Amistad Awards Preach Justice, And Activism

The winners at the ceremony. Art Perlo Photo. 

The winners at the ceremony. Art Perlo Photo. 

Ice the Beef Youth streamed down the aisles of First & Summerfield Methodist Church on Elm Street. The advocacy organization’s teen members wore black and carried torso-length poster paper signs bearing the slogans “S-T-O-P the violence!” and “Justice for REESE!”

“Jobs for youth,” called out Ice the Beef President Chaz Carmon. “Jobs for all,” the procession hollered in response. 

The group was reenacting September’s protest marches in Newhallville before the crowd at the 2017 People’s World Amistad Awards Saturday night. Their act of theater brought the revolution to the recognition ceremony, co-sponsored by New Haven’s chapter of the Communist Party USA and New Haven Rising.

Camila and Carolina Bortolleto received their awards to a standing ovation. Art Perlo Photo. 

Camila and Carolina Bortolleto received their awards to a standing ovation. Art Perlo Photo. 

This year’s Amistad Awards—big, framed posters of the bronze memorial to Joseph Cinque outside City Hall—went to four women: Camila and Carolina Bortolleto of CT Students for a Dream (C4D), State Rep. Robyn Porter, and CT AFL-CIO campaign manager Peggy Buchanan. The Bortolleto sisters accepted their award to a standing ovation, against a photo backdrop of them being forcibly led away by frowning, scowling police officers.

“I’m undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic,” insisted Camila. She and her twin founded C4D shortly after earning their bachelor’s degrees from Western Connecticut State University in 2010. “College graduation was like a brick wall—I couldn’t work…I couldn’t do anything.”

Having spent the past seven years agitating for the rights of individual migrant youth, the Bortolleto sisters now seek to put pressure on national legislators towards the passage of a ‘clean’ DREAM Act

“We don’t want any more enforcement that will cause our families to live in fear,” Carolina explained. “My safety means nothing if they live in fear!”

New Haven and Bridgeport State Senators Gary Winfield and Edwin Gomes introduced Robyn Porter. Winfield appeared to have made something of a detour through the first sticking snowfall of the season, still in his sweatshirt and sneakers but committed to seeing Rep. Porter honored.

“Robyn is more than a colleague: she’s a sister,” Winfield said. The two have seen each other through a great deal: She was his neighbor when Barbara Fair first convinced him to run for office. She saw him take Toni Harp's seat in the state senate when she became the first Black female mayor of New Haven. Then he was a tireless ally as Porter ran for his open seat in a special election.

 “There have been times when I thought, ‘This was the end!’” He turned to look at Porter and gestured to her. “And that’s why I’m still here!”

“Robyn is a breath of fresh air up on the capitol, let me tell you something,” echoed Sen. Gomes. “Many a time I had to look around and look to Robyn to lead me.” He told the audience how Porter commanded respect in both the house and senate of the Connecticut General Assembly.

Marco Reyes ,  Nelson Pinos ,  Unidad Latina en Acción  (ULA), and Local 33 – UNITE HERE also received honorary statements of solidarity. Art Perlo Photo. 

Marco Reyes, Nelson Pinos, Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA), and Local 33 – UNITE HERE also received honorary statements of solidarity. Art Perlo Photo. 

As Gomes finished his remarks, Porter placed her hands companionably on the Senator’s shoulders, leaning over him—gently using her square grip to transpose their two bodies and take the podium. She began her acceptance speech by meditating on the status quo.

“We started out in 2017 real rough and not just on a national level but at a local level,” Porter said. “Because of the spirit of hate that’s spewing out, it’s a heavy lift.” She added that “there’s no need to be shocked about what’s spewing out…this country was built on hate!” 

Porter said she firmly believed, however, that “teamwork makes the dream work.” 

“We got to put all the BS aside—all the things that separate us aside,” she said. “When I go out and march for criminal justice reform, I want to see all of you out there with me!” 

The representative made a plea to transcend the tribalism that splits apart those who push for a $15 minimum wage from those who want family medical leave or an end to police brutality. She called on the audience for support.

“We’re gonna’ need you for public hearings, we’re gonna’ need you for talking to legislators,” Porter explained. “That’s what works: people coming together…if you ain’t in this for life…this work is going to continue when you’re long gone!”

Peggy Buchanan picked up Porter’s theme. “Any right we have now is because someone campaigned, protested…picketed, starved, or even died for it,” Buchanan said. “We need deep, genuine bonds of solidarity…We must address what divides the working people!” 

Buchanan remembered her early career, how she fought for pay equality and childcare among the first wave of working women to come on the scene in the early 1980s. Although 30 years have since passed, Buchanan claimed “the sense of possibility” she felt then is still with her. To that effect, she delivered a slate of objectives for the coming year, all fired up and gung-ho:

And the band played on. Art Perlo Photo. 

And the band played on. Art Perlo Photo. 

“We’ve got to go all in on a clean DREAM Act!” “We’ve got to go all in on pushing a broad working families agenda!” “We’ve got to go all in—all in—on the 2018 election…to create an economy that works for everyone, and not just the wealthy few!”

Marco Reyes, Nelson Pinos, Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA), and Local 33 – UNITE HERE also received honorary statements of solidarity at the 2017 Amistad Awards. The event’s organizers screened brief, five-minute supercuts of ULA and Local 33 victories over the past year. Jesus Morales Sanchez expressed his gratitude, in particular, to Reyes, who recently ended his sanctuary at First & Summerfield Church the day before Thanksgiving. 

“People say that us, the activists are the heart of the movement. But, no—,” Sanchez broke off, crediting instead the grit and determination of the immigrant community. “Thank you so much for letting us be a part of your family.”

Before the audience was dismissed to a reception with empanadas prepared by Fanny Reyes, Nigerian highlife singer Patrick Osadebe debuted a single, “Trouble,” composed by the New Haven-based salsa and Latin jazz ensemble Mikata.

The eight person band featured sax, bass, claves, trumpet, shakere, electric guitar, as well as western and more traditional drum sets. Osadebe provided vocals, twinning the up-tempo, laid-back, swinging sounds of highlife with a downbeat litany of social ills: 

Trouble: with the im-mi-gra-tion,
Trouble: with the de-por-ta-tion,
Trouble: with in-car-cer-a-tion,
Trouble: they sold the prisons to the cor-por-a-tions!

This encouraged Osadebe to ask, “What’s the use—you’re never gonna’ make a dent!” Chair of the New Haven Communist Party, Joelle Fishman, provided an answer in her closing remarks.

“White supremacy, sexism, bigotry”—Osadebe’s overwhelming torrent of crises—“are poisonous tools of the system,” Fishman argued. These manifold issues divide the working class along varying agendas and make it “too weak to fight together.”

“The lesson for our organizing is unity and solidarity,” she insisted. “When we fight together, we win together!” 

Fishman paused. “Let’s say that,” she added, thinking better of it. The crowd took up the cry.

“When we fight together, we win together!”