Notes From Backstage At The Massive Immigration Rally
Dave Montgomery of the Washington Post was backstage at the huge rally for immigration reform on the National Mall on Sunday. He was one of more than 300 credentialed media that covered the big event that has been largely over-shadowed by the historic health care vote last night and the rude and unruly – but puny by comparison – gathering of anti-health care reform protesters outside the Capitol.
Of the 200,000 or so people at the March For America, Montgomery provides the back story on several facing deportation:
In the VIP section behind the big stage with a majestic view of the U.S. Capitol, Esvin Blanco, Oved Vigil and Edwin Mazariegos showed the ankle bracelets they must wear beneath their baggy jeans so U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement can keep track of them before they face possible deportation in coming weeks.
Onstage a few yards away, Carlos Luna wore an American flag as a cape in support of his brother, Mauricio, caught in the same series of raids 11 days ago. And Cesar Guanoquiza took the microphone to make his public speaking debut, in honor of a nephew, a brother and a cousin who were detained.
“We are not criminals,” Guanoquiza declared. “We are workers here to push this country forward!”
It is a must-read, long, and perceptive story about what is at stake for many of the hopeful but impatient immigrants who were part of the massive crowd on the Mall.
[For more on the march, see Marcelo Ballve’s article for New America Media, a consortium of ethnic media outlets, that was cross posted at AlterNet.org. Ballve also filed a slide show of rally photos and I wrote a story for AlterNet.org, as well.]
I was also backstage most of the day and got a chance to stand on the press riser and see the crowd that stretched West to 14th Street and beyond from the main stage near 7th Street. An overflow of people stretched behind the stage almost to 4th Street to the East with chanting, dancing, sign and flag waving crowds who could not hear or see the big screen coverage of the speakers and music on-stage – but didn’t seem to care.
The rally on April 10, 2006 in support of immigration reform – and against the pending “Sensenbrenner bill” H.R. 4437 to criminalize and more easily deport millions of immigrants – was perhaps a bit larger. It set a one-day record for the DC Metro system at the time. But this Sunday’s turn-out was tremendous and beyond the hoped for “tens of thousands” march organizers had predicted.
I reminisced with Maria Elena Durazo, the head of the Los Angeles County Labor Federation and Local 11 of UNITE HERE, about the Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride she led and I worked on in 2003. It was the first major national event that brought labor’s event organizing acumen to bear on the pro-immigration reform issue. After a two-week, cross country bus caravan that included a roadblock at a Border Patrol checkpoint in Arizona and a bus that retraced (in reverse) the route of the original Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Freedom Rides of the 1960s, it culminated in a rally at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, New York that brought together 150,000-200,000 people. SNCC and Freedom Ride veteran John Lewis, a Congressman from Georgia, and Rev. James Lawson of Los Angeles, and the late Rev. James Orange of Atlanta were among the civil rights movement icons that helped the series of rallies and events become a reality. The Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride marked an alliance between labor, pro-immigrant, and civil rights leaders that endures to this day and was on display at Sunday’s rally.
But despite the tremendous crowd in 2003 in Queens, the event got little media attention in the English language media beyond CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who was just then sharpening his tongue against immigration and immigrants on his nightly broadcast.
Dobbs is no longer on CNN and the movement that was just starting to gel at that time has outlasted him, but so too has the wait for a serious overhaul of America’s immigration system. About a thousand people are deported every day from America and about 400 die each year being smuggled into or sneaking into the country because we do not have an adequate legal immigration system as an alternative to illegal immigration.
Among the others hanging out backstage was a legend of the civil rights movement, activist and stand-up comedian Dick Gregory, who knows a thing or two about long fights for social change, human rights, and justice. At 77, Gregory was taking it all in and chatting politely with fans and admirers who recognized him. He had not come to speak, but like Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Jr., who also roamed the crowd, Gregory knew this event was a moment not to be missed.
We had a chance to chat, interrupted several times by people who wanted a picture with him. Dick Gregory is still as sharp and radical as ever, reflecting upon, among other things, the role labor played in the 1963 March on Washington. What a treat to meet him.
Feet sore, face red, and pants and shoes dusty, I headed back home with my wife at the end of the day. Clarissa, who is also an advocate for immigration reform, was moved by the, rally, but couldn’t hold back her tears when she saw hundreds of people taking the time to pick up trash on the Mall as they headed for buses home. Our movement makes a statement with our numbers and then sweeps up afterwards!
Frank Sharry, the head of America’s Voice, summed up Sunday’s rally in a statement issued Monday:
As yesterday’s rally on the mall showed, immigrants and their allies love this country and are just asking for a chance to be part of it. Conventional wisdom was wrong on health care and wrong about the power of a few thousand dedicated Tea Party activists. The pundits should take note that the pro-immigration coalition is a force to be reckoned with. We demonstrated what a real crowd looks like.
As health care winds down as the issue dominating the Washington news, I suspect you will be hearing a lot more about immigration reform.