No Borders, No Fences! Building a Movement for Refugee and Immigrant Justice in Utica

by Brendan Maslauskas Dunn / Love and Rage

Urged on by local activist John Furman in the middle of his speech, the gathered protesters started chanting, “No borders! No fences! No borders! No fences!” The words echoed throughout Utica’s historic Oneida Square on an unseasonably warm evening on December 10th. Around 150 people gathered at the foot of the Civil War monument to make a stand in support of refugees from Syria. Demonstrators lit candles in memory of those refugees who have lost their lives while fleeing war-torn Syria.

The rally was organized in response to the recent attempts by politicians to ban refugees from coming to Utica as well as the state of New York. But it was also organized in response to the frightening rise of Islamophobia, bigotry and racism in the nation, the calls for military intervention in Syria, and also for the need to start organizing, in a real way, to build an active refugee and immigrant justice movement in the area. The rally will hopefully act as a catalyst to ignite that movement.

The group that put the initial call out for the rally was a small and recently established local of a national organization called Black Rose Anarchist Federation. Members of the group have been involved with a variety of other community groups, organizing campaigns and protests. Although the politics of Black Rose are specifically anarchist, members have focused their efforts in setting up community-led, anti-authoritarian and directly democratic alternatives to systems of oppression that govern our society. This organizing has been and continues to be with other people in the community, no matter what their views or beliefs are.

Other groups that cosponsored the rally were CNY Citizens in Action, Love and Rage Media, the Mohawk Valley Freedom School, the Herkimer-Oneida County Green Party and many other activists and community advocates. The night before the rally, students from local middle schools, Proctor High School, Holland Patent High School and Mohawk Valley Community College came to the Freedom School to make signs and a banner. Many of the students present were refugees themselves, many from Burma and Bosnia. They would return the next night.

Professors and students from local colleges made it out to the rally, as well as parents and children, young and old, members of NYSUT, ESL teachers and so many more. There were also many Karen, Palestinian and Somali refugees present at the rally. For a number of people, this was the first political action they had ever participated in. Hopefully, it will not be their last. People took turns to give short, impromptu speeches, squinting as they stood in front of the lights shining on the Civil War monument that towers over Oneida Square. As Chris Casey of the Green Party addressed the crowd he encouraged people to get involved with the Mohawk Valley Freedom School and the newly formed Utica Activist Coalition which held its second meeting after the rally.

A young activist who was the last to speak to the crowd was Haneen Alsaad, a Palestinian refugee who grew up in Iraq and survived the U.S. bombing and invasion of Baghdad while she lived there. She told the crowd about her experience as a refugee and why we need to support other refugees. Alsaad also spoke in the past at a Free Gaza, Palestine rally she helped organize in 2014. Lively discussions were held at the rally as people made connections with each other and discussed politics and immigration. At one point, people started to sing Woody Guthrie’s famous song “This Land is Your Land”. A moment later, many of the young Karen students started to sing the alphabet song, the first song taught to many young students as well as those taking English language classes.

While many were singing in the crowd, a few passed out fliers. One flier that circulated the rally was an article written by anarchist and author David Graeber The Independent on a political struggle that has a very direct connection to the refugee crisis and the war in Syria: the Rojava Revolution. It was from that article and through discussion that night that a number of people were introduced to this major social revolution currently happening in Kurdistan, or northern Syria, right now that directly involves over 3,000,000 people. In the heart of the Middle East, a secular, feminist and multi-ethnic revolution being led by the the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is creating a society that is built on the practice of direct democracy, mutual aid, collectivism, and a unique and deep form of freedom that few experience in the West. The revolutionary Kurds have proven to be the most effective fighting force against Daesh (also known as ISIS), and have created liberated areas formerly under the control of Daesh. It is in this part of Kurdistan where a new society, one that is anti-capitalist and anti-State, is being built every day.

The political lessons of the Rojava Revolution may shed some light on what kind of movement we can build here in Utica. A movement that, as the organizers of the rally emphasized, needs to be built at the grassroots by the people. One that envisions a world not built on domination, violence and oppression but on mutual aid and solidarity. But what will that movement look like? And how can we create it?

Organizing Against Imperialism – Addressing the Roots of the Refugee Crisis

First, we need to address the roots of the current refugee crisis in Syria and see it for what it is. This crisis was not self-created: it is the result of years of military intervention and occupation in neighboring Iraq. The chaos and destruction that defines daily life in Iraq was created by years of economic sanctions and the violence and bloodshed of a brutal war. Millions have died as a direct result of U.S. imperialism in the region and since the U.S. and the West were busy destroying nationalist, secular and socialist movements and governments across the Middle East during the Cold War, religious extremist groups rose and in many cases became the only viable forces that were fighting foreign domination.

Al Qaeda formed in response to the U.S. occupation in Iraq, and Daesh was formed from a process of radicalization that was a reaction to the horrors of the U.S. war. When we discuss the refugee crisis, we need to address this. Not only does the U.S. have the ability as the world’s wealthiest nation to take in Syrian refugees, it also has a responsibility to take them in. In a word, the problem is imperialism, and those who live in the empire, need to acknowledge this and organize against it. The Middle East comes to mind in this scenario but so to do other places around the globe.

Not just in the Middle East, but across Latin America and in places in Asia like Vietnam, Cambodia, Korea and the Philippines, the U.S. has been responsible for creating some of the largest migration waves and refugee crises in modern history. An estimated 1,000,000 people were killed in the 1898 invasion of the Philippines, 5,000,000 in Korea during the “American War” of the 1950s, and at least 3,000,000 in Vietnam and millions more in Cambodia as a result of U.S. militarism there in the 1960s-70s. Waves of migrants from El Salvador, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Honduras, Guatemala and other Latin American nations to the U.S. mainland happened in response to a century defined by the U.S. installing right wing dictators, unleashing death squads throughout the hemisphere, teaching the fine art of torture and warfare, and backing various genocides while hunting down socialists and other activists and overthrowing democratically elected governments understandably created a mass migration heading north. It is what journalist Juan Gonzalez calls “the harvest of empire.” The solution, according to the current administration has been the mass incarceration of undocumented immigrants, deportations and rounding up families who escaped so they could live through a constant stream of terrifying ICE raids. These raids have also torn apart families in Utica. The hope and change many voted for really only meant more of the same.

In 1967 Martin Luther King Jr. touched on the systemic problems of war and empire in his famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech he gave at Harlem’s Riverside Church. It was in that powerful speech where King proclaimed that that he and others in the Black Freedom movement had to do something about what he called “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world: my own government.”

King saw both political parties as responsible for upholding segregation in the South while fighting unjust and brutal wars overseas. He advocated a different politics. An alternative. One that addressed the roots of both white supremacy and empire. One that could not be solved with voting. There are lessons we can learn from King and his anti-imperialist politics.

Trump is not the Problem and Sanders is not The Solution

When we start to look at the roots of oppression like King did years ago and, in this case, when we start to look at the roots of the refugee crisis, we start to address structural and institutional problems. It’s election season, and the loudest candidate also happens to be the most viscerally racist. Donald Trump’s calls to round up all immigrants and deport them, monitor all Muslims in the nation and shut down the borders, combined with his large base of support are indeed frightening but what he is speaking about has already been done on a mass scale through the duration of the so-called War on Terror. Both the Republicans and the Democrats, both Bush and Obama, launched wars and occupied Muslim nations, rounded up Muslims en masse in other countries and monitored, tortured, and assassinated people with drones. Trump’s dream domestically has been Obama’s reality internationally, one that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was also complicit in and is more than ready to continue if she is elected. Domestically, Obama has earned the nickname “Deporter in Chief” from activists in the immigrant justice movement for deporting more undocumented immigrants than George W. Bush. The most recent attack on undocumented immigrants are

Deploring Trump’s calls for discrimination and hatred while remaining silent on Obama’s record in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and so many other places both deflects and individualizes the problem of empire. And while Bernie Sanders calls for a vision that is on the surface different from the visions of Trump, the other Republicans, Clinton and Obama, at its very core it is also a vision of empire – of maintaining U.S. military hegemony around the globe, of continuing drone assassinations, and supporting Israeli apartheid. The Democratic Party, like the Republican Party, is a party that supports empire and capitalism. The idea that a Sanders or any candidate, however “socialist” they may claim to be, can change the system is unrealistic. One politician cannot unhinge what has been in motion for over 200 years. That change, as is the case in Rojava or was the case of the Black Freedom movement, cannot and should not come from above – it has to come from below and has to be led by the people. This naturally leads us to the next question: how does that change come?

Uniting Struggles and Connecting the Dots

A movement is not a rally here, or a protest there. It is the raising of consciousness of people, the realization that people have agency – that they are capable of making change. And, most importantly, acting on that notion and making that change happen. In the U.S., there has been a greater awareness of this in recent years, an awakening. This can be seen in the immigrant rights movement, the movement against mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and  the environmental justice movement to name just a few. Building a movement for refugee and immigrant justice needs to be connected with other struggles to make it succeed, not just in this nation but around the world. We can see this in two ways on a local level – in both the problems that refugees face when they come here and in the organizing experiences many refugees bring from their own struggles.

Refugees and immigrants face considerable difficulties when they arrive here. While it is true that many have left war-torn and poverty-stricken nations, simply moving to the U.S. is not a cure-all for peoples’ problems but a continuation and evolution of them. Discrimination and racism on both an individual and structural basis is just one example. One of the most blatant examples of this discrimination was covered in an article by The New York Times. A lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union alleges that for years refugee and immigrant students have been pushed out of the public school system and the highest administrators in the Utica School District have enforced a policy of discrimination, violating state and federal laws in the process, and pushing students, only because they are immigrants, away from educational opportunities provided to their peers.

Yet another problem that many refugees and immigrants continue to face is dire poverty and unemployment. Resources are limited for those moving into an already impoverished city and the financial crisis has only made that problem worse. One example is the Somali-Bantu community which has a population of at least 2,000 people in Utica. The New York Times reported last year that unemployment rate for the Somali-Bantu in Utica is about 50%. Many newcomers like the Somali-Bantu, like many others in Cornhill, East Utica and West Utica, live in substandard housing run by slumlords. And while immigrants work in every industry imaginable in Utica, many find work bearing long shifts at Chobani Yogurt, at Turning Stone Casino or in various low wage and poverty wage service jobs.

The problems that immigrants face – poverty, unemployment, poor housing, racism, discrimination, and low wages at work – are also problems faced by many others locally, but often times magnified because of the barriers placed against immigrants. It is here – in the schools, communities and workplaces – where immigrants face these problems so it is here where a new form of struggle must take place. Whether in the form of tenants’ unions, pickets and protests, workers’ unions, and various forms of grassroots and community organizing, change will only come when people stand up for justice and fight back. Some are already doing so.

Somalia to Burma to Palestine to Utica

Although some people have an idea that immigrants and refugees are simply victims that need to be “lifted up” and freed by Americans, the reality is that many come with their own experiences of resistance and all come with a history of survival. The Karen from Burma have been fighting a liberation struggle for the better part of half a century. Some local Karen refugees were militants and even leaders in the Karen National Liberation Army while others participated in the 8888 Uprising in Burma. Similarly, Palestinians have been involved in their own struggle for independence from a brutal form of Israeli occupation and colonialism worse than South African apartheid for just as long. Still other refugees from the former Yugoslavia, Somalia and so many other nations have their own experiences of survival, resistance and struggle.

Activists that have grown up in the U.S., and more specifically, Utica, have something to learn from these different struggles. A genuine movement can only be built when this knowledge and wisdom is requested, shared, and when our different experiences and struggles connect and intersect. Rather than activists trying to get refugees to join this group or that group, as if we have something unique and intrinsic, something to offer them, a line of thinking that is arrogant at best but racist in its uglier manifestations, it makes more sense for those of us who grew up here to meet as equals and to build a better world with rather than for immigrants.

Indigenous Murri activists in Australia put it best during the 1970s with the saying often attributed to activist Lila Watson but born of a collective wisdom, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” We need to connect the dots, intersect, learn from each other, grow and build that new world so many of us dream of.

We need to fight for freedom we so painfully lack in Utica, not for the oppressed but with them. With immigrants and refugees, with students, with tenants, workers, with all of those who are struggling to survive and dreaming of a better world. And like those brave revolutionaries in Rojava, we must always keep in mind that a pathway to true freedom and dignity is always obstructed by borders and fences. We must take them down in all their manifestations – an undertaking that has to happen not just in Utica to succeed, but the world over.


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