Independence Day

The labor and political organizing of Somali immigrants in the US Midwest should inspire more Americans to join the broader movement for worker rights and racial equality.

A mural of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a city with the largest Somali diaspora in the US. Image credit jpellgen (@1179_jp) via Flickr CC.

Dab aan kullaylkiisa la arag dambaskiisa lagama leexdo. (Until you know how the fire burns you are not afraid of the ashes.)

– A Somali proverb

Writing in October 2019, in the wake of yet another xenophobic rally held by United States President Donald Trump in Minneapolis, Minnesota, political scientist Joe Lowndes reflected on the lessons that the Somali community in the Twin Cities held for a new vision of the country. In particular, Lowndes highlighted the work of Minnesota’s own US representative, Ilhan Omar, whose success, he argued, stemmed predominantly from her experiences as a Somali refugee. And Omar is not alone, continued Lowndes, Somali workers had organized at plants and factories throughout the Twin Cities metropolitan region to push for change in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. “Here,” Lowndes concluded, “the autonomous, unapologetic movements of the marginalized are pointing new ways forward toward an egalitarian and democratic future.”

Now, over eight months later in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests stemming from George Floyd’s death in police custody, and as COVID-19 cases in the US steadily climb upwards, Ilhan Omar and the Somali-American population in the Twin Cities continue to stand at the forefront of change in Minnesota and the United States more broadly. Although many would fail to link the situation in the Twin Cities with what some have called “Africa’s most failed state,” Omar Jamal, in an interview for the New York Times, highlighted the similarities between his experience as a black man in Minnesota and as a Somali refugee: “I couldn’t distinguish between being in Somalia and being in St. Paul.”

Minnesota is home to more than 75,000 Somalis who began immigrating to the United States en masse in the early 1990s following the outbreak of civil war. Although many asylum seekers initially resettled in other parts of the country, the job opportunities for unskilled workers near the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul attracted increasing numbers of resettled East African immigrants. At workplaces like the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing facility in Cold Springs, the Amazon fulfillment center in Shakopee, the JBS pork processing plant in Worthington, and the Jenny-O Turkey plant in Melrose, East African workers comprise large percentages of the workforce. This initial connection to the North Star state via industrial workplaces embedded a deep connection between community and political organizing, one that continues to place Somalis squarely at the center of social transformation in the Midwest.

East African immigrant workers have stood at the center of protests against unfair labor practices at the same factories that drew many to the region. Most notably, many of these workers have faced off against Amazon, the global capitalist behemoth that opened a fulfillment center in Shakopee, MN, in July 2016. As the New York Times and WIRED magazine would report in features on how these workers mobilized, Amazon recruiters focused their efforts on the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis; a community often referred to as “Little Mogadishu.” Although Amazon officials initially offered major incentives for immigrants to come work at the Shakopee facility, including free bus service and manageable work expectations, it wasn’t long before workers at the center began reporting discrimination, religious intolerance, and inhumane working conditions. In particular, the lack of accommodations for the Muslim workforce’s daily prayers and concessions for Ramadan began to strain relations between the Somali workers and the corporation. The cancellation of the free shuttle service to the facility further aggravated relations between the corporation and its workers; in this climate, the Minneapolis-based Awood Center (Awood means “power” in Somali) under the leadership of co-founder Nimo Omar and executive director Abdirahman Muse began organizing the East African workers at MSP1 to push for more concessions from Amazon.

In early fall 2018, after months of small-scale protests and airing of grievances, workers had two private meetings with representatives from Amazon, marking what many labor experts insist is the first instance of workers bringing Amazon to the bargaining table. In the wake of this massive accomplishment, conditions at MSP1 continued to deteriorate and organizers decided to make a bigger statement. On December 14, 2018, less than a week before Christmas, workers at MSP1 walked out in the midst of the pre-holiday rush, marking the first coordinated strike at an Amazon facility in North America.

Although these movements brought increased attention to the struggle of Somali workers at the facility, Amazon has found ways to punish those workers, with workers reporting fewer full-time hires and reporting harassment from management. In July 2019, the Awood Center organized a Prime Day rally but it was minimally attended. So what have these protests accomplished? They have brought attention to the unfair labor practices at Amazon, the struggles of unskilled workers in the United States, and no doubt contributed to a congressional call to investigate Amazon for workplace abuse. Perhaps more than anything, however, these protests have put a face to a largely invisible struggle. Khadra Ibrahin, a single mother of two who stood at the forefront of the 2019 protests against the media giant, pleaded for customers to think about the people behind their digital orders in a 2019 interview with Chavie Lieber for Vox: “I wish for customers to know that behind every Amazon order is a human being, and we deserve to be treated fairly.”

The struggle for fair treatment is one that Somali immigrants and Somali Americans living in the Twin Cities have publicly embraced. They have been prominently active in Black Lives Matter protests since the deaths of Minneapolis locals Jamar Clark in 2015, Philando Castile in 2016, Thurman Blevins in 2018, and Shirwa Hassan Jibril in 2019. Their presence in the protests against police brutality has taken many forms, from demonstrating in the streets to volunteering in food banks and participating in cleans ups in the aftermath of the protests. The death of George Floyd in South Minneapolis on May 25, 2020 hit particularly close to home for the Somali community, as this area is home to the largest Somali malls and mosques in the state in addition to the Somali Museum of Minnesota. Although older Somali immigrants report a lack of connection with the Black Lives Matter protests, the deaths of black men at the hands of police have radicalized young Somali immigrants and Somali-Americans who reject the divisions between themselves and their African American brothers and sisters. In an interview with Ibrahim Hirsi for MPR News, 22-year old Abdihakim Abdi rejected the separation between his identity as a Somali-American and his status as a black man in the US: “When it comes to the cops, we’re all the same thing.”

In addition to the ongoing struggle against police brutality, black Minnesotans face disproportionate exposure to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nationwide, it is well-established that COVID-19 disproportionately affects people of color, laying bare structural inequalities often veiled by nationalist rhetoric. In the Twin Cities metropolitan area, these racial disparities are most clearly exhibited in the skyrocketing infection rates at the same factories staffed in large part by Somali immigrants and Somali-Americans. At the MSP1 facility, an internal memo recently revealed that Amazon officials were aware of at least 45 COVID-19 cases, making the infection rate at the facility 1.7% (four times higher than any county in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, according to Matt Day reporting for Bloomberg). Similarly, at the Pilgrim’s Pride factory in Cold Spring, where 80% of the workforce is Somali, workers staged a walkout over safety concerns following revelations that over 200 at the facility have tested positive for COVID-19, demanding accountability from the corporation and the implementation of more stringent safety measures. Nimo Ibrahim, a chicken deboner at the plant who tested positive for COVID-19, expressed her fears of losing her job due to being quarantined: “Keeping the job is a priority. This is the only thing that I know and have been doing for a long time.”

At the center of these interconnected struggles stands Ilhan Omar, who Africa Is a Country founder and editor Sean Jacobs insists is the most exciting African politician right now. This claim is difficult to argue with as Omar pushes for change while also standing firm against Trump’s consistent, blatant harassment. In 2018, Omar became the first Somali-American legislator in the US, standing as a symbol of hope for her community in the Twin Cities and as a true American success story. Born in Mogadishu in 1982, Omar came to the US in the early 1990s with her widowed father and her sister Noor, eventually settling in Minnesota. Omar’s background, combined with her experience in community organizing and local Twin Cities politics, makes her a key actor in the turbulent times that she is seeing her constituents through.

At the MSP1 protests in 2018, Omar stood with the Awood Center and the Amazon workers, connecting her own labor history to their struggle. Breaking from leading the crowd in a rendition of the Somali solidarity anthem “Aan Isweheshano Walaalayaal,” Omar spoke about her own experiences with working in the US: “I’ve had many jobs. I clean officers. I worked on assembly lines, I was even a security guard once. I’ve had jobs where we did not have enough breaks, where we used to try to go to the bathroom just so that we could pray. Amazon doesn’t work if you don’t work. It’s about time we make Amazon understand that.”

Early last month, at a memorial for George Floyd, Ilhan Omar spoke to the crowd about the frustration that black Twin Cities-residents felt at this historical moment. “This is one of the liberal havens, where in every single measure of society, everyone has the best life except for blacks and minorities,” Omar cried out. “When it comes to social and economic success in this state and in this city, we are at the bottom of every single measure … what we want is the ability to not just breathe, but to live and thrive.” The next day, Omar introduced a package of bills in collaboration with Ayanna Pressley and Sheila Jackson Lee to address police brutality on a national level, putting real political leverage to work in response to the struggles of her constituents. Less than two weeks later, Omar announced the death of her father, Nur Omar Mohamed, from COVID-19 complications. Omar sees no dividing lines between her own experiences and the struggles of her constituents; this personal connection drives her politics and her plans for social transformation in Minnesota and beyond.

In a June 29, 2020 opinion piece penned for the Star Tribune, Omar laid out a plan for how Minnesota could lead the way towards social transformation. She asked the readers: “Will we have the moral courage to pursue justice and secure meaningful change or will we maintain the status quo?” This is a question that all Americans should ask themselves at this historic moment. Will we display the same moral courage that Somali workers in factories throughout Minnesota have shown as they face off against corporate giants? Will we fight against the status quo as Ilhan Omar has done, first in her historic congressional run and now as she pushes for systemic changes to expose and address structural inequalities in this country? Somali immigrants and Somali-Americans have had to organize in order to find community, support, and justice in a country that, more often than not, sees them as a burden and, increasingly, as threats. On American “Independence Day,” we should all stop to think about what independence means and how we can move forward towards a truly democratic future. The challenges facing us at this historical moment require organization and determination; let’s hope that many take the cases described here as an example to follow.

Further Reading