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Power to the People: Jafet Robles 1983-2017…

UPDATED 9/22/17 11:22PM: To issue a correction. Robles was born in Puerto Rico, not Springfield.

Jafet Robles in 2015 (via Facebook)

In the hours after his death last week, Jafet Robles’s gaze was everywhere. Often rocking a cap and Neighbor 2 Neighbor (N2N) T-shirts and sweatshirts, the Springfield activist’s fierce eyes appeared across social media and in hearts. Though that wasn’t fierceness—Robles had that too—but resolve.

Robles resolved to not accept the status quo underinvesting in his neighborhood, imprisoning his generation and depriving millions more of dignity. The solution and his calling was organizing—organizing his community, Springfield, and much more. Hardly parochial, Robles networked and reached out, soliciting support from and battling on behalf of many causes, groups and people.

“How many people would agree that right now is the time is to get involved in an organization, grassroots, to really be active right now?” he declared at a February solidarity rally outside the Hampden County Hall of Justice. “How many people agree on that?”

Organizing became Robles’s raison d’être. Success gave him—and his community—a measure of power. Yet before his rise came the fall. He did time for drugs. He came home and like many before him—and too many after—there was struggle.

Sometime before the morning of September 11, Robles was murdered. Chicopee Public Works employees discovered his body, riddled with multiple gunshots, in Szot Park. Chicopee Police have not disclosed much, but have urged the public to come forward with information.

A wave of shock, disbelief and blunt sadness swept across Greater Springfield.

Robles, at right, in his N2N staff photo. (via n2nma.org)

Photographs of Robles bombarded Facebook as friends, family and colleagues of his struggled to make sense of the crime. Many expressed sympathy for his family or directed the bereaved to a Go Fund Me page for his children.

Maria Elena Latona, executive director of N2N’s Massachusetts chapter where Robles worked, called him the “heart of N2N’s organizing work.”

“He was fierce, fearless and relentless in his work to end mass incarceration,” she said. Like many others, Latona underscored his advocacy for people regardless of color, sexuality, legal status and beyond. “Jafet knew in his soul that we are one,” Latona added.

“They look out of no face but…”

Jafet Robles was born on December 2, 1983 in Bayamon, P.R. and later moved to Springfield as a child. Though friends recall seeds of empathy as a teenager, he had trouble in school. Robles got mixed up with drugs, left school and was drawn into the prison pipeline he would later seek to plug.

This inflection point for Robles came amid one for Springfield. The eyes meant to oversee the city proved vacant and hollow. As with its finances, they had lost track of its people too.

He served four years, but struggled to find work and support his kids. Jobs in home improvement would come his way, as well as opportunities to mentor other young guys like himself. He obtained his associate’s degree from Holyoke Community College in political science. Holyoke City Councilor Jossie Valentin, in a remembrance, said he showed potential as a student in her wife’s class.

Activism would reunite Robles and Valentin years later.

Mentoring others led to organizing around North End issues like repairing the dank Gerena School tunnel under I-91. Criminal justice reform and demands for more and broader policy reform followed.

Councilor Adam Gomez in 2016 (WMassP&I)

“Jafet was never really a professional in anything except a professional in love and helping people make better decisions,” Springfield Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez, a close friend, said.

Still he organized like a pro. He built coalitions as with labor to push the Jobs not Jails initiative. Sharp, but earthy and relatable, he could energize a crowd or activate people with a selfie video. Despite Springfield’s dilapidated civic virtue, he and others, orchestrated marches, rallies, actions, meetings and petitions and, most formidably, registered voters.

“The sun was rising now in fellowship with the same stars that had escorted it…”

Casual and comfortable in the streets or dressed up in the mayor’s outer office, Robles got officials’ attention.

Barely a month ago, he was outside the Springfield State Office Building protesting Governor Charlie Baker’s legislation to let local police engage in immigration enforcement.

Bullhorn in hand, he slammed the bill as an effort to divide people. “We need to start coming together despite our different social, economic whatever the difference may be. We all know that if one person ain’t free, none of us are free.”

Some electeds grudgingly folded. Others embraced Robles’s agenda. Gomez said many establishment figures in the North End could not help but respect him.  Mayor Domenic Sarno, while praising Robles’s compassion in a statement—issued nine days after his murder—admitted to disagreeing with his methods. For his part, Robles had called Sarno “baby Trump” due to, among other things, the mayor’s immigration rhetoric.

Calvin Feliciano first met Robles back in 2009 working for SEIU Community Action. The union-backed organization sent Feliciano to Springfield to work on the city’s first-in-a-generation ward races. Robles impressed Feliciano, now of SEIU Local 509, with his drive and effectiveness.

Unlike himself, Feliciano admitted, Robles was from the streets of the North End. Critics or establishment Latinos couldn’t discredit Robles as an outsider.

“But he was so freaking good at organizing,” he said. “There was nothing they can say to him.”

“Remade, as new trees are renewed when they bring forth new boughs…”

Robles never sought office himself. He campaigned for others, statewide and local. He supported Ivette Hernandez’s unsuccessful state rep bid, from which she emerged as an even stronger activist. The following year he helped elect Gomez, defeating Zaida Luna who had turned back stiff challenges before.

“We made a decision this was a chance to make a mark politically,” Gomez said. He and Robles had gone to a conference which urged people to run for office. The message was partly in the campaign itself, win or lose. As it happened, the message resonated with voters.

However elections went down, Robles still went to Boston and Washington—rallying at the State House steps to end mandatory minimums or marching for fair deal for Puerto Rico. But he backed his friends’ causes, too: the environment, labor rights, civil rights, and transparency.

The contingent honoring Robles at Sunday’s Puerto Rican parade. (WMassP&I)

After his death, mourners of all stripes gathered at N2N’s Chestnut Street office in Springfield. “There were Latinos there who spoke no English there and the Nation [of Islam] there,” Feliciano said.

N2N led a contingent that capped Sunday’s Puerto Rican parade. Friends, family and comrades of Robles, a rainbow of Springfield, marched with banners and shirts emblazoned with his face.

The week before, allies of Robles were openly worrying organizing in Springfield might not recover from losing him. Preliminary day in Springfield was perhaps the first election in years where he was not dragging voters to the polls.

Another view of those marching in Robles’s memory at the parade. (WMassP&)

But there was resolve Sunday.

“I feel like he’s still here,” Zaida Govan said, often referring to Robles in the present tense. “When I heard the news last Monday, I couldn’t believe it. I refused to believe it.”

In addition to his four children, Robles leaves behind his sister and mother.

“From a little spark may burst a flame…”

Robles had flaws and made mistakes. His friends took pains to note that and keep his memory down to earth. Most mentioned his dedication to his kids of whom he had custody.

A river of Facebook and Instagram posts and YouTube videos show his outreach to N2N members, to allies, to friends, or to anybody tuning it. Robles’s final Instagram post on the last day of his life was typical. Perhaps that freewheeling social media use aided his organizing.

Happy Sunday!

A post shared by Jafet Robles (@jafet.robles) on

Interspersed though, were videos of him with his kids goofing off or singing along with the radio.

“He was a musician. There wasn’t one kind of music that he didn’t like,” Gomez said. Even in high school, Robles could connect with different people, trying different foods and different music. “He listened to everything and he understood people.”

“He just had a way of talking to everybody without having any judgment,” Govan said, trying to explain how he could cut across barriers. “I think that’s what’s needed.”

“Life is short and this is a short ride,” Robles said in a macabrely prescient TED Talk-like speech from 2016. You could build a legacy, he argued, not upon earthly possessions or popularity, but by taking a stand for what’s right. Though people who do so may die, “their voices still echo. We still hear them because they fought hard.”

The topic was ending mass incarceration, his pet cause, but it could have been any of his issues or one of his friends’.

“What do you want to be remembered for?” he exhorted, looking out, seeing everyone.

Jafet Robles was 33.