EARLY LAST Sunday afternoon, with streets still echoing the weekend-long Nordic Fest celebration, a busload and several carloads of Decorah residents traveled to Postville to march in support of human rights.
They joined protesters from the Twin Cities, Chicago and throughout the Midwest for what organizers called an "interfaith prayer walk." The event included an interfaith service, march and rally and called for comprehensive immigration reform, family unification and just labor practices.
Estimates of the number participating in the event range from 1,200 to 2,000; but in any case, the town of just over 2,000 people had its hands full as counter-demonstrators and media representatives from across the country added to the crowd.
The march was called in response to a raid May 12 on Agriprocessors Inc., in Postville - the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the United States, owned and operated by Aaron Rubashkin and his family. The company's products, sold as Aaron's Best and Rubashkin's, among others, represent the majority of kosher beef and poultry sold in the U.S.
During the raid, armed federal officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, entered the plant and took just under 400 people into custody. Court appearances were arranged for those who were being criminally charged, mostly with identity theft or illegal use of a Social Security card.
Most of the raid's detainees were from Guatemala and Mexico. According to a statement released by organizers of Sunday's event, 45 adults, 42 of them women, were "detained and conditionally released for humanitarian reasons (to care for minor children). The majority of them are wearing GPS devices ('ankle bracelets') that control their movement... and are unable to work or provide for their families."
Among the minors who were detained, 17 were detained and released and five were transferred to the custody of Office for Refugee Resettlement (ORR).
ICE's Web site described the raid as "the largest criminal worksite enforcement operation ever in the United States."
'A call for justice'
"This is a call for justice," said Sr. Mary McCauley of St. Bridget's Catholic Church in Postville and one of the march's organizers. Emphasizing the need for reform, not raids, Sr. McCauley said "[the raid] has had devastating effects on the community, separating families and hampering an ongoing investigation into labor violations at the plant... This is a call to be faithful to our American and religious values. This is a call to stand in solidarity with our Hispanic brothers and sisters."
Before the raid, Agriprocessors had been the target of investigations into state and federal labor violations. In 2006, a commission of inquiry organized by Conservative Jewish leaders criticized the plant's operations and called for more safety training and increased inspections by state labor officials.
Among the organizers of Sunday's march were Jewish activists advocating for proposals to revise kosher food certification to include standards of corporate ethics and treatment of workers.
For some marchers, the raid had come as a wake-up call.
"I didn't realize about the treatment of the workers," Decorah's Phyllis Trytten said. "I thought it was a kosher place -- that they followed the laws of the Tanach." Her husband, retired Luther College mathematics professor George Trytten, said "people are incensed and outraged." He said he was marching Sunday as a way of expressing that outrage.
Decorah's Lisa Lantz, an instructor of costume design at Luther College, agreed. "When the raid happened, I was kind of surprised by how much it upset me; it just seemed so senseless," she said. "It doesn't feel good to be outraged and express anger; but it needs to be done, if it can be done in this peaceful way."
Kelly Larsen, who graduated this spring from Decorah High School and will study journalism and international relations at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. in the fall, has been working as a translator at the food pantry in Decorah and has noticed effects from the raid.
"It's been shocking this summer. Women have been coming in with ankle bracelets [tracking devices]. It's horrifying," she said.
Sunday's event began with an interfaith service at St. Bridget's Church. The service was broadcast over a loudspeaker, as participants continued to gather outside. Near the church, a group of people sat under a tree, holding signs ("Where did your family come from?" and "Ningún humano es illegal" - "No human is illegal"). A Luther College student, Fabrice Musoni, accompanied the prayers with a drumbeat. Children held onto signs their parents would be carrying in the march: "I came for a better future for my children. Is that a crime?"
"My heart's just breaking for these people," said Zoe Abrahamson, formerly of Postville and now living in Rochester, Minn. "This is a moral issue. We need immigration reform. We're willing to exploit these people, and then we kick them out like stray dogs. How can we profess Christianity and then behave like this?"
After the service, the march took participants through town and included a stop in front of Agriprocessors. At march's end, the protesters walked past about 60 counter-demonstrators who were being kept apart from the rally by local police and Iowa State Patrol officers.
Aryn Henning Nichols of Decorah said she was "struck by the symbolism of the 'two sides of the street.'" In a kind of response to a sign saying "If you are illegal, go home" carried by one of the counter-demonstrators, for example, several marchers carried signs that insisted "no human being is illegal."
In response to calls for "no more raids" by the marchers, the opposition shouted "yes, more raids" and waved signs saying "the more raids, the better."
Henning took particular note, she said, of a disturbing sign carried by a counter-demonstrator: "Ask us why you deserve hell," was all it said.
Among the counter-protesters was a woman painted green and dressed as the statue of liberty, carrying a sign that said "protect American workers"; several men and women wearing minutemen militia caps and T-shirts, carrying American flags and signs calling for more raids; and representatives of the Federation for American Immigration Reform - an organization, according to its Web site, that seeks "to improve border security, to stop illegal immigration and to promote immigration levels consistent with the national interest."
The event concluded with a rally in front of St. Bridget's Church. Just before 4 p.m., a heavy rainstorm forced the crowd to disband.
What happens now?
For all the apparent success of Sunday's march and rally in Postville - taking place, as it did, on the cusp of what Sr. McCauley calls "an awesome moment, a historic moment" in American history and involving well over 1,000 people in the effort -- the question of whether public demonstrations like this can "do any good" is not an idle one.
Kelly Larsen thinks they can.
"If one person has their eyes opened, or if one person's life is made better by it, then I think it's worth it," she said.
As for whether the good being done can extend to the long-term and effect real and lasting change, that's another question.
Lisa Lantz is hopeful. "I hope there'll be coverage of this like there's been coverage of the raid," she said of the march and rally. "I hope people can continue to focus on the situation, and continue to be concerned about it."
How to help
Organizers of the event were St. Bridget's Catholic Church, Jewish Community Action of St. Paul, Minn., and the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs of Chicago, Ill. A statement relased by organizers notes that, in the wake of the May 12 raid, "St. Bridget's Catholic Church Response Team has provided many services including, but not limited to: providing refuge for families directly following the raid, providing support for housing, utilities, food, medical care, psychological and emotional care, legal referrals, media awareness, assisting documentation needs, community meals and forming connections to the community." To make a donations to aid in St. Bridget's efforts send them to: Saint Bridget's Catholic Church; c/o Sister Mary McCauley; PO Box 369; Postville IA 52162; (563) 864-3138