People marched in Seattle for immigrant rights, like the two million people elsewhere, because families and futures were at stake. We didn’t have a half million like Los Angeles or Dallas, or 300,000 like Chicago, but 25,000 marched for fifteen blocks through the heart of our city, packing the streets. One family drove ninety miles after hearing about it on the previous night’s news. Students left their high schools in a farm town 40 miles away, got a sendoff from their mayor, and came in on chartered buses. Spanish radio and community organizations passed the word. Catholic priests in immigrant congregations preached about it. Even the TV and newspapers gave advance coverage, if only because downtown traffic would be paralyzed. Except for some students enlisting each other through MySpace and some social justice listservs, this march didn’t have a virtual genesis. Instead, it built on more intimate networks, and on the ripples of the coverage. People came and brought others to affirm who they were and why they belonged.
“It moved me to tears to see people coming out of the shadows to find their voice,” said a Latino friend from south Texas who works as a contractor. “There are so many people in this situation,” he said. “They’ve been so quiet. Now they’re marching.”
“We’re hard workers, not criminals,” said the signs. “We aren’t terrorists.” “Don’t separate us from our families.” They talked of “Liberty, Equality and Dignity” and showed pictures of crops that they pick. Children paraded in strollers, teenagers laughed with their friends, elderly women helped each other step by step. It was mostly Latinos but also Koreans and Filipinos, immigrants from Somalia, a rainbow of union activists, though maybe a bit fewer than I’d have hoped.
When people brandish the American flag these days, it’s too often for blind patriotism, but the sea of American flags here felt proud and celebratory. People carried them high, waved them again and again to say that they were Americans too and ask that this country honor its promise of refuge and hope. The flags felt so far from the “we’re number one” belligerence of those at sealed-off Bush rallies.
The chants were mostly in Spanish, the signs mostly in English, witnessing where people came from and who they wanted to address. People asked again and again to get treated with dignity, respect, as humans. “Si, Se Puede,” they chanted, “yes we can,” the call of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers and Latino justice movements since.. They refused to keep being invisible people willing to be used for every job at the bottom and then discarded when convenient. It’s true that flooding any country with cheap labor can drive down wages, especially when unions are being busted and undocumented workers live in fear of deportation. And if we don’t create enough global justice so desperate people don’t continue leaving their homes in search of a glimmer of hope, then all but the wealthiest will succumb to the worldwide race to the bottom. But as the signs reminded us, we’re all children of immigrants, except for the Native Americans, two of whose local leaders blessed the march at its beginning. And those marching and chanting reminded those of us who’ve gotten a foothold a generation or two more secure that even in the land of Microsoft, they are often the invisible ones who pick our crops, build our houses, and clean our office buildings, restaurants and hotels.
This march was about more than the perfect policy solutions– the ideal path to citizenship, the ideal way to respond to all those who’d want to make this land their home, the ideal way to pass and enforce workplace laws so employers pay a decent wage for all. The march was more about recognizing those who participated and all like them as having core human dignity, children of God, worthy of respect and gratitude for their innate human worth and for the labors that serve us all. It was about their giving themselves a face and a voice.
Why can’t we have these kinds of marches to challenge the war or global warming, or all of Bush’s arrogant reign? The anti-war marches were huge on the eve of the war, since then consistently disappointing, even as the polls steadily shift. Maybe it’s because those more comfortable are behind our computers too much. Maybe the issues feel abstract or intransigent. Unless you have a son or daughter over serving it doesn’t hit home as much as the raw callousness of Congressman Sensenbrenner’s plan to make 12 million people felons, as well as anyone who gives them water or food, education or medical care. The Catholic churches that helped mobilize so many in their congregations here, have been silent on so many other issues, except abortion. And maybe we haven’t taken enough time to organize all the diffuse anger about Bush beyond complaining to ourselves.
Here the stakes were clear, immediate, and people turned out despite the risk of being deported, because if Sensenbrenner’s bill had gone through, as might well have happened without the outcry of these marches, then life would have gotten unimaginably harsher and crueler. So for those of us who didn’t march but claim to act for justice, we need to heed the lives of those who have, and do what we can to ensure their voices are heard. We also need to tell related stories of threats to human dignity and to the planet until people care enough to turn out and begin to connect them. Maybe by finding their voice and courage, those who marched in America these past weeks can teach the rest of us, and maybe we can find ways to come out of our own shadows and fears and join across our own divides.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association, and winner of the Nautilus Award for best social change book of the year. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time.