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Having the City of Grand Rapids sponsor the annual Cesar Chavez march cheapens the legacy of the farmworker movement and perpetuates an already performative act that excludes those who labor in the fields

February 6, 2023

During the Grand Rapids Committee of the Whole meeting yesterday, there was a resolution to recognize the annual César E. Chávez Social Justice March as a City-Sponsored Event, beginning on page 2. Part of the Resolution reads: 

The City of Grand Rapids has taken the necessary step of recognizing the César E. Chávez Social Justice March by way of a City Proclamation and now recommends endorsement of the César E. Chávez Social Justice March as a City-Sponsored Event to further unite Grand Rapids with a solid “Si Se Puede Spirit”!

For some, having the City of Grand Rapids sponsor the Cesar E. Chavez Social Justice March will be seen as good news. People might say that having local government support of an event that began in 2000, not only lends credibility to the event, it also means that the City of Grand Rapids will embrace and promote the legacy of Cesar E. Chavez and the United Farm Workers. However, having the City of Grand Rapids be a co-sponsor of this event is not only problematic, it will likely mean that the legacy of the farmworker struggle will become further co-opted.

I personally have attended the Cesar E. Chavez march for justice at least 8 – 10 times over the past 20 years. The City of Grand Rapids has always played a major role in the event, provide police escort and granting the event organizers a permit to march in the street.

As you can see in the photo above, which was included in the Committee of the Whole Agenda Packet, that the people holding the banner have had little or no involvement with migrant worker struggles. I particularly find it offensive to see the Grand Rapids Mayor, the City Manager and 1st Ward Commissioner Jon O’Connor holding banner with the image of a man that believed in direct action, which included disruptions of both commerce and government functions, and a movement that is rarely even represented during the annual march.

The march is usually led by an escort of GRPD vehicles, followed by roughly 25-30 JRROTC students marching in military formation. First, it seemed strange to have so much of a hyper-military presence with JrROTC students and GRPD officers on foot and in cars. Chavez was pretty militant about his commitment to non-violence, so their consistent presence seems rather contradictory and will only continue with the new City resolution.

More importantly, having police presence sends a strong message to people who are undocumented and live in the Grandville Ave area. The ongoing deportations and raids conducted by ICE and other law enforcement officials is a reality that those who are undocumented must face on a daily basis. Having law enforcement officials present at such an event only discourages farmworkers and undocumented migrants from participating, even though they are the ones who have most in common with the legacy of Chavez and and current farmworker struggles.

The annual Cesar E. Chavez march is held during the week, usually late morning. This means that most farmworkers wouldn’t be able to attend, since they would be working. This begs the question about why the voices and lived experiences of migrant workers are not centered at such an event. One year several people from the group Foco Rojo handed out flyers about migrant worker conditions and information about the farmworker movement, in both English and Spanish, only to be told to stop handing out the information by the march organizers. The flyer read:

Migrant workers are some of the most exploited workers in our community. They work long hours, in difficult working conditions, and make very little money. In fact, migrant workers are one of the few jobs where minimum wage laws do not apply.

In 2010, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission published a report, based on testimony from farm workers, that concluded the living and working conditions for farm workers today is as bad, if not worse, than it was 50 years ago.

Migrant farm workers continue to live in poverty and many of them live in fear of harassment and deportation, since many of these workers are undocumented.

To honor the legacy of Cesar Chavez, which is to honor the lives of migrant farm workers, we ask, why are there no campaigns to organize migrant farm workers in West Michigan? We cannot truly honor the legacy of Cesar Chavez by holding symbolic marches while migrant farm workers and their families struggle to survive.

Migrant farm workers are organizing themselves all across the country through organizations such as the United Farm Workers, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. However, no such efforts to organize migrant farm workers is currently taking place in West Michigan, in spite of the fact that this area has one of the highest concentration of migrant farm workers in the country.

Honoring the legacy of Cesar Chavez should not be a day to make us feel good about ourselves, it should be a day where we commit ourselves to standing in solidarity with migrant farm workers. It should be a day where we hear the voices of migrant farm workers, not from politicians and other so-called leaders. 

The United Farm Workers movement that Cesar Chavez was part of, was a movement that was committed to union solidarity, to the use of tactics like boycotts, strikes and other forms of direct action to force agribusiness to respect the dignity of migrant farm workers. This is the kind of movement we need today.

The issue of labor solidarity is an important one, especially since Mayor Bliss refused to support the bus driver’s union demands a few year back. In fact, there were GVSU students, who were part of the student movement known as Students Against Sweatshops, which was working with the bus driver’s union in Grand Rapids. Mayor Bliss approved sending GRPD cops to intimidate and threaten the GVSU students because of their support of the bus driver’s union. Because the Mayor was complicit in not supporting the union and approved the GRPD threats against students, the United Farm Workers sent Mayor Bliss a scathing letter, which read:

On behalf of the more than 10,000 members of the United Farm Workers, I am writing to express our deep disappointment in the breathtaking hypocrisy demonstrated by your administration this past week. On Thursday, March 17, you marched under our banner to commemorate the work of an American icon and our founder, Cesar Chavez. The very next day, on Friday, March 18, you dispatched Grand Rapids Police to the homes of student activists to intimidate them for organizing a January sit in to support transit workers represented by Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 836.

You cannot march in the name of Cesar Chavez one day and use police officers to suppress all that he fought for the next. The United Farm Workers stands in solidarity with our ATU brothers and sisters struggling to preserve their retirement security and the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) who, in an inspiring acts of selflessness, have embraced their elders fight as their own.

I also write to call you to a higher purpose than implementing an austerity agenda that may win accolades from the comfortable, but will destroy the lives of the constituents who are counting on you the most. We ask that you adopt the spirit of our heroes – Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. – whose names adorn your city streets and parks by rejecting the tactics who opposed and oppressed them in their lifetimes.

In the end, the Cesar E. Chavez March for Social Justice is primarily performative, since it doesn’t center the ongoing farmworker struggle. Having the City of Grand Rapids as a co-sponsor of the event further cheapens the message and legacy of Cesar Chavez and the ongoing farmworker movement. Chavez and the farmworker movement were all about engaging in tactics that disrupted business as usual, which the City of Grand Rapids clearly opposes. All you have to do is look at how city officials have responded to this demanding justice for Patrick Lyoya and the defunding of the GRPD to see how the city treats those who disrupt business as usual. 

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