On Saturday, Sept. 1, Reverend Clay Thomas of the First Prespetarian Church of Sarasota, walked towards the entry of the Promenade Publix on 17th and Tamiami Trail. A corporate executive, whom he later found out was Mark Codd, Director of Labor Relations, confronted the reverend, took a photo of his face and informed him that he was trespassing.
Codd told Thomas he was calling the call the police. The reverend’s response: “Great, I’ll be in the deli line.” The threat came without reasoning, so Thomas proceeded to the deli to order a sandwich, sans tomatoes.
He delivered a sermon that morning, and then stopped by to show support at the tail end of a protest being held in front of the supermarket on U.S. 41
That Labor Day weekend marked a national day of action, in which students and communities across the U.S. held protests in support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).
The purpose of the actions was to call on Publix to join the CIW and sign the Fair Food Agreement. The CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food asks that corporations across the food supply chain, including distributors, supermarkets and fast food restaurants, agree to pay one penny more per pound for their tomatoes, and sign a code of conduct that would result in penalties and oversight in cases of sexual harassment and worker abuse. Corporations also agree to a zero-tolerance policy on slavery in the tomato fields.
A longtime ally to the Coalition, the Rev. Thomas, sported a “CIW” graphic tee shirt instead of wearing his usual clergy collar. Before he could even buy his lunch, he was asked to step out of the line.
A police officer with the City of Sarasota showed up to the Publix, but not to arrest Thomas or issue any citation – but to document Thomas’ 12-month ban from the Promenade location.
He was never given a clear reason as to why a trespass was issued.
“I don’t know if I was being discriminated for my beliefs,” Thomas said. He noted that his alliance with the CIW was directly related to his religious beliefs. He referred to civil rights, but noted that statutes in Florida allow for authorities to possibly discriminate based on gender, religion or race, without giving a reason.
“[Following this incident,] I started getting calls in support for standing up to the farmworkers and not letting Publix corporate bully me,” the reverend told the Tangent. “Those of us that have been with the campaign for a long time know [this incident] is not an exception, but indicative of the treatment of Publix corporate on the farmworkers, so this kind of put a spotlight on what’s already been going on for [a long time].”
Thomas noted that his “injustice” was that he never got his sandwich, while farmworkers face much more in the fields on Immokalee, Fla.
After receiving public support from Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders in the community, an action was planned in response to Publix’s “aggressive,” as Thomas described, tactics.
On Sunday, Sept. 30, clergy and church members of varying faiths, students, farmworkers and allies totaling over 300, converged at St. Martha’s Catholic Church, a mile from the 10th St. Publix. Some CIW members and clergy spoke from the pulpit.
“If God wants justice, whatever religion is irrelevant,” said CIW member Lucas Benitez through translator Jordan Buckley of Interfaith Action. “And today we will walk under the light of God, through the streets of Sarasota to the Publix to say that we the farmworkers will not remain under the table where they have put us for far too long.
“Publix refuses to have us at the table, they want us under the table – they want us to be invisible,” Benitez continued. “We wont allow that.”
Pastor John Walker, of the Bethel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Newtown, who is also the Ringling, USF and NCF campus minister, spoke in front of the assembly. “Many times, people of faith think that we are not to engage or involve with what’s going on, particularly with injustice,” he said.
“As we look throughout the biblical texts, the prophets speak truth to power,” the pastor continued. “And I love Christ, but it’s those Christians I have issue with, because so many in my faith turn a blind eye to the injustices that go on around us.”
Walker noted the theological standpoint of figures such as Martin Luther King, Malcom X and Gandhi, who all saw God “on the side of those as less fortunate.” He spoke of King’s desire for a “beloved community,” in which all faiths are connected “to make sure that the powers that make the decisions understand that we are going to bring truth to power.”
“The message coming from Publix has been, if you are a protester, you cannot come on to our premises – if you are a consumer, yes,” said Professor of Sociology Sarah Hernandez, who specified that she spoke of her own volition and did not express the views of the institution.
“But then, I’m both – a protester and a consumer,” Hernandez continued. “How are you going to split me up? In half? In the same way I am both a Latina and a woman, American and Mexican and many other identities. As consumers, we are standing strong with the workers.”
Hernandez reiterated the sentiments of Pastor Walker, “It is also my faith that brings me here, my religious faith in the belief that [spirituality] brings us together to create a better world.”
The convergence was followed by a peaceful procession to the Publix. The walk was held without chanting, and upon arrival at the supermarket, several clergy entered to purchase Publix brand Fair Trade coffee. As its packaging describes: “Why Fair Trade? Because it is only fair.”
In response to the CIW, Publix corporate has yet to change its position, first stated in 2010: “If there are some atrocities going on, it’s not our business.”