UPDATE Tuesday morning with video, below.
Lanere Holmes Rollins, a Parking Production Assistant who has cleared New York’s streets for film and TV crews for more than two decades, waited more than three hours to claim Martin Luther King day as her own. She had the formidable challenge of making her case before a packed meeting room in East Harlem after a power posse of the state’s top politicians joined the Rev. Al Sharpton to celebrate the slain Civil Rights leader. The holiday this year marked the 50th anniversary of King’s murder in Memphis, TN, where he was speaking in support of striking sanitation workers.
Governor Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Public Advocate Letitia James and others summoned the inclusive King and denounced what they called the divisive and racist policies of President Donald Trump, several times bringing the audience at the headquarters of Sharpton’s National Action Network to its feet.
But if any of the speakers captured the spirit of Dr. King the most, it might well have been Holmes Rollins, speaking on behalf of those on the lowest rung of New York’s thriving entertainment industry.
“We make it possible so that you can go see the Golden Globe winner, we worked on that show,” Rollins began, “and earned less than $11 an hour.
“Anytime we clear a street, we put our lives on the line,” she continued. “At 3 o’clock in the morning when me or one of my brothers or sisters walk up to a car, we don’t know what we’re walking into. Many times, we are assaulted and spit on; cars try to run us over while we just do our jobs. We’re asking for what Martin Luther King was fighting for those sanitation workers. What they were fighting for years ago, we are still fighting for today: a living wage and our right to be treated like humanity.”
The parking production assistants, who number about 1,000 mostly African-American and Latino workers in New York, were given approval by the National Labor Relations Board to vote on whether they wish to be represented in labor negotiations by the Communications Workers of America. Ballots are expected to go out this week. A spokesman for the group said the workers get no medical or other benefits, earn minimum wages and typically work 12-hour shifts through the night to secure locations for filming.
Several of the earlier speakers spoke eloquently about the legacy of Dr. King, but the star of the afternoon was Senator Gillibrand, a rising national star in the Democratic party. Gillibrand quoted from the New Testament and referenced the Old before a crowd that nodded in assent and familiarity with her words.
“Ephesians says to fight against evil even when it comes from the highest places in the land,” she said with rising fervor, leaving no doubt about whom she was speaking.
“We should put on the full armor of God. The Bible says put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes…When we see hate and division in our communities, when we hear those hateful words from our President, when we see someone bullying someone or attacking them or making them feel vulnerable, we are called to be the light, we are called to be the light of the world — which means we must stand up between them. We are the ones who say: ‘No, not on our watch. No, not in my community. No, not here, not right now. All of us are called, called, called to make a difference.” She advised the crowd to remember Esther, the Persian Jewish queen who risked her life to save her people from mass murder.
Even Sharpton was visibly wowed. “Anybody that can take Harlem on a Saturday morning is a different kind of woman,” he said. “Trump, you better get your best gloves out and order you three Big Macs rather than two, because we’ve got a fighter from New York.
“Reverend Kirsten Gillibrand!” Sharpton said, grabbing the microphone. “Reverend Kirsten Gillibrand! I don’t want to start something, but I helped start Run Jesse Run.” That was the movement that began the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s popular, if failed, 1984 campaign to win the Democratic presidential nomination.
Watch part of her speech here.