Sometimes a simple train trip can take you in many directions. While riding an Amtrak train one day, Sarah Macaraeg discovered that Sabra Hummus—a boycott target of the Palestine solidarity movement—was served to passengers. She wrote the following essay, weaving together narratives about her personal history as the child of a railroad worker, the racial crises that continue to unfold in American communities today, embodied in the Trayvon Martin case, and another historical counterpoint: the murder of Chinese American Vincent Chin.
Blood on the Tracks
Longer than the span of my life, my stepfather worked for the railroad. He is now a dozen years retired with two hip replacements down and two knee replacements to go. Since the day he lied on his job application to upgrade his seventeen years to the required eighteen, my stepfather stepped up and down every car that made up every train that ran through the Rose Lake rail yard, every day he worked.
He retired from Conrail, a company formed by the government in 1976 out of six nearly bankrupt rail lines, with seven billion in taxpayer dollars. Less than a decade later, it was sold back to private investors for less than $2 billion in stock options. Gloating over this epic scam, Elizabeth Dole, then-Secretary of Transportation chirped that the Reagan administration had “succeeded in the largest privatization in U.S. history,” imagining “this success should break ground for more privatizations to come.”
Politicians the world over, of all parties, have since privatized even the rain. But democracy was re-awoken in the process, and it seems that even in America, the chickens are coming home to occupy the roost. Yet we are still living in limbo, negotiating our way between this world and our desire for something new.
And today, I’m on the phone my Mom. She is hurriedly catching up with me while checking on generic options for her and my stepfather’s various medicines, saying the cost was getting difficult. I’m worried, although in truth, my parents are the picture of luck in America for the 99%. The railroad is one of the last strongholds of pensions, and though their check is not enough to live on without constant struggle, it represents the remnants of what many more in America once had: a decent working class life. All I have ever seen my mother and stepfather do is work, hard, for very little, and through physical pain. This will likely be the end of their story. This is luck for the working class in America today.
One of America’s first railroads, the Central Pacific, ran through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It was built by an estimated twelve thousand Chinese immigrants, and as Iris Chang wrote in her classic text, The Chinese in America, it is estimated that for every two miles of track laid, three Chinese laborers died. They died from explosive accidents and from exhaustion. They died from snow slides while forced to work in winter.
In 1882, just over a decade after the transcontinental railroad was finished, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. With support from politicians and labor leaders across the political spectrum, the Act denied citizenship to the Chinese present in America and barred the entry of any to come. In an era of mass European immigration, railroad strikes and Haymarket riots, the small Chinese migrant population became the racial scapegoat. The Exclusion Act was “symptomatic of a larger conflict between white labor and white capital… designed not only to defuse an issue agitating white workers but also to alleviate class tensions within white society,” wrote historian Ronald Takaki in Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans.
Xenophobia then marked a new era, one of deadly violence and ethnic cleansing, “The Driving Out.” Across the west, mobs stormed through Chinatowns, burning homes and businesses to the ground. Chinese bodies were lynched, burned alive, scalped, and crucified. In Tacoma, over 600 Chinese were herded onto rail cars at gun point and never seen again. Sacramento’s Chinatown was burned repeatedly. In one instance, the fire department did not allow residents running out of blazing buildings to go to the hospital. They prevented the fire’s spread to the rest of the city, while letting the ethnic enclave burn to the ground. Beneath Sacramento’s rail yard today, is the rubble that remains.
We contain multitudes
A century after “The Driving Out,” railroad descendant Vincent Chin made national news. His mother Lily’s great-grandfather was an early railroad builder, driven out of the country back to China. Despite his tales of racial persecution, Lily too later immigrated to the US where she married David Chin, a WWII veteran with whom she later adopted her only child, Vincent.
At twenty-seven, Vincent was an auto-draftsman by day and a waiter by night, working two jobs to marry his fiancé Vickki, for whom he often wrote poetry. Vincent also planned to purchase a new home for the young couple and his widowed mother to share.
It was June of 1982. Michigan Rep. John Dingell, a Democrat now in his 29th term, had, in a speech to Congress earlier that year, blamed “the little yellow men” for the failings of the auto industry. He was one of many politicians and labor leaders to do so.
It was one week before he was to be married and Vincent was celebrating his last night out as a bachelor at a strip club where two white men, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, took issue with the attention dancers paid to the “Chink… Nip… Fucker,” saying, “It’s because of you motherfuckers that we’re out of work.” Being a self-respecting city kid, Vincent replied to their taunts, and a fight ensued. Everyone was ejected from the club. Ebens, a plant supervisor, and Nitz, his stepson, a laid-off autoworker, were unfulfilled, however, and paid a neighborhood resident $20 to help them find “the Chinese.” In the parking lot of a McDonald’s they snuck up behind Vincent. Nitz held the groom-to-be, and Ebens, like he was “going for a homerun,” took a baseball bat repeatedly to his brain, bludgeoning him to death. Vincent’s last words, whispered to a friend as he slipped into a coma in the McDonald’s parking lot were simply, “It’s not fair.”
What was to be Vincent’s wedding became his funeral. Ebens and Nitz were sentenced to three years’ probation and fined $3,780 each, despite their guilty plea. They never served any time. The presiding Judge Charles Kaufman asserted, “These aren’t the kind of men you send to jail.” Activist pressure led to intervention by the Department of Justice, but in the subsequent federal prosecution, an all-white jury again set Vincent’s killers free. Driven out by a different horror than her great-grandfather before her, Lily Chin moved back to China. “Something is wrong with this country,” she said. 
The morning of his wedding, in 2006, unarmed twenty-three year old Sean Bell, a father of two, was riddled with 50 bullets. The officer who began the barrage, long-cleared of charges, was fired just months ago. Black America is always forced to know how little life is worth in this country.
The other “Others” know it too. In 2008, newly engaged Luis Ramirez, a twenty-five-year-old father of two, was walking his future sister-in-law home, through their depressed Pennsylvania coal-mining town, when a group of drunken white teenagers took issue with the interracial pair. Amidst ethnic slurs, Luis was beaten to death; his attackers are now free men.
And meanwhile, amidst the legacies of Matthew Shepard, hate-crime victims, and survivors of sexual assault, live all those who dare to express whatever sexuality and gender they choose. In this country, simply being oneself can be equated with “asking for it.”
The bottom line: thirty years after the murder of Vincent Chin, there is still something wrong with this country. How much longer this must go on depends on how many of us are willing to respond to Trayvon Martin’s last words, cries of help. It depends on solidarity, a word that sometimes seems unreal, a slogan splashed across red banners. We know the word only having seen glimpses of its ability to inspire mass action.
But we have all already occupied the same intimate spaces. Across time and across the planet, our bodies have been warred upon, legislated against, murdered in cold blood, guilty of believing in the American Dream, guilty of not complying with our own genocide, guilty of being pulled to the US from a US-devastated homeland. Our stories overlap, repeat, are segregated from each other.
My own story is a Hapa story: an Asian, white, working-class, woman story. There is no part of it I can choose, or assess academically, or settle through simplified anecdotes on race, class or gender. I am not anything first or second or third, but mixed, down to my DNA. I carry these legacies simultaneously. In another life, my stepfather could have been swinging the bat at my father; in this life both their bodies are broken down, slowly, by a different horror.
Solidarity means we are responsible to all of humanity. Solidarity means acting on your own behalf is acting on behalf of others. Solidarity means acting on behalf of all the bodies broken. Solidarity means someday there can be no more bodies broken.
Solidarity means we have to do something, now. We haven’t known exactly what to do yet and with whom. The Democrats, the sectarians, and the old guard have run out of dead ends with which to distract us. We have no choice but to forge something new. We desperately want to make this turning point real. So we have to listen. We have to speak up. We have to find one another, and act. There is much to do, because solidarity does not end at the US borders. Something is wrong with this world.
Today, I am traveling across the Midwest, on Amtrak, returning from seeing my parents. As I think on these things, traveling here with me quietly, are generations lost, generations decaying, public monies stolen: the carnage of American history and empire.
Traveling here with me quietly is an active symbol of celebration that a people have been dispossessed, pushed to near-oblivion, strafe bombed, and targeted for dehumanization, daily, since 1948. There is Sabra on Amtrak.
One would think Sabra hummus was just a snack on a train car. I would if it were not for the work of Students for Justice in Palestine and the larger Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.
But Sabra hummus is not just any hummus. It is owned by the Strauss Group, which proudly supports the Golani and Givati Brigades, elite units of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) with severe histories of human rights abuses and war crimes—from the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 through Operation Cast Lead sixty years later, researched in painstaking detail by dissident Israeli historian Ilan Pappé in his sweeping account, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. As the Strauss Group explains in its corporate responsibility statement, “Our connection with soldiers goes as far back as the country…We see a mission and need to continue to provide our soldiers with support.” The Strauss Group’s support of the Golani and Givati brigades is an endorsement of their actions, actions in direct contravention to international and human rights law. This endorsement is bought and sold on Amtrak. It is bought and sold everywhere: Sabra sales represent approximately 40 percent of the $312 million market for dips and spreads in the US.
Most recently, in 2006, the Givati brigade led Operation Summer Rains: the collective punishment of the 1.5 million people in Gaza. The destruction of Gaza’s only electricity station, its waterways, bridges, and roads, thrust the population into a major humanitarian crisis, considered a war crime by Amnesty International.
In 2008, came Operation Cast Lead, the three-week bombardment of Gaza, which led to 1,440 civilian deaths, 431 of them children. It was described as an act of genocide by UN General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann. The Givati brigade commander authorized the use of white phosphorus in bombing a UN compound housing 700 displaced civilians, and the same day, a nearby hospital. Both brigades used Palestinian children as human shields, and it later surfaced that Givati brigade snipers sported a T-shirt featuring a target over a pregnant Palestinian woman with the words, “1 shot 2 kills.” Mother and daughter Raya and Majda Abu Hajaj were two of the many casualties that day. They were shot and killed waving white flags.
We are taught to consider this conflict a separate issue from our own in America. Yet the US has given Israel $115 billion in military and economic aid, to date: the cost of maintaining a watchdog in the besieged Middle East. Our tax dollars and government aid and abet a murderous apartheid system abroad while our tax dollars and government prop up a new Jim Crow at home in the form of the prison-industrial complex that entraps Trayvon Martins and immigrants across the country.
We must not recognize the so-called national borders, borders drawn on stolen land, the apartheid wall to our south. We will not look away, from anything, from now on. Instead we will look only to ourselves, and to those who came before. We will look to the abolitionists, the railroad builders who dared to strike, the Pullman porters who refused to be seen and not heard, the rare early union leaders opposed to racism, and the pioneers of Yellow Power and Black Power and Chicano Power and socialism. We will look to the 14 million Americans who helped advance labor in the late 1960s simply by boycotting grapes picked with exploited labor in support of the United Farm Workers and telling others to do the same. We will look to the movement that ended South African apartheid, and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement struggling to win justice for the people Israel seeks to excise, today.
We will look to the heroes and heroines who go unnamed in history books: the ones who took it upon themselves to form new organizations and fight for the dreams of their day. The ones who stood in solidarity, the ones who changed the world.
A version of this article originally appeared on TruthOut.org. Reprinted with permission.
 The death of Vincent Chin and the movement for Asian-American civil rights that sprang up in its tragic wake is beautifully rendered in depth in both Takaki’s Strangers from a Different Shore and Asian American Dreams by Helen Zia, a leading participant in the movement.