People's Action members around the country today are mourning the death of Jafet Robles, 33, an organizer with People's Action member organization Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts.
Robles' body was found Monday morning in a park in Chicopee, Massachusetts, near Springfield. He was pronounced dead of a gunshot wound, and local police have launched a homicide investigation.
"We have lost a warrior for justice," said People's Action co-director George Goehl. "We are so saddened by this horrible event and incredible loss to Jafet's family, his community, and the movement to end mass incarceration and replace it with solutions that actually help communities be safe and thrive."
Robles led the "Jobs, Not Jails" campaign for Neighbor to Neighbor and was lead organizer for the Springfield, Massachusetts area. He grew up in the poorest district in the state – the North End of Springfield. He dropped out of school at a young age, and at 18, was sentenced to four years in prison for a drug-related crime. He began an uphill struggle to rebuild his life when he was released, finally managing to find a job and complete his schooling with an associates degree from Holyoke Community College, where he studied history and politics. A home improvement job, meanwhile, put him in a position to train other young people who had gone through the criminal justice system. He also got passionately engaged in the movement to end mass incarceration and other efforts to address the racism and poverty he saw in his community.
"Jafet was the heart of N2N’s organizing work, said Maria Elena Letona, the executive director of Neighbor to Neighbor. "He was fierce, fearless and relentless in his work to end mass incarceration.
"He had deep, passionate love for Puerto Rico, her people and her independence. He quickly would become curious, find out on his own, and readily embrace the struggles of all people, keenly understanding that all our struggles are connected deep at the roots: Black people, immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community," she said.
Goehl remembered a particularly stirring experience with Robles during the People's Action "Rise Up" national conference this past April in Washington.
"Jafet was one of the leaders who risked arrest at the White House, protesting the morally corrupt and hateful federal budget proposed by the Trump administration," Goehl said. "The act was not one of small sacrifice - Jafet had been imprisoned before. He felt a tension in this act that some of us will never know.
"After we were arrested, and were moved to lock-up, Jafet and I shared a cell. As we sat across from each other, a toilet in between us, Jafet talked about how proud he was about the work he was doing, of Neighbor to Neighbor, and the possibilities that were around the corner. He was full of hope, determination and pride. I was so inspired by his life and work, and readiness to take a new risk for justice.
"The day before, I remember Jafet chasing [CNN commentator and progressive activist] Van Jones down to interview him on his phone, digging into to issues of policing and incarceration. Jafet was a man on a mission to stand up in the moment, to tell a story, and solve one of the most important crises and travesties of our time."
"Jafet challenged us all to think deeply and intentionally on our legacy: 'What do you want to be remembered for?,'" Letona said, referring to a speech Robles gave at a Neighbor to Neighbor event in 2016.
In that speech, Robles asks, "What do you guys want to be remembered for when you die? Is it going to be the big house, the superficial status ... or is it going to be for standing up for people [who are] taking these issues head on ... people like Martin Luther King Jr. [and] thousands of people who have died but their voices still echo because they fight hard and they dedicated their lives to the struggle."
"In these times of such chaos and confusion, of such hatred and violence, of such division and disintegration, N2N takes up your challenge, dear Jafet," Letona said. "We vow that we, like you, will be remembered for taking a stand fiercely and fearlessly against injustice and hatred and division."
Robles leaves behind four children, ages 5 to 15. The family has set up a GoFundMe page, and all proceeds will go to support funeral and memorial costs, and other expenses.