It’s on! Freedom Fast kicks off in NYC…

Lupe Gonzalo of the CIW exits the stage at Sunday’s opening rally after receiving a yellow armband signifying that she is one of the more than 70 farmworkers and allies taking part in the five-day Freedom Fast.

Five-day fast to fight sexual violence against women farmworkers launches outside Manhattan office of Wendy’s Board Chairman Nelson Peltz with rally, Wendy’s protest, and a surprise visit with Parkland students!

Before we begin the video and photo report from Day 1, here are a few facts to consider before you sink your teeth into your next Dave’s Double Cheeseburger at Wendy’s:

  • Human Rights Watch opened its 2012 report on sexual violence in the US agricultural industry, titled “Cultivating Fear,” with this stark assessment: “Hundreds of thousands of women and girls in the United States today work in fields, packing houses, and other agricultural workplaces where they face a real and significant risk of sexual violence and sexual harassment.”

  • In Mexico — where extreme violence, fear, and corruption combine to create a toxic culture that silences women and rewards perpetrators with impunity — the problem of sexual violence against women farmworkers is only worse.  In an article titled, “Violence against women ‘pandemic’ in Mexico,” Reuters reported, “As drug violence has escalated across Mexico in the past seven years, the rule of law has collapsed in some of the toughest cities and neighborhoods. When that happens, local gangs take control, imposing their will on residents and feeding a culture of extreme violence.  Abductions, rapes and murders of women have all soared with more women being killed in Mexico than ever before.”

  • The Fair Food Program, born in Florida’s tomato fields, has put an end to sexual assault for tens of thousands of farmworker women under its protections, and has created a proven complaint and investigation mechanism for women to report, and stop, sexual harassment without fear of retaliation.  The producer of the PBS Frontline documentary “Rape in the Fields” called the Fair Food Program “unique in the country” for its success in fighting sexual violence.

  • Wendy’s abandoned its longtime Florida tomato suppliers after they implemented the Fair Food Program, and shifted its purchases to Mexico.

Given the above, the question must be asked: Can Wendy’s guarantee that the woman who picked the tomato on your Dave’s Double Cheeseburger wasn’t sexually assaulted at work?

These facts, and that question, moved over 70 farmworkers with the CIW and the consumer allies to upend their daily lives and launch a fast outside the hedge fund offices of Wendy’s Board Chairman, Nelson Peltz, on Park Avenue in Manhattan yesterday.  They were joined there by more than 100 supporters for the opening rally of the five-day Freedom Fast, protesting Wendy’s refusal to join the Fair Food Program.

We have a video and photo report from the emotional Day 1 of the Freedom Fast — including a surprise meeting between a delegation of fasters and two students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, who were in New York from Florida themselves mobilizing for their own campaign to end violence — with more to follow in the days ahead.  Check back again tomorrow for the latest news from New York.

First up, a video from Day 1:

And now, the Photo Report:

Fasters and their supporters started Day 1 with a logistics meeting in a massive basement chamber of the ever-hospitable Riverside Church.  In a space reminiscent in its setting, if not its grandeur, of the early CIW meetings in a borrowed room at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Immokalee, workers and allies discussed the plans for the week ahead.

Before leaving the warm embrace of Riverside, the fasters took part in the Sunday morning service.  They were given the pews of honor and sent off with the good wishes of the congregation — and many a promise to see them again on the 15th for the Time’s Up Wendy’s March.

And then it was a quick bus caravan to the fast site, at the doorstep of Trian Partners luxurious hedge fund headquarters at 280 Park Ave., in midtown Manhattan, where, to everyone’s surprise, and joy, the sun was shining and the weather could almost be described as spring-like.  The CIW’s Oscar Otzoy (above) gave the official opening welcome to the Freedom Fast…

… to a crowd of well over 150 who stretched from end to end of the fasting site and brought a festive, human presence to the towering cityscape of concrete, steel, and glass. 

As is so often the case, the opening rally was ably emceed by the Rev. Noelle Damico (right), with translation by one of the pioeering leaders of the Student/Farmworker Alliance, Melody Gonzales.  Together, they coordinated the packed agenda of speakers…

… headlined by leaders of the CIW’s Women’s Group, who reminded the crowd of the central theme of the fast — the urgent need to end sexual violence at the heart of the country’s food industry, an effort that has made unprecedented progress since the implementation of the Fair Food Program with the support of all the major fast-food leaders… all, that is, with one glaring exception: Wendy’s.  

Then it was time for the official launch of the fast with the placing of bright yellow armbands to identify those fasting (though, for the record, the fast started at midnight the night before the opening ceremony)… starting with CIW members…

… and continuing with the many allies who joined the fast, including Pastor Miguel Estrada of Immokalee’s Presbyterian Mision Peniel (above), a religious and community leader whose words and blessings have animated CIW actions for years, and whose commitment to justice is an example for clergy of all stripes.

The crowd showed its appreciation for the fasters’ sacrifice, and for the fading sun of the late afternoon.

And as afternoon turned to evening, the first of many planned visits by local community, church, and worker groups — this time from the choir of NYC’s famed Middle Collegiate Church — arrived at the site to lift the fasters’ spirits with beautiful voices singing many of the CIW’s own favorites from the civil rights freedom songbook.

Then the fasters broke into two groups, a larger one that took to the streets for the first of many Wendy’s pickets (above)…

… and the other, a delegation of Immokalee students and parents of Immokalee students participating in the fast, that headed uptown to a service at the Park Avenue Christian Church where two of the students from Parkland, Florida’s, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (above) were speaking about their experience and their national campaign to end gun violence following the horrific shooting of 17 students and teachers at their school, two hours from Immokalee on Florida’s east coast. 

Ryan Deisch and Danielle Tylim’s powerful testimony, combined with their painful insight into what was aptly called the “country’s demonic obsession with guns” by a New York city council member later in the service, moved many in the congregation to tears.  Particularly powerful was the union of the Parkland students’ fight with that of an organization of mothers from Harlem who themselves had lost children to gun violence.  The potential of such an alliance conjured up images of a future without victims, where children from the largest urban cities to suburban communities and the smallest rural towns, can live out their lives, go to school and walk the streets of their neighborhoods, without fear.

Following the service, the delegation of fasters met separately with the students to discuss the many similarities of their battles to bring an end to violence and plans for collaboration in the future when both contingents return to Florida.

As night fell, it was time for the fasters to wrap up Day 1 and head back to Riverside Church to bed down for the night and prepare for a full agenda of action and reflection on Day 2.  Check back soon for a report from Day 2 and a media round-up from the launch of the fast.