T2: Day 1 (evening on the ground)

Upon arrival, I was met with concern. Those who had attended the May Day rally had a pretty mixed experience. The description of what was supposed to happen during the rally was not what was expected and, as a result, the physical demands couldn’t be met by everyone. Some needed to take breaks that others in the group didn’t think would be politically advantageous or logistically realistic, the disconnections between them causing a lot of friction after a harrowing 48 hours where most did not sleep. Folks didn’t seem to want to pull a meeting together after they’d had some food and a chance to rest, so I settled in with staff and my connections to KCTU and KPTU, Wol-san and Mikyung.

Wol-san you probably know from my previous visit. She acted as liaison previously and, has time has gone on, we’ve become friendly. I really appreciate her fighting spirit, her connection and appreciation of family, and her quickness when it comes to assessing situations on the ground. She knows so much about her movement and, as a bonus, is an incredible person. With each visit, I get to know her just a little more and each time I’m excited about what I discover.

Mikyung Ryu was newer to me but as she is good friends with Wol-san I quickly grew to trust her as an asset to us. She was made International Director for KCTU in a previous administration and, having traveled the globe for her organization in a representational role she knows a lot about many labor movements all over the world and brings a sensibility that comes from experience. Mikyung was feeling her newness, however, because she was dealing with a brand-new administration. This matter was the first that arose in our conversation.

The previous year had seen a change in KCTU leadership. A brand new slate had been elected into power in Fall of 2017 over the union and they were a group of people I’d never met before. Wol-san and Mikyung were both very worried about this and in the beginning of our process I didn’t fully understand why. But as the vote was farther in my rear view – Winter turning to Spring – I noticed that my relationship with the KCTU leadership was essentially starting over from zero and that wasn’t a good thing for us. Both of my liaisons became fierce advocates for our visit and the importance of them knowing as much as they could about who, what and why became vitally important in a way I hadn’t anticipated.

I had real concerns by the time I got off the plane that our lateness would define who we were. I was assured that it was understood and that our presence at the May Day parade was appreciated, so it felt comfortable for us to talk more about logistics and what to expect.

Last year’s trip had the glittering light of international stardom on it and truth be told, I didn’t have that power with me this time. The people that I brought with me were the right people to have in the room as they were the leaders that are being looked to for the future of the labor movement, but they were more infamous than famous. Appreciating that was easy for me… I recruited and loved these people. But the new leadership didn’t really know the people I was traveling with at all. They were younger and not attached to title, bringing with them a base that KCTU hadn’t known in this way. Their presence was hard to explain and we talked about that, the three of us.

Half of the people in the group were from Mississippi? Why?

This group is almost completely people of color. Why?

This group is pretty young. Why?

We talked about the importance of their presence, the conditions that brought them, and how to prepare the delegates for these conversations. We also went over the next day, quite possibly the most important day. On May 2, we’d meet the villagers of Seongju and I was holding onto my seat in anticipation of it. I’d promised them that I’d return with workers who could see for themselves what had been wrought by American military presence. To be able to come through on that promise meant more than every other day.

I slept hard that night, likely from exhaustion (and a full rack of ribs from the Outback upstairs) but also from the deep anticipation I felt that evening of the magic that I knew would be present the following day.

Next day? Seongju!

T2: Day 1

I woke up at 4 AM in the Maritime Institute.  It was brutal and I hadn’t slept well.  I was terrified to relax, waking up every two hours afraid that I’d missed something.  When it was finally time and I was ready, I headed down to the lobby to meet Josh.  He was a lot more excited than I was and I probably didn’t look very good.  My experience with the airline until that point had been horrible so when we arrived at the airline (Air Canada,) waiting, I was unsurprised yet unhappy.  There was no one to meet us and the facility wasn’t ready to receive our massive group.  I was already sweating, but it just got worse.

Finally, after waiting for hours, we were checked in and things went relatively smoothly up until we arrived at the gate.  The team, led by a white woman who had lost her voice doing something (caught a cold?  attended a football game?  anyone’s guess…) generally was nice but not very helpful past a “by the book” interpretation of everything.

Once there, the same crew that checked us in was there to get us onto the flight.  I immmediately got worried when I asked if my group (with full video equipment and specific health and dietary needs) could board first and was dismissively told “no man zones!” as if I was trying to make their lives difficult.

Time passed.  Eventually it was time to board but we weren’t boarding.  No one was giving us details and no one had a clue about what was going on.  Eventually, White Woman With No Voice (W3NV) expressed the very real possibility that the mechanical failure that was causing a delay might cause a cancellation.  Unbeknownst to her, the airline mechanics issued the cancellation before they notified her and the passengers went ballistic as she was making an announcement stating uncertainty about the status of the plane.

It was at this point that I needed to make a call.  My faith in the airline had been shaky for some time.  I’d had numerous occasions where I’d been shown that I needed to worry and be vigilant, but this was the wrong time to feel this kind of panic.  19 other people were dependent on me making good decisions so that they could fulfill our goal of making it to South Korea.  But I tend toward prudence in situations where other people are involved because while I’m well aware of my capacity for risk, other people can’t be subject to that penchant for chicanery and skulduggery.  I needed to provide a way out for everyone on the trip, including those who weren’t locals.

Once I was confronted with the cancellation, I knew that procedure was to be rebooked.  I waited while they figured this out on their end as we were a group, choosing to let the staff do their job.  When W3NV returned, she was red faced and I just knew that she hadn’t been able to do a thing for us.  She proposed the solution that we instead fly on May 1, getting us in on May 2.  That, I told her, wasn’t workable.  Our itinerary told us that we were to be present for the May 1 parade, an event with importance in terms of international solidarity.  To not show up would slight our comrades and not do them any favors.  Her attitude suggested that we needed to take it and she was careful with her words.  She asked if that was acceptable and I told her no.  She threw her hands in the air and said there was nothing else.  Others suggested flights on other airlines and her response was that she checked and there weren’t options available despite being shown that there clearly were.  She stalked away, saying that we weren’t considering the problem of us being a group ticketed as a group.  That, she claimed, was the reason why things couldn’t be fixed.

It’s at this point that things got stickier.

We began a long-way-round engagement with airline customer service that even now perplexes me.  We would call, receive a call back, explain the situation precisely and receive a different response depending on each person contacted.  There was no way to have a consistent callback (at the moment) and customer service was almost ritualistic in its insistence that we were unable to be helped.  The working crew, flight now cancelled, didn’t want to help.  Their job finished, they wanted us to leave. I and others insisted that we hadn’t been helped and so we couldn’t have left.  Instead of trying to help make arrangements for us, offering us meal vouchers, or even asking if we were okay, they informed us that our baggage had been removed from the aircraft and we should depart to pick it up.  Then, after going around in circles with myself, Elandria, and others for almost an hour, tensions dramatically increased when I started to point out the obvious: we weren’t leaving and we weren’t satisfied.  Nothing had been done to help us.  Because our crew had been filming this whole ordeal (remember: protect the narrative above all else) the airline crew began threatening my cameraman and myself with arrest if they continued filming based upon their flawed understanding of privacy rights.  Jason -fearless in his filming – ended up not getting arrested that day, but we’d had enough.  I asked those that remained to excuse themselves to find their luggage and allow me to work with staff and Elandria to make the next pieces of the puzzle fit together.  We stayed to get through customer service and plot our next move.

Elandria wanted to keep trying despite all obstacles, but I was really concerned at that point.  Politically, I was feeling an obligation to communicate with my KCTU and KPTU comrades about our situation because I knew that the closer we got to May Day, the harder they would be to talk to.  Preparations were going fast and steady and I was clear in my sight of what that looked like in my relatively sedate Kentucky home.  I couldn’t imagine planning a massive May Day rally on the eve of possible peace for the first time in six decades, so I knew I needed to be quick about what I would say and I would need to know where we were headed.

Further, if Elandria couldn’t find a way through, I would need to do something with all these people.  Eventually, I’d either need to send them all home or get new flights to Korea.  Both of those options cost money so I’d need to move as much of it as we had into the right places.  Time was running short.

I got on the phone and started moving on those pieces while Elandria did the magic that Black women do in times of trouble. Elandria succeeded in getting nearly everyone on a flight that night out of BWI.  It was a harrowing story where she essentially did the work of an employee for an airline while on the phone with customer service.  There were helpful people in that tale who deserve so much credit, but Elandria is the keystone.

At multiple points of this process, I had to consider the very real possibility that everyone would need to be sent home.  The idea of taking something I had worked on for ten months out to the woodshed and putting down like a rabid dog was upsetting, but real and responsible.  That feeling lasted for the entire trip and even now I still feel it.

In the end, all but four of us made it to Korea on the last flight out that night.  Tiffany Flowers, Eleonore Wesserle, Terriyanna Bailey, and myself made it onto a plane the following day.  I received our itinerary in the air, adjusted down to the minute for our delayed arrival.

While we were in the air, our delegation continued on.  The May Day rally saw us represented with digntity and power.  We made it through our first day split, some of us asleep in the air.