Jamaica Miles won’t back down

Jamaica Miles won’t back down

photos by Chris Shields

The man was older, a little bent and shrunken into his thin black windbreaker. As he rounded the corner of South Pearl Street, he read and processed the words painted on a banner: DIGNITY, RESPECT, JUSTICE—FIGHT FOR $15 AND A UNION. He straightened up and froze. He was angry. While the 200 people lining the street corner in the persistent drizzle chanted and huddled he began to scold them, catching the attention of rally organizer Jamaica Miles, and they began a rather fervent discussion. Miles matched his volume and tone, as he suggested that today’s workers “didn’t deserve” what they were standing in the rain for: Today’s workers are entitled. They ask for too much. $15 and a union? They had no right to those kinds of wages and decisions.

“That’s not up to you,” he said, pointing at Miles repeatedly. “That’s up to the company.”

“Exactly,” she retorted.

The Citizen Action lead organizer was a protective lioness, standing between the angry onlooker in the street and the sea of activists behind her, ranging from infants to elderly.

Another rally member clad in a navy blue veteran hat and florescent yellow “Crossing Guard” raincoat was trying hard to look like he wasn’t paying attention. “I was gonna rescue her, but I’m not. I’m gonna let her do her thing,” he said.  And that she did. The man stood on the street for nearly two hours voicing his opinions on workforce evolution over the past decades, no one asked him to leave and neither party got aggressive. Miles said her piece, one hand on her hip, the other waving wildly, before walking away with a bounce in her step. She looked exhilarated.

“I have a pretty high tolerance. That happens all the time,” she said nodding dramatically. “Our job at Citizen Action is to educate. Some people grow up so ingrained with the thought that you [underpaid labor workers] are worth $6 an hour and whoever comes after and asks for that $15 isn’t working hard . . . because they were raised that way. If you don’t agree, I’ll still fight for you.”

It’s been four years to the day since the strike that incited the Fight For $15 movement when a few hundred New York City fast food workers went on strike for union rights and better wages. On Tuesday, Nov. 29, people across the nation rallied to address the 64 million workers–in fast-food, home health aides, child care teachers, airport workers, adjunct professors, retail employees, etc.–across the country currently making poverty wages who are too afraid of corporate pushback to organize unions. Tuesday night’s rally was hosted by Citizen Action, a grassroots organization sustained by membership donation and involvement in their local communities across their eight New York State chapters. They are known for advocating the rights for quality education and programming for all children, affordable healthcare, publicly-financed campaigning, racial and cultural justice and a more progressive tax system.

Speakers from the African-American Veterans Association, New York State Nurses Association, Capital District Against Mass Incarceration, Communications Workers of America (1118-Albany Chapter) and the Schenectady Human Rights Council, as well as local fast food workers, laborers and a pastor, took turns voicing their concerns and goals. Some spoke on behalf of their organizations on issues such as mass incarceration, Islamophobia and equal rights in addition to the Fight for $15 movement. Some speakers, such as Liz James, spoke on behalf of personal experience. A mother of two young children, James works full time in fast food and still struggles with her bills.

“I’m fighting for my kids and everyone else’s kids,” she said, balancing her toddler E.J. on her hip as he played with the megaphone speaker. “We deserve our respect and our dignity.”

As the crowd around her erupted in applause, E.J. took the microphone and a tiny voice boomed out, “I believe that we will win!” The crowd went wild, with Miles shouting over them all.

“E.J., you’re part of the fight too!”

She had been holding a large poster board over her head for 20 minutes, the words “WE WON’T BACK DOWN” dripped from the rain that was spreading the ink around illegibly and she lowered it only for a moment to give E.J. a smacking kiss on his cheek.

Miles took the time to speak with nearly every rally member in attendance, making conversation and keeping up spirits in the dreary weather.

“Based on the Facebook event, I expected around a hundred [people],” Miles said. “I wasn’t sure of the turnout because people were concerned about the rain. . . . It’s just water!” She threw up her hands, shaking her head as droplets of rain shook from her dark, curly hair. Miles is an absolute ball of energy and the group that gathered outside of the McDonald’s that night was moving around her like an amoeba, addicted to her enthusiasm. It was hard to keep track of her. Flitting around in a lavender raincoat, she shouted and sang—almost always out of breath—making laps around the crowd. At one point she stood in the middle of the street, with cars passing around her, recording videos of her massive gathering and radiating pride.


Miles has been at Citizen Action for five years. A single mother of three, she was looking for a way to “fight the good fight” on a larger scale. She had been involved in her local Schenectady school district, trying to improve quality education for her kids, and discovered Citizen Action was a great way to learn techniques in organizing activism. After attending the annual Justice Works Conference in Albany, which brings together activists and progressive politicians featuring renowned speakers and various skill workshops, she became inspired by the massive progressive movement happening across New York State.

In July, she told Activist Check-In podcast host Stanley Fritz, “It’s walking into a room and everyone knowing that change needs to happen and that we’re all willing to take action here.”

Now she hosts a number of rallies across the Capital Region to challenge injustices faced by members of her community. Some are planned ahead of time, such as Tuesday’s wage and union rally or the rally against Islamophobia on Dec. 3.

“Sometimes they can be spontaneous due to any recent craziness,” said Miles. It is clear that she has the tendency to work through that craziness with fervor, in fact she thrives in it.

By 5:30 PM, the agreed starting time for the rally, the McDonald’s staff had already locked their doors, and a disgruntled staff member came outside with an umbrella mimicking a barricade, telling the activists to “stay on the sidewalks.” She approached Miles to tell her a tow truck had been called to take away all of the cars parked in the fast-food chain parking lot. Miles grinned.

Raising the microphone attached to the megaphone she made the announcement to the crowd excitedly, “and guess what,” she finished. “We won’t back down!”

Throughout the entirety of the rally, a police car sat in the parking lot, but no tow truck ever arrived.

With every rally, Miles only imagines larger gatherings for the next. As she collected rain soaked, torn signs at the end of the evening she jumped up and down, still yelling into the megaphones and hugging passers-by. “Bring people with you,” she implored while handing them a flyer for the Saturday’s Islamophobia rally. “Don’t you dare come alone. You have a mission.”

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