Campaign Blog

  • Cliff Willmeng

My History of Fighting Alongside Communities of Color and the Repressed

Updated: Aug 9, 2018

"The objective of political work is always to facilitate the ability of the everyday people to hear and feel the power of our own voice and to give platform for the strongest demands possible. The success of one area will always embolden the audacity of another."

The following writing was inspired by a request from Colorado Representative Joe Salazar to describe my history and work with repressed communities, people of color, and the policies and struggles most immediately relevant to that struggle. I thank Joe for this opportunity, and believe that although mountains of work are yet to be accomplished, we are conducting some of the most genuine fights against these represessions in the State of Colorado.

My political activism began in the 1980’s where I was involved in the boycott campaign against South African apartheid. My first protest ever in 1985 at the age of 15 was to oppose racism in deeply Democratic Party controlled Chicago, where I was born. Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s I opposed US military interventions in Central and South America, its support for brutal dictatorships in the global south and the exploitation of labor and natural resources within those countries. I was arrested multiple times protesting the US Army School of the Americas in Fort Benning Georgia where Latin American military and para military death squads were trained to repress and kill leaders and oppress the struggles of workers and the environment for US corporate interests.

I fought the Daley administration’s destruction of Chicago 80,000 units of public housing, homes primarily occupied by unemployed African American workers after the elites of the city decided condominiums for rich white people were more important. The permanent depression – level conditions of people of color in that city are, in fact, the direct and permanent policy of the Democratic Party. These patterns are even worse today than ten years ago as Rahm Emanuel continues to close public schools and liquidate social programs and public transportation that serve those communities.

I was part of Camp Cesar Chavez that fought for, and won, the construction of a high school in the La Villita (Little Village) neighborhood of Chicago that is over 90% Latinx. That high school had been promised by Daley prior to him giving the funding to the upper-class Walter Payton prep school on the north side, another example of the policies of the Democratic Party which were overcome by regular people. CEO of Chicago Public Schools Arne Duncan was promoted for his work gutting the public schools in Chicago as well as his permanent antagonism of the rank and file of the Chicago teacher’s unions. He did such a good job with the privatization of schools and his callousness toward communities of color that he was appointed to US Secretary of Education by Chicago political insider Barack Obama himself.

I was part of the October 22nd Coalition that took on the widespread abuses and killings of people of color by the Chicago police force. Year after year after year we demonstrated at the precincts where killer police were employed and defended by the Daley administration, the administration of Rahm Emanuel, and their representatives in the Fraternal Order of Police. This abuse is without end in as it is in Democratically controlled Denver, Colorado.

In my union activism while in United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local #1, we were the first caucus in union history to fight for, “Representational inclusion of women, Latinos, and African - Americans in the functioning and decision making of our union”. We ran a slate of rank and file candidates for local office on this basis and fought and won an early retirement for 34,000 union workers. That work was so laced with conflict because of the white, Democratic, male dominance of the union bureaucracy that I had to have a baseball bat permanently located in my truck due to the physical violence our rank and file members encountered.

I’ve fought against the economic drivers of immigration including the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization, both corporate trade policies advanced through the bipartisan efforts of the US pollical/economic class. (NAFTA was co-authored by Richard Daley’s brother Bill Daley.) I participated in the actions against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999 with workers and landless farmers from around the world. We shut down the WTO during that week of insurrection and were confronted by the riot police, batons, tear gas, rubber bullets and mass arrests of Democratic Party Mayor Paul Schell and President Bill Clinton. They would eventually call martial law on us and on the second day I was one of hundreds of people arrested and placed in King County Jail. We went on hunger strike and were released after six days without food. I am currently banned from entry into Canada as a result of my participation in those actions.

Three weeks after starting nursing school I joined the striking Chicago City College teachers on picket lines, in occupations, protests and actions to improve wages and teaching conditions in the schools most affordable to people of color. Truman College, where I received my associate’s degree has over 54 languages spoken regularly.

My first Pride Parade in Chicago was part of a protest of Democratic Party State Attorney Dick Devine organized by the LGTBQ group, the Anti-Bashing Network. This is because the Chicago police were killing gay men and sending them to Intensive Care Units so regularly that Amnesty International had to abandon its neutral stance on US politics and filed a report on their abuses. Dick Devine refused to prosecute those officers and landed himself in a crowd of hundreds of LGTBQ fighter and their supporters during the entire length of the Pride Parade.

My first job as an RN was at West Suburban Medical Center on Chicago’s west side. With a patient population of 97% African Americans who have been comprehensively abandoned by the Chicago political elites, these are the community members who lack basic access to primary health care, have no grocery stores for miles, and who suffer poverty levels, police brutality and systemic racism on a scale that is among the greatest in the United States. I was working there when Barack Obama gave some of the first optimism in generations to that community after being elected and celebrating in Grant Park. I was also working there as the reality of his role in US racism and governmental antagonism for the regular people suffering under that system became apparent to the people there on the west side. “He doesn’t care about us any more than the last President”, was a common consensus after just one year of his reign.

I moved to Lafayette primarily because of its working class composition, its racial diversity and Escuela Bilingue Pioneer, an absolutely amazing public bilingual school made up of half native Spanish speakers and half native English speakers. My kids are both fluent in Spanish and spend their entire school year immersed in the culture of Latin American people. I can’t imagine being more thankful for that experience. Pioneer Elementary is now on the drilling plan of Extraction Oil and Gas since Boulder County was opened up to oil and gas drilling by the Boulder County Commissioners in 2017.

In both 2014 and 2016 I fought for the state ballot initiative known as the Colorado Community Rights Amendment, which would have ended the corporate dominance of Colorado communities through preemption, corporate personhood, and commerce rights. This would have tipped the advantage back to working class communities who right now are legally prohibited from enacting local living wages, rent control, and all manner of environmental protections. Naturally these prohibitions fall disproportionately on communities of color as a whole.

I am today a union steward and officer on the executive board of Colorado’s largest private union, UFCW Local 7, led by Latinx President Kim Cordova and governed by a group of rank and file vice presidents from across races, genders and sexual orientations. It is my job to defend coworkers from management, to confront pay, attendance, disciplinary issues and all manner of struggles affecting the 23,000 members from industries across Colorado and Wyoming. President Cordova is the first female and Latina President to hold office in the union’s 150 year history. The JBS plant we represent and who has workers on our executive board has been featured in headlines after being raided by ICE.

In 2016 I was a supporter of the First Nation fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. Within my small role in that internationally known struggle I was cofounder of Labor For Standing Rock, a rank and file organization that assisted camp Oceti Sakowin in building infrastructure by organizing union members from across the country to come and help. We also raised over $20,000 that went directly to the front lines camps and kitchens for food, clothing and winterization efforts. I wrote the first municipal resolution in support of Standing Rock and had it passed in Lafayette. I also wrote the first Colorado union resolution in support of Standing Rock which was passed by UFCW Local 7 that raised an additional $2000 for the fight there. It went to the legal defense fund of Native water protectors.

Since moving to Colorado my political life has been dominated by the fight against the oil and gas industry, to create local autonomy for communities, and to fight for the independent rights of the natural environment. My children have never known a time in their lives, now eight and ten years old, where we have not been at these struggles. They are victims of the oil and gas industry themselves, and have been to Bella Romero to try to add to the defeat of Extraction Oil and Gas currently drilling next to that primarily Latinx school.

All of these efforts are meant to strengthen the working class, which I am part of, and address the disparities of power intrinsic to a capitalist system based on racism and bigoty. They will always be insufficient to the task of ending racism, oppression and the system that relies on them both, capitalism, until we redefine what winning looks like and accomplish that.

All struggle raises consciousness, and it is my intent to learn from and integrate the ideas and demands of repressed people into every aspect of my efforts, however imperfect or in need of strengthening. Movements are a collective work in progress by definition, and so by definition are we. We can progress, learn, and as always, work harder.

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