Fight for 15 Makes History

61 years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and her civil rights, Fight for 15 protesters in Kansas City and across the country made history on last Tuesday’s National Day of Action. Participants demonstrated and engaged in civil disobedience for the cause of uniting the working class and establishing living wages for all.

Many UMKC students marched with Stand Up KC, the local Fight for 15 chapter, which began Tuesday’s series of actions before sunrise and continued meeting throughout the day at several locations. At least one hundred fast food workers, child care workers, students, organizers, allies, faith leaders and other concerned citizens gathered in the Home Depot parking lot on Linwood and Main St. before 5:30 a.m. After passing out signs, fueling up on doughnuts and getting energized on chants, they began to march. It was a diverse group of men and women of all ages and colors, some with children and at least one with a dog.

“Fight for 15!” they shouted. “Stand up, KC!”

The morning group circled through and blocked the drive-thru of the McDonald’s, chanting and singing all the while.

“We are the workers, the mighty, mighty workers,” protesters sang. “Everywhere we go, people want to know who we are, so we tell them. We are the workers, the mighty, mighty workers, fighting for 15 and good jobs for all.”

When asked why she attended, a UMKC junior majoring in psychology said, “I am here because I believe that anyone working a full time job deserves to not live in poverty.”

After lingering in front of McDonald’s for a little longer, catching cameras and a few interviews for the morning news, the Stand Up KC protesters made their way farther south on Main St. before returning to the starting point. There, they waited briefly for organizers to split themselves between several vans and cars which they took to meet elsewhere for breakfast.

By now, it was 7 a.m. The day was just warming up and both the afternoon and later, bigger actions lay ahead.

 

Organizing

The impressively well-organized day of protest in Kansas City paralleled others in Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, Birmingham, Las Vegas and other major cities across the nation. Chicago in particular received special media attention as low-wage airport workers went on strike at O’Hare, marking a new group of workers who have joined the growing Fight for 15 movement.

The preparation for the National Day of Action began long before November 29th, with Stand Up KC organizers enlisting greater numbers at call banks, meetings, and rallies. Surrounding what organizers nickname “Strike Day,” many go three or four days without any sleep. They ensure every worker is accounted for and all the necessary pieces are in place before, during, and after each action.

Attendance is built on relationships, and organizers work hard to ensure those connections are built on trust. To prepare for Tuesday, they rallied community members and students, checking in with them regularly before the day to ensure everyone was coming.

Workers who chose to strike also knew that Stand Up KC had their backs, providing anything they could possibly need: transportation for them to get to each site or to work afterwards, special rides for kids to go to Grandma’s or school, a warm breakfast inside, a dinner of pizza and even gloves for warmth.

Stand Up KC student organizer and Student Organizing Committee leader Eliana Hudson hands out pizza Tuesday evening. (Photo credit | Zachary Linhares)

Stand Up KC student organizer and Student Organizing Committee leader Eliana Hudson hands out pizza Tuesday evening. (Photo credit | Zachary Linhares)

At UMKC

By 11:30 a.m., the Fight for 15 National Day of Action reached UMKC at the corner of 51st and Troost Ave.  Protest leaders rallied their supporters to march through campus. They began their march down 51st street, across Rockhill Rd. to the front of the Miller Nichols Library, where protesters shouted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, student debt has got to go.”

Fatima Mohamed, a third-year UMKC student studying computer science and biology, was one of the student protesters and also works as a student organizer with Stand Up KC.

“It’s important we get involved with issues regarding the labor movement,” Mohamed said.  “If we are not involved with movements like the Fight for $15, it’s going to reflect how we live tomorrow.”

“The youth’s voice is essential. SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] was vital to the civil rights movement, and they left a real impact,” Mohamed said. “We can be a continuation of that. When we stand in solidarity with the working class, it shows that there is hope for a better future.”

Protesters then marched to congregate in front of the Student Union, where Student Organizing Committee leader and Stand Up KC student organizer Eliana Hudson spoke about the need for a livable wage with low wage worker Kenya Banks.

“We must fight for an economy that works for all because we are the workers of tomorrow,” Hudson said. “We are students standing together today with low-wage workers across the country in 340 cities, fighting for our future and for a better future for all Americans.”

Over 100 Stand Up KC Fight for 15 protesters engaged in civil disobedience, sitting down in the street on Troost. (Photo credit | Zachary Linhares)

Over 100 Stand Up KC Fight for 15 protesters engaged in civil disobedience, sitting down in the street on Troost. (Photo credit | Zachary Linhares)

The Evening Action

The final, biggest action of the day began at 5:30 p.m. on the grassy median at the Paseo and 63rd St. Red Stand Up KC beanies dotted the crowd, and red shirts peeked out from coats and hoodies. Some of the crowd munched on pizza that Hudson and other volunteers handed out. At 6 p.m. workers stepped onto the stage, telling their stories of struggle from the podium. Faith leaders and other allies of the movement spoke about the need to unite as people, especially in the conflicted climate following the recent presidential election, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religious faith or other differences.

The line of several hundred protesters stretched over two blocks. The march began at about 7 p.m., heading west on 63rd St. before stopping in front of the McDonald’s at the Troost intersection. Police arrived quickly, some on horses, to direct protesters out of the street.

Now it was time for civil disobedience, the capstone of the day.

By 8 p.m. over 100 protesters had left the rest of the crowd on the sidewalk and now sat cross-legged on the cold pavement of Troost, just under the 63rd St. sign. The remaining several hundred stood on the sidewalk, singing and chanting their support. A wall of police officers on horses and on foot stood in the middle of Troost, watching and waiting as other officers made arrests and slowly sat the protesters in a line on the curb.

The arrests are routine for civil disobedience. The refusal to comply with certain laws as a peaceful form of political protest has been used throughout modern American history to incite needed change.

After about an hour, the chants mellowed into a historic song: “I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.”

The song, once sung during many of the freedom rides of the civil rights movement, marked an emotional point of the night for Hudson, Laura Gibbons and Lauren Higgins, UMKC students who were among the sitting peaceful protesters engaging in civil disobedience.

“Just singing that song,” said Hudson, “and being together on Troost, the racial dividing line of Kansas City, with a multiracial movement shutting down a multi-billion-dollar company, saying that workers deserve union rights–it was so powerful.”

“Racism definitely divides us,” said Gibbons. “[But] everybody, regardless of race, gets up and goes to work. It’s the one thing that every single person has in common in this country. And so everybody wants a better job, better wages, better working conditions. That one common goal will bring people together regardless of race.”

“During the civil rights movement,” said Hudson, “they were fighting against racism… and for good jobs for all. And here we were, literally fifty years later… we’re still singing the same songs. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in Memphis because he was going on strike with janitors for good jobs and union rights. Everything [comes] full circle. We’re still fighting for the same things they did. Even though there aren’t signs that say ‘blacks only’ or ‘whites only’ on the drinking fountains, we’re still having to fight against racism.”

Tuesday night’s civil disobedience went well without any unplanned incidents, although some protestors felt intimidated by the police.

“It was a long night,” said Gibbons. But Stand Up KC’s training prepared her and the other arrested protesters for the evening’s challenges. Starting weeks before, following the same manner of civil rights groups in the 60s, the training helped protestors stay calm and patient, bonding within their groups.

“[I was with] a 79-year old man who is fighting against the death penalty,” said Higgins. “He’s worked with a bunch of convicts to get them out and rehabilitate them. And this other woman who is a prominent figure in Kansas City and also part of the NAACP… Patty Jones. Oh my gosh, her story. Listening to those two just kept me going throughout the night, hearing what they’ve been through.”

“Stand Up KC definitely drills in this idea of O.S.D, O.S.D., O.S.D.,” said Gibbons. “Organize. Serious. Discipline. Because 90 percent of  [the time] when protests become violent, it’s because somebody just started freaking out and pushing people. So you just make sure you’re organized, serious and disciplined. Don’t lose your cool.”

“I thought okay,” said Higgins. “I’m not being attacked by dogs. I’m not being sprayed down by hoses. I’m not being pepper sprayed. I’m sitting in a bus that’s heated with all these cool people with great stories…  I just practiced a lot of gratitude. I kept tearing up.”

“A whole bunch of the allies and faith leaders and workers who participated in this have participated in [civil disobedience] before,” said Hudson. “The last one was in 2014, and they shut down part of the highway.”

Police seemed unprepared for the sheer number of protesters they put in restraints and, between several van trips that took about two hours, transported to four different locations to be processed. One group went as far as the Pleasant Hill jail, which ended up being too full. After a long night of waiting, the protesters were charged with obstruction of traffic, failure to comply with orders, jaywalking and other misdemeanors.

Stand Up KC, on the other hand, made sure to be well-prepared for anything that day.

“Whenever Stand Up KC even remotely thinks about doing [civil disobedience], it’s very, very thought out,” said Hudson. “Do we have the bail money? Do we have the money for the lawyers? What will this look like? What are the charges people could have? What exactly could all happen?”

According to Hudson, much of the success of Tuesday night’s civil disobedience came from strength in numbers. In addition to the many potential eyewitnesses of the protest, Stand Up KC had members filming in case anything went awry.

Police arrested protesters engaging in civil disobedience. (Photo credit | Zachary Linhares)

Police arrested protesters engaging in civil disobedience. (Photo credit | Zachary Linhares)

Walk backs and reflection

As the last of the civil disobedience arrests were released around 3 a.m., Stand Up KC still had “walk backs” all day Wednesday. Organizers, allies, and faith leaders escorted striking workers to ensure their supervisors knew the workers’ absence were for legally protected reasons.

Hudson and Gibbons say walk backs communicate to employers that they cannot retaliate against the workers in any way, including taking away hours from their schedule or harassing them.

“We’re making sure that employers know [the workers] have a federal right to do this,” said Hudson. “And we’re going to take it seriously.”

Tuesday night, said Hudson, “shows how powerful this movement is. We all understand that we need to take action. We need to be active in fighting against this and be heard. And that involves really getting involved in street politics.”

“[With] protesting and actions and demonstrations,” said Gibbons, “it’s practicing a completely different ideology because in our society especially, we’re very individualist. What do I want, what do I need… We’ve lost a sense of community. And [in] actions and demonstrations, you come together with these people. You’re fighting for one thing. You’re using your strength in numbers to achieve that one goal.”

For more information, visit www.standupkc.org or www.fightfor15.org. To get involved, contact the Student Organizing Committee, which organizes young people to fight for racial and economic justice in addition to offering internship opportunities.

 

Zachary Linhares also contributed to this article.

 

etseng@unews.com

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