Bellingham: The City of Insidious Discrimination / Noisy Waters Northwest

February 23, 2018  Dena Jensen

Monday February 19, 2018 was the one year anniversary of the Dignity Vigils in Bellingham, where community members have been gathering to stand in solidarity with undocumented and immigrant families and people as well as joining to stand against law enforcement and federal immigration collaboration which leads to deportation. These weekly events, part of the Keep Bellingham Families Working campaign, have been occurring every Monday during the lunch hour in front of civic buildings downtown, and often on Monday evenings at the WTA station on Railroad Avenue.

“We stand by our belief in our position because we see it happening”

During the gathering that commemorated the Dignity Vigils anniversary, which took place in front of Bellingham City Hall, Rosalinda Guillen, the Executive Director for Community to Coummunity Development, a grassroots organization that is working towards food sovereignty and a solidarity economy, was one of the speakers, and made this statement during the course of her speech:

“We stand by our belief in our position because we see it happening, that this is a white supremacist government. We don’t believe that every single person in this building, working in this building, is a white supremacist or racist, but the leadership has developed an institutionalized – a culture that dehumanizes the most vulnerable in our community. At the core of everything is a dignity of every single person in this city, and the respect that we demand when we bring our complaints, and the dignity within the solutions they give us, not the disdain that we have been shown.”

On Wednesday of the same week, a February 21, 2018 article appeared in Western Washington University’s newspaper, The Western Front, regarding the launch of Gerald Baron’s latest farming-related public relations creation, the so-called Farmworker Justice Now Project.  The article, by Sarah Porter noted that Baron, “has a background in crisis communications and is known for his public relations response to the Olympic Pipeline explosion in 1999, according to his bio.”

On the “About” page for the so-called Farmworker Justice Now website, Save Family Farming states:

“This project initiated in late 2017 when it became clear that the effort by Community2Community and the FUJ union threatened not just the future of our family farmers, but the many important opportunities our farmers provide to both domestic and guest workers. It is critically important to show that the accusations against farmers are false.”

Community to Community Development (known as Community2Community on their Twitter page) was founded in 1980 and says in their company overview on their Facebook “About” page that, “C2C is a people of color, women-led, place based, grassroots organization working for a just society and healthy communities. We are committed to creating systemic change through strategic alliances that strengthen local and global movements towards social, economic and environmental justice.” Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ) states on their website that, “FUJ is the third independent farmworker union formed in WA in 30 years and the first union led by indigenous workers.”

“That this is a white supremacist government”

I have been reading some of the material on the the so-called Farmworker Justice Now Project website on their page labeled “False Accusations.” The section of that page I am focusing on in this post, falls under the header of, “Reports about deportation and police action completely fabricated,”  in which Save Family Farming’s so-called project seems interested not only in maintaining they are proving accusations against farmers as false, but also those against local police.  Save Family Farming says that Bellingham Police, “…were accused by activists of threatening the [farm] workers with deportation – an outright fabrication.” They go on to explain that the Bellingham Police Department (BPD) released body cam video of an encounter “with the protest leaders from Community2Community,” because of false information being circulated by Community to Community Development and their Executive Director, Rosalinda Guillen.

Save Family Farming provides a quote from the City of Bellingham post by Danette Beckley, Public Information, regarding the body cam footage, but which does not mention Community to Community Development at all. Save Family Farming also provides a link to the webpage where the body cam footage was posted where there are separate videos from each of the attending BPD officers, Officer Landry, Officer Poortinga, and one from Sergeant James.  The text of the post ends with the paragraph:

“We have posted the body camera videos from the three Officers on scene that day so that the correct information is out there.  We believe showing our Officers actions will allow our community to judge for themselves.   The videos are long, but taking the time to problem solve is how our Officers do their job.”

In order to be able to judge for myself, I watched the three recordings of the body cam video, each in the neighborhood of 40 minutes long.

Regarding assertions by Save Family Farming that the video footage was of an encounter with protest leaders from Community to Community, that allegation could not be ascertained by these videos. The August 5, 2017 encounter was with two bus drivers for Sarbanand Farms, one volunteer from Community to Community development who was communicating both with the officers and with one busload of nearly 30 farm workers from Mexico, here in the U.S. on H-2A guest worker visas, who had just been terminated by Sarbanand Farms because of what the farm classified as insubordination for going on strike that week.

The ultimate outcome of the encounter between all parties that day was that Munger Farms (of which Sarbanand Farms is a subsidiary) CEO Bob Hawk, agreed over the phone to a proposal from the officers at the scene that the bus drivers could be directed to take the farm workers from the bus terminal to Everson to have their paychecks cashed, so they would then have transportation funds if needed.

There was no proof in any of the videos that I could find that anyone on the bus or the volunteer from Community to Community were “protest leaders,” as Save Family Farmers had asserted. Earlier in the day, the bus drivers had been directed by Sarbanand Farm management to take the busload of workers plus one empty bus to the Bellingham Greyhound station in Fairhaven. From accounts of the bus drivers and the Community to Community volunteer, the farm workers had not cashed their paychecks they had been issued that weekend and did not have money to be able to take a bus anywhere.

“We don’t believe that every single person…working in this building, is a white supremacist or racist”

The volunteer with Community to Community seemed to be having workers stay on the bus until either they had transportation from another source, or until another solution that did not leave workers stranded at the bus station would be devised. Officers spoke to the bus drivers and the Community to Community volunteer at the scene, as well as speaking over the phone to Munger CEO Bob Hawk.  There was no police translator, so there was next to no direct communication between officers and any of the farm workers, maybe 15 to 20 words. At one point an officer alerted a farm worker, in English, not to touch bus controls. Near the end of the encounter, officers asked if the ultimate solution that had been arranged between the officers and the farm was okay with the farm workers.

At around 3:35 minutes into Sergeant James body cam video, he listens to the volunteer describe what the farm workers had been going through over the past week or so. The volunteer also explains what she understood had happened earlier that day before the buses arrived at the station:

“I guess the guy ended up kicking them out of the property today, just right now. They brought them here. These guys don’t have nowhere to go. These girls, the lady [motioning towards the bus drivers], we told them about the checks and the other lady told me no, they already cashed their checks. And this other lady said, the one in black, said, no they didn’t cash their checks because we’re not allowed to stop where they’re going to cash their checks.

How do they expect these people to get a ticket and go to Mexico? See, they didn’t take showers. They haven’t eaten. They haven’t done nothing, because they threw them in the bus and they brought them here.”

The volunteer reminds Sergeant James that the workers are legal here. She feels that if the workers get off the bus, they lose their rights.

Sergeant James responds:

“No they don’t. That doesn’t change anything. So, and here’s why it doesn’t change anything, because everything that they have, they have. Period. Right? Every right that they have, they will – nothing, nothing will take that away. If that makes sense?  Every right that you have as a person, as a human being, you always have, no matter what.”

He goes on to make this statement at 9:20 on his body cam footage: “Where – I can absolutely 100% believe every person has to have their civil rights protected. That, we can completely 100% agree on.”  He says, ” We get assigned to protect protestors all the time. Hey, they’re doing this, and we protect to make sure people can do it.”

The conversation with the volunteer continues and at one point the volunteer says that the workers want to go back to the farm to protest, and she describes complaints they want the farm to know they are objecting to. She refers to the mistreatment of a fellow worker by farm management – which she had mentioned earlier to the Sergeant – as one cause of the farm workers’ desire to protest. The workers felt that mistreatment of their fellow worker, by management at the farm, had led to his hospitalization and critical condition. (Subsequent to the time of the bus terminal encounter, this worker, Ernesto Silva, also known in media reports as Honesto Silva Ibarra, died)

“But the leadership has developed…a culture that dehumanizes the most vulnerable in our community”

Here, at about 16:25 on Sergeant James’ video, he veers away from his supportive remarks about protesting and classifies this going back to the farm to protest as defiant. He offers that, what he would do instead, presumably if he were the workers, is seek legal help.

At this point, I want to remind readers of the statement by Save Family Farming mentioned earlier in this post: “…Bellingham Police were accused by activists of threatening the workers with deportation – an outright fabrication.”

First, I don’t know if any activists accused police of threatening workers with deportation, but this is something that Save Family Farming maintains. Meanwhile, the text on the COB website that contains the postings of the body cam video, includes a quote in the statement: “Our department is being accused of ‘stopping a bus and not allowing anyone off of the bus by threatening those on the bus with immigration violations.'” BPD does not say where the quote came from.

Click the graphic to access the announcement on the City of Bellngham website from Bellingham Police regarding their 8/5/17 service call to the Fairhaven Bus Terminal

From watching the videos, it is easy to gain an understanding that the officers did not stop either bus at the scene, so if anyone was claiming they did, that was incorrect. But it is also clear from information in the videos that Save Family Farming’s statement that,”Rejecting offers from the farm of free transportation to Bellingham to help resolve visa issues, protesting workers under Community2Community leadership paid for a bus ride to Bellingham’s Fairhaven Terminal,” is not true either. This statement was made on their so-called project’s “False Accusations” web page under the header of “Reports about deportation and police action completely fabricated.” According to all accounts on the videos, the buses, driven by bus drivers who work for Sarbanand farms, drove the workers to the bus terminal at the direction of Sarbanand farm management.

I want to take a minute here to recap some material from the videos. Sergeant James has assured the volunteer that the workers always have their rights and that officers protect protestors. The volunteer from Community to Community has reminded the Sergeant that the farm workers are here in this country legally, and has told him that workers want to go back to the farm to protest. Nothing in the videos shows that workers have done anything illegal, nor that they have previously performed any illegal protest, but somehow their desire to protest, at this point, gets interpreted by Sergeant James as a defiant act.

This review of information is relevant because at 18:25 in his video Sergeant James begins this approach as he further addresses the volunteer:

Sergeant James: So what I’m saying is this though. So here, there’s a chance people could get arrested. Okay? And that does no one any good. Because once they get in custody then –

Volunteer: It’s worse.

Sergeant James: It’s worse, and they’re probably – they’re going to get rides to other places against their will, so if they want to stay and be able to protest effectively, and let their story be told and heard, they’re going to have to be here, and they can’t be shipped off anywhere through the jail system, because usually what the jail system does, is takes people to where their home is, kinda thing.

So, here we are at that 18+ minute mark, where the workers are on the bus, and the Sergeant is talking about the workers potentially being arrested, which will mean that they will probably “get rides to other places against their will,” and that being “shipped off anywhere through the jail system” usually results in people being taken to “where their home is,” which, in this case, would be out of the United States to Mexico.

The Sergeant’s manner of speaking was courteous. He said numerous things that made it appear he was supportive of civil rights. But when it came down to it, he went there: to using these Mexican men’s vulnerable position as H-2A guest workers as a means to coerce them. He associated the workers desire to protest at the farm with defiant and illegal activity, and deftly applied the threat of deportation that, in this case, succeeded in keeping these farm workers, who he never directly communicated with in a meaningful way, from demonstrating their grievances at that time.

This form of discrimination is so insidious that Save Family Farming and the Bellingham Police Department think no one will see it when it is played back on video. Save Family Farming boldly alleges that what that they and BPD put right before our eyes in these videos — and what I identify as ingrained local white supremacy — is a complete fabrication by activists. They seem to feel they can easily rely on the fact that people of the City of Bellingham and surrounding Whatcom County won’t be able to recognize the exploitation and extreme vulnerability of this group of H2-A workers whose existence while in this country is predominately under the control of the one employer they are contracted to work for.

But thanks to Community to Community Development and other grassroots social justice organizations in Whatcom County, people are being engaged in the process of investigating and discovering what local, present-day white supremacy looks like and how to tell the difference between groups that want justice for individuals of oppressed communities and those who want to maintain and strengthen power for those who already possess it.

At the core of everything is a dignity of every single person in this city, and the respect that we demand when we bring our complaints, and the dignity within the solutions they give us, not the disdain that we have been shown.” – Rosalinda Guillen

Dignity Vigils are held every Monday during the lunch hour at strategic downtown Bellingham locations.

From the Monday, 2/26/18 Dignity Vigils Facebook Event information page:

Every Monday, community members come together to stand in solidarity with undocumented and immigrant families and people. In addition, we come together to stand against law enforcement and federal immigration collaboration which leads to deportation. Dignity Vigils will take place at strategic downtown locations. Please first come to Bellingham City Hall and pick up banners, flyers, and instructions. Support undocumented and immigrant families to live in safety and dignity in our community. Come together and join in building power in people!

This event is held in an outdoor venue which is wheelchair accessible. Please message the page if other accommodations are needed so we can work to assist with those.Or you can contact us with any queries at:

Bring your friends and co-workers to let the city and county councils know that we are not leaving until we have an ordinance and mechanisms in place that offer true protections for members of our undocumented immigrant community!

Dignity Dialogues are held every other Monday and are announced on the Keep Bellingham Families Working Facebook page.

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