UNITY — Country Farm Road echoed with more noise than what local residents have grown accustomed to on Friday afternoon as a long caravan of cars blaring their horns drove to and around the Sullivan County Department of Corrections building, demanding the release of detainees who are highly at risk during the pandemic.
Community activists and members of 10 advocacy organizations including Migrant Justice, the New Hampshire and Vermont chapters of the National Lawyers Guild, Rights & Democracy, RISE Upper Valley, United Valley Interfaith Project, Upper Valley Affinity Group, Upper Valley Democratic Socialists of America, Vermont AFL-CIO and the Vermont Workers’ Center participated in the three-stop, quarantine-safe protest in support of a number of initiatives that benefit various at-risk populations.
“All of us have a right to live with dignity,” said caravan co-organizer and Vermont Workers’ Center member Sharon Racusin of Norwich, Vt. “The failure of the current economic system is clear. Most of us were already living in crisis before this pandemic. We can transform our health care system and our society to meet everyone’s needs--but only if we organize.”
At the group’s first stop, Migrant Justice — a human rights organization founded and led by immigrant farm workers — called on Hannaford to sign onto the Milk with Dignity program, which enlists dairy companies to sign legally binding agreements that set requirements on health and safety, housing, wages and work schedules.
“We need to make sure that [businesses] are supplying their stores with milk from farms that [detail] the ways we are treating our workers fairly and safely,” said Nancy Welch.
The ongoing public health crisis was cited as being the motivation behind the caravan stops outside the Sullivan County Department of Corrections, Southern State Correctional Facility and the Springfield Probation and Parole Office.
At the Sullivan County Department of Corrections, a significant number of cars — enough to encircle a large portion of land between the office and the Sullivan County Health Care facility — honked their horns in unison and chanted phrases such as “Collective liberation, not mass incarceration” and “From the river to the sea, all the prisoners must be free” to inmates within the jail.
“In this pandemic, people who are incarcerated and in immigration detention in Vermont and New Hampshire face a potential death sentence,” said Hartford resident Asma Elhuni of the National Lawyers Guild New Hampshire. “Our message is: ‘Care, Not Cages.’”
The National Lawyers Guild of New Hampshire and Vermont then sent an open letter to their respective governors as part of the national Free Them All for Public Health movement, which intends to urge Governors Phil Scott and Chris Sununu to release all detained and incarcerated people who have less than 18 months on their sentences, who are elderly, immunocompromised, or pregnant, or who are pre-trial detainees.
“It is in everyone’s interest, in the public health interest, to release as many people as possible,” Elhuni said.
Karen Ganey, one of a handful of participants who held up signs and directed traffic during the 15-minute demonstration, felt that what she set out to do was accomplished.
“I feel that the message we stated today got out to our brothers and sisters behind bars,” said Ganey, “knowing that there are people trying to protect them.”
Welch too shared Ganey’s perspective on how the day turned out.
“We accomplished what we set out to do both in the Upper Valley and with actions across northern New England and coast to coast,” Welch said. “Which is to say these streets don’t belong to the far-right. To say, ‘get back to work, die for Wall Street,’ that is not a message for essential workers. We are raising basic demands. Stop bailing out Wall Street and start bailing out those who do the work in this country.”
This quarantine caravan was just one of several car rallies planned across northern New England on Friday.
According to a press release issued by the near dozen organizations, organizers sought to carry into the 21st century the first May Day protests and strikes dating back to 1886 in response to unsafe environments in agricultural and industrial production and in prisons with the various car caravans.
Sullivan County Department of Corrections Superintendent David Berry declined to comment in regards to any conversations that have taken place as to whether some inmates will be released as a measure to combat any potential spread of the novel coronavirus within the jail.