CIW THEATER, PRESS CONFERENCE — TALLAHASSEE, FL

 


The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King
.”

Those were the words spoken by Hamlet as he prepared to stage a play before the king of Denmark. His plan was to re-enact the crime of his father’s murder, touch the guilty party’s conscience (in his case, the king himself), and bring him to justice.

We re-enacted a crime of our own this past Monday before the governor of our state — where something has been rotten for decades in the fields that produce the country’s winter fruits and vegetables — with the goal of catching the conscience of our own “king.”

But unlike Hamlet’s king, our governor wasn’t guilty of the crime by his own hand. Rather, we traveled to Tallahassee to demand that Governor Crist stop turning a blind eye to the unending exploitation of farmworkers in the state, including the very latest slavery case out of Immokalee, which involved a family of farm bosses convicted of chaining workers in trucks, beating them, forcing them to pick tomatoes and stealing their pay.


But, first, we had to hit the road and drive 8 hours north.

In a caravan made up of one bus and three vans, some 70 CIW members and their children — joined by a dozen allies from the Student/Farmworker Alliance, Interfaith Action, and Just Harvest — left Immokalee on Saturday night around 9:00 and landed in Tallahassee in the early morning hours.


There we were received by the fine people at the United Church in Tallahassee, who opened up their church as our home away from home for the two days we were in Tallahassee. Here, Pastor Jeanette Sherrill speaks to the congregation Sunday morning, accompanied by Interfaith Action’s Jordan Buckley, explaining the CIW’s plans and presence and pledging continued support for the CIW’s work.


And we were met in Tallahassee by Mr. David Solnit, set and costume designer extraordinaire, and long-, long-time friend of the CIW, going back to the earliest days of the Taco Bell campaign.

Here the artist contemplates the very heart of the play — and a truly remarkable re-creation — the box truck where workers were chained at night so the boss would know where to find them in the morning when it was time to pick tomatoes.


He was not alone with his work long, though, as Sunday morning saw the Immokalee crew get busy building the set for the next day’s play…


… bringing their own skills to the challenging design.


Later that day CIW members met in the church’s stunning sanctuary to make the final preparations for Monday’s action…

… and then — the set just a few brushstrokes from finished — it was time to draft a play from scratch… in less than 24 hours… with a team of nearly 100 writers. The truck is moved into place…

… the sun at the ready…

… actors called to the set…

… and rehearsals begin.


Sunday afternoon was spent in a cycle of rehearsal, comment, edit, and more rehearsal, all under the watchful eyes of the entire CIW crew who gathered to witness the play develop — a crew that included two of the victims of the latest case, whose firsthand experience and insight helped shape the portrayal of the brutal slavery operation.


The process sparked more than a few intense discussions, as its subject matter — the chaining, beating, and robbing of human beings… the question of being forced to do the backbreaking work of picking tomatoes under Florida’ s sun for no pay… the very fact that we are forced to protest to secure the governor’s support for our efforts to end such outrageous human rights abuses in Florida’s fields — moved even long-time veterans of the CIW’s struggle to reflect…

… until finally night fell and it was time to wind down for a good night’s sleep before the next day’s action.

Early Monday the crew awoke to yet another incredible spread provided by our hosts.

Then it was time for all the last-minute preparations. The set needed a little touch-up work after a heavy morning dew caused a few sags…

… one last rehearsal nailed down the final details for the noon-time performance at the Capitol…


… and flowers were gathered, for no apparent reason.

Okay, we just stuck this photo in because it was so cute…


Finally, it was time to pack up the trucks and trailers, climb on the bus and vans, and head over to the Capitol.

A CIW delegation – including workers involved in the two most recent slavery prosecutions — had left ahead of the rest of the crew for an 11:00 meeting
with George Sheldon, Secretary of the Department of Children and Families.


But by the time the rest of the crew arrived in downtown Tallahassee, it was already clear that the delegation’s meeting with Secretary Sheldon, though genial and constructive, would not end satisfactorily, as the commitments the CIW sought could only be made by the governor himself. The delegation took advantage of the meeting, however, to hand in the more than 36,000 signatures (email and printed, including more than 4,000 from Immokalee alone) from the petition calling on Governor Crist to meet directly with the CIW and take a stand against slavery. As a side note, by the end of the day, the total had increased to nearly 40,000.

Meanwhile, back at the Capitol building, CIW members and allies quickly assembled the set for the theater and press conference to come.

This familiar flag — the featured backdrop from the huge March 1st community party in Immokalee — was planted on the steps of the Capitol, declaring “When you enslave one of us, you enslave us all!”…


… the props were set out for the theater, planting a freshly-painted tomato field in the shadow of the halls of power…


… and a number of blown-up covers and articles on the modern-day slavery crisis in Florida’s fields from national publications were placed prominently on easels around the steps. The powerful visual — representing in-depth coverage by the New Yorker, Gourmet, Glamour, National Geographic, the Miami Herald, the Palm Beach Post, and many more — left no excuse for those who would claim ignorance of the breadth of the problem in the state.

And then, as the clock struck noon, players took up their positions…

… cameras stood at the ready…


… and – action – the play began!

The play was an unending cycle of two parts, day and night, each its own particular form of torture. During the day, the workers picked tomatoes under the harsh midday sun and the even harsher gaze of their crewleader. The farm boss berated them, humiliated them, and even beat and kicked them, ending the day by stealing their pay and leading them back to the truck…


… where he chained and locked them in for the night, marked by the passage of the moon above.

As the sun rose again in the morning, the cycle started anew.

 


The event began with one full cycle of the play, in silence, before Patrick Mason (above) , professor of economics and Director of the African American Studies Program at Florida State University, took the podium as master of ceremonies for the press conference.


First to speak was Gerardo Reyes of the CIW (above right, blue shirt). Gerardo spoke of the root causes of the seven slavery operations discovered in Florida fields in just over a decade:

“Slavery is not the issue. The issue is the cancer that has been eating at Florida’s agricultural industry since its inception, the fact that it is founded on the unending and degrading exploitation of the men and women who harvest our crops. Modern-day slavery is just the most glaring and violent symptom of that cancer. You cannot end slavery without first treating the cancer.”

He concluded,”The governor must decide which side he is on. Will he work with us to defend the human rights of those who pick the state’s crops, or will he choose to protect the economic interests of those on whose plantations they toil?”


The Reverend Noelle Damico of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) followed, representing the 2.4
million members of the Protestant church with 11,000 congregations across the nation. Rev. Damico echoed Gerardo’s question of the choice facing Governor Crist on that day, drawing from the story of Moses:

“In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses addresses the people who have been freed from slavery under Pharaoh and are about to enter into the promised land to build a new society. And he calls upon them to think hard about the kind of society they would build.

Would they build a society based on the reign of Love or a society based on the reign of Pharaoh? And Moses says to these former slaves: “I have set before you this day life and prosperity or death and adversity.” As people who would now construct and govern what we
know as “the promised land,” they had a choice to make.

Gov. Crist that same choice echoes across history to you today. Choose this day: will you foster the freedom and life of the people of this state or will you choose death and adversity, and turn away from the suffering of your people?”


State Sen. Arthenia Joyner gave a rousing speech that got the crowd on its feet and gave workers in the audience the hope that they might have a real champion in the halls of the Florida legislature.

Senator Joyner, from Tampa, told the crowd she had a bill (SB 168) that would create a statewide task force on human trafficking:

“This task force will work to bring legislation so Florida can end this tragedy. I’m calling for the governor and leadership here to do what is right.”

She ended by urging CIW members and their allies to never give up in their fight to win fundamental human rights for Florida’s farmworkers.


Meanwhile, the play continued, in silence, at the foot of the steps, day following night, following day… a powerful reminder to those present that the speakers’ words were not just empty rhetoric but an urgent call to change a brutal and ongoing outrage.


Next up was Laura Germino, coordinator of the CIW’s Anti-Slavery Campaign, speaking on behalf of the Freedom Network USA, a network that has been fighting against modern-day slavery in the US for more than 15 years.

She began by describing the Freedom Network’s training efforts, saying “we train law enforcement – FBI agents, local, state, and federal law enforcement, social services personnel, faith-based outreach workers, first responders of all kinds, really – on how to identify and eliminate slavery operations from their communities,” and continued to list the networks various partnerships, “We are members of the Collier County Task Force against slavery, the US Attorney’s Task Forces for the Middle and Southern Districts of Florida, and partnered with the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the National Sheriff’s Association…”

But at that point, her speech pivoted sharply:

“So this all sounds great, right? Intensive, practical trainings on how to identify slavery operations and put a stop to them.  But think for a minute.  It’s not great.  It’s all wrong.  Because it is absolutely ridiculous – outrageous – that we have to have a training on ending slavery in Florida, in the 21st century.   We, as a state, as a people, should be better than that.  We’ve got to shoot higher than that.

And so, yes, we know and understand enforcement, but we also — exactly because of our experience — know that enforcement is not enough, because it’s cleaning up an abuse after it’s already happened.  It’s enforcing after people – victims – have been beaten, shot, raped, and threatened with death.   We have got to get beyond enforcement to the prevention – the elimination – of forced labor in the Florida agricultural industry.”


Jim Goodman followed, representing Family Farm Defenders, an organization “that started in Wisconsin to organize small farmers in hopes of getting fair prices for their milk.” Today Family Farm Defenders is a nationwide organization affiliated with the National Family Farm Coalition and the international Via Campesina.

Jim, as evidenced by the CIW hat he was sporting at the event, brings a very different perspective from that of the Florida tomato growers to his work as a farmer:

“I have done hard physical labor all my life, I never considered it demeaning or undignified. To grow food is the best, the most necessary life. That is why I cannot understand the apathy the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange and Governor Crist show towards the plight of Florida’s farm workers.

We have summer interns and full time help. I told my hired man that I would never ask him to do anything that I would not do myself . Clearly that sentiment is not universally accepted in the Florida tomato fields. It seems as farms get larger and the land owner becomes more distanced from the actual physical labor, the workers are seen as little more than part of the machinery.”

He concluded, addressing Governor Crist directly, “Florida  farm workers labor under oppressive conditions… By your silence you allow the situation to continue and, in effect, you endorse it. As a people we are better than this.”


Members of the Student/Farmworker Alliance, the national network of young people and students who have fought side-by-side with the workers of Immokalee through the last eight years of the Campaign for Fair Food, took the podium — en masse — next. Included in their ranks were students who had made the trek from Missisippi, Atlanta and from several Florida universities to witness the day’s events.

In a strongly-worded statement, read by the SFA’s Meghan Cohorst, SFA members reminded Gov. Crist:

“Young people have been and always will be at the forefront of this country’s struggles for civil and human rights. We will not rest until you help ensure that no worker in the state of Florida who toils to put food on the table of every American ever finds him- or herself in conditions of slavery again.”

They added:

“Don’t forget the role that young people played this past November 4th as you contemplate your own national electoral ambitions. Ignoring slavery is not exactly the way to endear yourself to young voters.”

 


Long-time Florida farm labor advocate Bert Perry wrapped up the speaker list for the day (Bert has fought shoulder to shoulder with the CIW since our earliest days, walking into the late Governor Chiles’ office years ago with six unknown hunger strikers who traveled from Immokalee to Tallahassee to seek a dialogue with the governor on farmworkers’ rights). Bert spoke representing National Farm Worker Ministry, a national interfaith organization that supports farm workers organizing for empowerment, justice, and equality.

And finally, the speeches done, our hard-working theater troupe called it a day and took a much-deserved final bow…

… followed by the entire contingent of workers who made the trip from Immokalee.


And then it was time to break down the set for the long trip back home — staying right on message, of course, even when cleaning up.

We accomplished what we set out to do in Tallahassee — the theater, the speakers, and even the meeting with the governor’s representatives all went as well as we possibly could have imagined — except, of course, we left Tallahassee, again, without talking to the governor.

But, though we didn’t know it at the time, that was about to change.

By the time we got back to Immokalee, the governor’s office had called and asked to set a date for a face-to-face meeting with Governor Crist.

This would be our first face-to-face meeting with a sitting governor, and as far as we can tell the first meeting of any Florida farmworker organization with a sitting governor — which is as significant a landmark for civil rights in Florida as it may eventually be for labor rights.

Florida’s governors have forever buttressed, through action and inaction alike, the growers’ fundamental position that farmworkers are second-class citizens not worthy of recognition. Florida’s governors in the modern era meet regularly with leaders of industry — there’s hardly a chamber or commerce, business association, or professional organization too small to merit a few moments of the governor’s time. But it’s not just that. Governors have met with unions, too. Teachers, firefighters and police, state employees, all have been shown the respect of an audience by Republican and Democratic governors alike.

But not farmworkers. Until now.

With the March 25th meeting, the civil rights landmark will have been met — farmworkers will, for the first time, have won the right to sit at the same table as the governor. And that is because workers from Immokalee have fought so hard and so long for their human rights that their humanity can no longer be denied or ignored.

The labor rights landmark, however, still lies ahead. Our arrival there depends upon the outcome of the meeting and the commitments made there. We are optimistic, however, that Governor Crist’s break with tradition on the decision to grant our meeting is a harbinger of more change to come. Lord knows it’s long overdue.

Maybe, just maybe, our little play did catch the conscience of the king.

Thanks again to photographer JJ Tiziou for his support of the CIW.
Check out some of his work at www.jjtiziou.net

(NB: Some of these images will be included in an exhibit this April and May
in Washington, DC — learn more about the exhibit by clicking here)

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