were charged with reckless endangerment and criminal trespassing and released late Wednesday.

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