Protest for day laborers in Queens

January 15, 2009

NEW YORK--A spirited crowd of at least 30 showed up on a snowy morning January 10 for a rally called by the newly formed Jornaleros Unidos de Woodside (United Day Laborers of Woodside) to protest ongoing police harassment of mainly immigrant construction workers who wait for work on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens.

This protest was the most visible demonstration of support for immigrant workers so far since police arrested several a few weeks ago for the "crime" of standing in the street. All of the workers were later released, certainly due in part to media attention to the incident. But the arrests clearly served as an act of intimidation to day laborers and all immigrant residents of a diverse, mainly immigrant neighborhood.

After the first arrests, the No Raids Committee of Queens called for a tabling in the neighborhood, in which many day laborers participated. But only a few days later, the police were back to the same corner, asking workers for IDs and issuing tickets for a crime that might be called "standing while Latino."

It was then that a long-time organizer, Roberto, called on his coworkers to organize a day laborers' committee. Fifty people signed up at the time, and the committee's meetings have been attended by between 20 and 40 workers. The Jornaleros Unidos de Woodside (JUW) is a democratically run group made up entirely of day laborers.

The latest incident of harassment occurred when police threatened to arrest a day laborer who happens to also be a photographer. The officer told this man that he couldn't stand on the corner anymore under penalty of arrest--because "you guys throw trash in the street."

When the man questioned this racist accusation, the officer handcuffed him and released him, but erased the photos he had taken. A few days later, they issued tickets to four men who happened to be some of the main organizers of the JUW.

The January 10 protest--located at one of the corners on Roosevelt where people wait for work--was a huge success. Most of the participants were day laborers, but significant support came from a Colombian group, the Humanist Center, the New Immigrant Community Empowerment non-profit and the United Food and Commercial Workers union, including an organizer who gave a rousing report about the recent union victory at Smithfield in North Carolina.

"It's really an achievement what we've done today," one participant said. "Next time, it won't be 30 of us--we'll occupy the whole avenue."

Roberto said that the next steps for the day laborers' group will be to bring their complaints to the police precinct and local politicians, and then to take actions if they aren't listened to.

During the march, demonstrators handed out fliers to passersby, who were supportive. A few joined the march, including Catalina, who pointed out that "what the police are doing is discrimination," and said "Behind those police who are watching us, there are more powerful forces at work."

As construction work becomes harder and harder to come by, workers will wait longer on the street and become the object of harassment and scapegoating. But the more we fight back, the more the whole community will be inspired to fight for our rights as immigrants and working people.

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