Cascadia activists head south to “tear down walls” on Arizona border

Preschool teacher, Claire Tuchel (left) and Evergreen College student, Sierra Brown, on to the "Cascadia Freedom Caravan," bus headed to Arizona for a "Tear Down The Walls" gathering of activists this weekend. (Photo by Sarah Stuteville)

A group of Northwest activists are headed to the Mexican border on a nine-day bus trip, dubbed the “Cascadia Freedom Caravan.”

Getting 20 people, including a baby, loaded on a bus and ready for a nine-day road trip to the Mexican border takes time.

I showed up at the end of a long gravel driveway in Olympia about an hour and a half before the intended departure time of the “Cascadia Freedom Caravan,” and the only signs of packing were some chickens quietly clucking among boxes packed with almond milk and granola.

Well, there were a few small groups of people resting in the shade of the bus freshly painted in wide blue, green and white stripes.

The colors represent the Cascadia movement — a loose affiliation of folks who believe the Pacific Northwest should be its own nation. As far as secessionist movements go, Cascadia is pretty tame.

Often evoked at Sounders or Portland Timbers games where the movement’s flag, the Doug, sails high, or as a way to market a microbrew. “Secession Cascadian Dark Ale” from Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland . Cascadia is more an expression of regional pride than a political movement.

But to the Freedom Caravaners, the Cascadia-themed bus is also a way to spark conversations at a gathering of activists in Tucson, Ariz., this weekend called “Tear Down the Walls.”

Bruce Wilkinson, an organizer with "Alliance For Global Justice," is bringing local spring water with him to Arizona. Local legend has it that once someone drinks the water "They'll always return to Olympia." (Photo by Sarah Stuteville)
Bruce Wilkinson, an organizer with “Alliance For Global Justice,” is bringing local spring water with him to Arizona. Local legend has it that once someone drinks the water “they’ll always return to Olympia.” (Photo by Sarah Stuteville)

“It’s a way to help people in Arizona start to understand who their friends might be up here,” says Bruce Wilkinson, who lives in Olympia but organizes for the Arizona-based Alliance for Global Justice. “It gives us a solid identity that people will hopefully remember.”

The goal of the gathering is to build alliances and inspire activists, many of whom were involved with the Occupy Movement.

Despite the name and the location of the gathering, Wilkinson and the other riders say this weekend isn’t just about immigration issues. The Facebook page for the event cites the “Militarized US Border Wall,” “Wall Street” and even, “The walls inside our heads,” as just a few examples of walls that “need tearing down.”

But it’s clear that immigration is an important issue for many of the riders from Olympia, especially given long-standing political connections between Olympia and Latin America.

Rick Fellows, who has lived in Olympia since 1979 and is the Freedom Caravan’s official mechanic, is a veteran of more than 60 political caravans throughout the U.S. and Latin America. That includes a number of rides that broke U.S. embargoes against Cuba by bringing supplies into the country via a bus from Olympia to Mexico (where supplies were then flown on to Cuba).

“I think that walls are horrible,” says Fellows, sitting in the driver’s seat taking a quick break from last-minute mechanical adjustments and supply checks. “I think it’s just an unfriendly relationship with Mexico.”

Some riders are newer to the issues.

“I’m just excited for everything we’re going to learn,” says Nick Brashear, an Evergreen State College student who says a trip to Mexico piqued his interest in border issues and immigration.

Olympia activists, having converted a bus for the trip, are headed to Arizona to join organizers from across the nation in hopes of building alliances, finding inspiration and "tearing down walls." (Photo by Sarah Stuteville)
Olympia activists, having converted a bus for the trip, are headed to Arizona to join organizers from across the nation in hopes of building alliances, finding inspiration and “tearing down walls.” (Photo by Sarah Stuteville)

Beyond the politics, there’s excitement about the road trip itself. As the sun lowers and more people arrive, all take time to admire the vehicle that will be their home for the next week-and-a-half — a vintage school bus with spray-painted chess boards on the tables and plywood bunks suspended from the ceiling.

It looks like close quarters for 20-somethings. But the striped purple and mustard curtains are so cheery — and the anticipation of impending adventure so infectious — that my concerns over bathroom stops and privacy soon retreat.

By the time the bus engine roars to life, plumes of exhaust mixing with the smoke of hand-rolled cigarettes, departure time has long come and gone but no one seems to mind as folks claim their seats.

Fellows jiggles the gear shift and steps on the gas. Tree limbs thwack against the windows and the passengers cheer as the Freedom Caravan hits the road — a little piece of Cascadia heading south.

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.

1 Comment

  1. I’m a south westerner through and through and spend as much time there as I possibly can. Over the years of driving an old sketchy looking van which I happily camp/live out of, I am often pulled over at check stops and the dogs just love to sniff my tires. When I roll down the tinted windows and the guards see this middle aged, grey haired woman at the wheel, they almost sheepishly wave me on through. I am always left wondering what if… My last trip included a visit to the small border town of Patagonia where I found the locals eating in a great breakfast place along with at least a dozen border guards (and they are scary looking even when they’re eating pancakes!). Nobody looked happy and it was so quiet I could hear myself chewing. En mass, the guards got up, threw some bills on the table and left. It was as if we all began to talk at once. The relief was palatable. I’d ask myself what the heck was going on there but I think I already know the answer; borders and fences, guards and check stops do not make good neighbors no matter what side you live on. Good luck with your search for your own answers members of the Cascadia Freedom Bus. I hope you’ll share your experiences with this old south westerner when you return.

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1 Comment

  1. I’m a south westerner through and through and spend as much time there as I possibly can. Over the years of driving an old sketchy looking van which I happily camp/live out of, I am often pulled over at check stops and the dogs just love to sniff my tires. When I roll down the tinted windows and the guards see this middle aged, grey haired woman at the wheel, they almost sheepishly wave me on through. I am always left wondering what if… My last trip included a visit to the small border town of Patagonia where I found the locals eating in a great breakfast place along with at least a dozen border guards (and they are scary looking even when they’re eating pancakes!). Nobody looked happy and it was so quiet I could hear myself chewing. En mass, the guards got up, threw some bills on the table and left. It was as if we all began to talk at once. The relief was palatable. I’d ask myself what the heck was going on there but I think I already know the answer; borders and fences, guards and check stops do not make good neighbors no matter what side you live on. Good luck with your search for your own answers members of the Cascadia Freedom Bus. I hope you’ll share your experiences with this old south westerner when you return.

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