“Cycling to Crenshaw” Bike Pilgrimage to Publix Immokalee to Lakeland, FL 8/27 – 9/6, 2011

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“Cycling to Crenshaw”
Bike Pilgrimage to Publix
Immokalee to Lakeland, FL
8/27 – 9/6, 2011

Final Stop
Lakeland, FL


On Tuesday, September 6th, the day after Labor Day, a hearty crew of bikers from Immokalee and their allies completed the 11-day, 200-mile “Pilgrimage to Publix,” arriving in Lakeland for the final leg of the tour, an 8-mile stretch from downtown Lakeland to Publix’s corporate headquarters on the edge of town.


Though the bikers who had logged every one of the 200 miles of the trek were joined by dozens of new allies for the final leg, things didn’t look good just minutes before the peloton was set to hit the road. A hard, steady rain — punctuated by ear-splitting bolts of lightning — had been falling all morning and the forecast called for more of the same throughout the day.


But, with some final words of encouragement — and a beautifully-worded blessing — from the Reverend Rebecca Hale, Regional Minister of the Disciples of Christ of Florida…


… and some very necessary advice on how to ride safely in the rain from veteran biker Bob Forbes, an elder with the First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota who joined the tour at the half-way point and provided the crew with expert counsel to make the trip as painless as possible,…


… the riders took to the route. They left Barnett Family Park under a steady rain,…


… accompanied by more than two dozen new bikers, including farmworkers from nearby communities and Fair Food activists from around the state.

And to everyone’s surprise, before the first mile was done, the rain stopped! Just minutes after leaving the park, the rain slowed to a drizzle, then it came to a complete stop, turning what seemed sure to be a hard, but virtuous, slog into a joyful, and altogether enjoyable, ride.

After 8 miles, the bikers arrived at Publix headquarters under remarkably blue skies, first the riders who completed all 200 miles of the tour…


… then those who joined them for the final leg.


They were met at the headquarters by a great crowd of fellow Fair Food activists who had traveled from cities like St. Augustine, Venice, Tampa, Sarasota, and Ft. Lauderdale to make their voices heard as Publix customers calling on the company to support the new standards for more modern, more humane working conditions in Florida’s fields.


Among the allies gathered that day outside Publix headquarters were a duo from Charlotte County who, through their church, are part of a county-wide effort to collect Publix receipts from customers willing to shop elsewhere if Publix doesn’t support the Fair Food Program. The collection is taking place in more than a dozen congregations and businesses across the county and will continue until Thanksgiving.


Also there to address the crowd was the Reverend Eve MacMaster from Emmanuel Mennonite Church in Gainesville. She read a letter, signed by now 31 clergy from the Gainesville area, to Publix. Entitled “An Open Letter from Gainesville Clergy to Publix Supermarkets,” it reads, in part:

“As the Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. teaches us, ‘In a real sense, all life is interrelated. The agony of the poor impoverishes the rich; the betterment of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.’ Farmworkers, supermarkets and consumers, we are all bound together.

We, the undersigned Gainesville faith leaders, urge Publix Super Markets, Inc, to affirm this reality and work with the CIW to do what is needed to bring the bounty of justice to all of our tables.”

 


The Reverend Kent Siladi, Conference Minister of United Church of Christ of Florida, also addressed the crowd, beginning his speech by declaring that the US postal service must not be in service, because for two years now he has never received a response to his many letters to Publix. Not one.

He then led a prayer, giving thanks for the sacrifice of the bikers, saying:

“For those who have ridden the 200 miles, for their commitment, for their courage, for their discipline, and for the way in which you, God, have guided them, we do give thanks.”

Rev. Siladi’s prayer is featured in an excellent WMNF radio story you can listen to here.


Even the kids got into the game. These young Fair Food activists from Gainesville shared a banner they made for the event with the crowd. The banner was signed by hundreds of fellow Gainesville residents who want Publix to do the right thing, and reads, “Dear Publix: I would pay a penny more per lb“.

The banner — and all the speakers — received heartfelt rounds of applause…


… but things got quiet when Darinel of the bikers from Immokalee reached for a handful of pine needles from a basket prepared for the rally. The needles were foraged the day before along the ride from Cedarkirk Presbyterian Camp where the bikers stayed the night.


Darinel went on to explain that, in the Mayan culture, the needles represent “peace and dignity.” He announced that, in the name of his fellow bikers, he would say a silent prayer and release a handful of the pine needles into the lake that separates Publix headquarters from the road as a symbol of the bikers’ hope that the workers who pick Publix’s tomatoes might also one day enjoy peace and dignity through their labor. He invited all who shared his hope to join him in releasing a handful of needles in the lake, as well.


Slowly, one by one, the rally participants got up from their seats, picked up a handful of pine needles…

… and released them, in silence, into the lake.

On the strength of that collective expression of hope, a delegation of riders crossed the Publix driveway and were met, well before they could even reach the security gate, by a representative of the Publix Public Relations department.


Here’s how the Lakeland Ledger described the encounter:

“At Publix’s main gates, the farmworkers who rode from Immokalee were met by a Publix representative who declined to give his name. He offered to pass along their message to Crenshaw, but they were not getting in.

That didn’t satisfy the coalition’s members. The group and the Publix worker went back and forth for a few minutes until the representative said he appreciated what they were doing and asked them to leave the company’s property.

Shannon Patten, a Publix spokeswoman, said Crenshaw wouldn’t meet with the group.”

 


Oscar Otzoy, however, wasn’t satisfied. He had ridden 200 miles to speak to Publix about the urgent need for change for Florida’s farmworkers, and he wasn’t going to leave without having a genuine, human, face-to-face discussion. He was determined to break through the wall of disingenuous public relations courtesy, and Tampa’s radio station WMNF was there to capture the moment. You can listen to that stirring bit of audio here.


Here’s the exchange:

Publix representative: “Our company’s position is on the website. Put it in the price, and we’ll be happy to support that… otherwise, we’re going to ask that we go ahead and end this conversation.”

Oscar: “It is in the price”

Publix representative: “Thank you.”

Oscar: “We want you to do the right thing. Until now, your company has ignored our poverty wages and bad conditions, including the slavery that you refuse to recognize exists here in Florida.”


Oscar: “Nine major corporations are supporting this agreement. Why would Publix not?”

“We have come 200 miles to ask to talk with Mr. Crenshaw, and now you’re rejecting us. Only by sitting at the table together can we get you to understand that the penny-per-pound and the code are functioning in exactly the same way as the fair trade coffee your company supports functions.”


Publix representative: “Thank you. I appreciate that. If you have something to pass along, I’ll be happy to take it. Otherwise, we’ll go ahead and we’ll wrap it up for today.”

Back at the rally, the Reverend Allison Farnum of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ft. Myers did a valiant job leading the crowd in uplifting hymns and protest songs while they awaited word from the meeting across the way.

But finally, when the delegation returned and shared the news of Mr. Crenshaw’s refusal to meet, the disappointment could not be contained. Here, Brian McLaren, a new Southwest Florida resident who has brought an exciting new energy to the Campaign for Fair Food (including helping lead the first pray-in back in August in a Naples Publix store), leads the crowd in a call and response in which he listed the many ways in which Publix has disappointed its customers with its response to the Campaign for Fair Food.

Finally, the rally ended, and the intrepid bike tour crew posed for one more photograph to commemorate their unforgettable trek.

Then, with everything packed away in a caravan of cars and vans and all the participants at the rally ready to return home and continue the fight for Fair Food, only one thing remained behind as a reminder of their visit there that day — handfuls of pine needles, drifting slowly toward Publix headquarters on the far side of the lake, a symbol of the workers’ and their allies’ unsinkable hope that one day Publix will recognize the dignity of the farmworkers who harvest our food and make its business, and its record profits, possible.