NEW HAVEN, Conn. – The exciting “Justice for All” People’s World Amistad Awards set the tone for the big battles of 2016 in Connecticut as union and community leaders and activists came together in unity and solidarity.
The event filled the auditorium of Arts and Humanities Cooperative High School and contributed to the build-up for two key struggles won in the following week. First, building cleaners, members of SEIU 32 BJ, staged rallies in Hartford and New Haven and won a hard fought union contract in the Fight for $15. Then, New Haven Rising and the unions at Yale held a large march and civil disobedience of 150 which won a commitment from Yale University to hire 1,000 New Haven residents from the city’s neighborhoods of need.
Opening with local singer Ariel Johnson’s breathtaking rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” the 2015 Connecticut People’s World Amistad Awards inspired young and old alike with its message of unity and struggle. The emotional reaction to Ms. Johnson’s performance by everyone in attendance showed that not only was her performance immaculate but the message in the lyrics is still all too relevant so many years after the Civil Rights Movement.
Themed “Justice for All – In Solidarity with Black and Latino Youth – Stop the Right Wing Attacks,” the event greeted actions by youth to end racism and achieve a future with hope and dignity for themselves and their communities.
As Joelle Fishman, chair of the Connecticut Communist Party USA declared in a call to action, “We’re sick and tired of the hatred, bigotry and fear being spewed to bust us apart and we should never take our unity for granted.” She went on to point out that “the brutality of institutionalized racism embedded into capitalism, is still part of our lives.
“The 2016 elections are the battleground for every democratic right we’ve ever won,” she declared. “We can stop candidates who want to bring us back 175 years. We will not go back! We must go forward.”
Following Fishman’s call to action, emcees Kit Salazar-Smith and Lisa Bergmann paid a well-deserved tribute to her with Salazar-Smith tearfully saying that Fishman’s “sense of commitment to the community is boundless.”
The next standout performance of the evening came courtesy of local YCL leader Lisa Bergmann and some talented youngsters from the Raca em Moviemento Dance Studio. They put on a Capoeira performance which included a song and movements that represented the origins of Capoeira, which was born out of Brazilian slaves developing methods of resistance and self-defense disguised as dance movements.
Awardees this year included Jill Marks, a leader of New Haven Rising and Alder-elect in Ward 28; Ciro Gutierrez, member-leader of SEIU 32 BJ building cleaners union in Hartford, and Cindy Harrity, Communication Workers of America Local 1298 organizer, retired.
Marks said she was moved to become a grass roots leader after knocking on thousands of doors and hearing the problems of ordinary families. She urged those present to join the fight for good jobs and attend a New Haven Rising rally on December 12.
Marks was honored by her daughter, Scotticesa Marks, who sang a beautiful rendition of “Amazing Grace,” before Jill accepted her award. During her acceptance speech, she reminded the audience that, “you need to step up to demonstrate that we are united, we are organized, and we are not backing down until we get respect and the opportunities we deserve.”
Gutierrez, born in Peru, described how he became involved in the social movement during the right-wing coup in his country. When his family came to the U.S. after losing their public sector jobs to privatization, he continued his commitment to workers’ rights throughout his union. Gutierrez reinforced the notion that “we have an obligation to fight together to defeat the forces of conservatism. They can only bring pain to our people.”
Cindy Harrity, unable to project here voice due to illness, prepared comments read by husband John Harrity. Cindy, well known for her successes as a union organizer, referred to a quote found on a piece of paper in her late father’s pants pocket. The quote read, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” She urged those present to “be unreasonable” when confronted by exploitation, unfairness or any injustice.
The awards were held on the 96th anniversary of the Communist Party USA. Edie Fishman, who joined the YCL at 14 and is now in her 80th year in the working class movement, received flowers from the youth. She recounted experiences which won social security, unemployment compensation, health and safety on the job, and ending Jim Crow racial segregation. “When we stick together and fight together, we can win,” Edie said.
The evening was then closed out by three memorable performances that spoke to the theme of “Justice for All – In Solidarity with Black and Latino Youth – Stop the Right-Wing Attacks!”
First up were two young men named Gaylord Salters and Darrell Willis, who performed an original hip-hop song that addressed the police shootings of unarmed black youth. The song contained the lyric, “…and it’s crazy how police can do the same thang, what’s the thoughts in they mind when the thing bang?”
Poet Aaron Jafferis energized the crowd with his hard-hitting poem, containing many memorable verses, including the question:
“What if we created pairs or small groups of formerly jailed and formerly Yale-d youth to do anti-joblessness projects whose object is to not just get one group fat jobs and one group backwashed into New Haven’s court system where black odds are stacked high like white statues sitting on court steps like fat gods?”
Concluding the evening was the electrifying multi-genre performance by Ice the Beef, a New Haven youth anti-violence organization. The performance involved song, dance and a dramatic piece involving a youth being gunned down by police. As the deceased youth was being carried to the morgue, a young girl singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” which brought the evening full-circle. As the house lights came on, Ice the Beef started on stage and moved through the crowd with an inspiring performance entitled, “Stop the Violence, Start the Peace.”
In the words of honoree Edie Fishman, “Life is a struggle but it’s a wonderful struggle when we know we’re fighting for the right thing.”
Video of the event will be posted on Facebook page of the Connecticut Communist Party USA.