Illegal Immigrants Take To The Street
Perspective on May-day rally for immigrant justice and worker's rights.
ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS screams the headline of the evening Oregonian. The extra-large bold typeface menaces the reader. “Be afraid,” it tells them. “They’ve taken to the streets.”
“The anti-war movement’s got nothing on this man. They had like a million fucking people marching in L.A.”
I’m sitting in the south park blocks next to two bombed out aging street hippies.
“Fuck man, this could be the start of the real revolution,” the one on the bicycle replies.
A hundred feet in front of me the remains of the JWJ labor rally is beginning to peter out. Most of those remaining are stragglers from the much larger immigrant justice rally earlier in the day. None of my fellow Teamsters are to be found, and I don’t see any of that familiar SEIU purple either. So much for solidarity.
About four hours earlier I had been walking vigorously through downtown looking for the march. I knew it was supposed to start at noon in the south park blocks, but I didn’t know the route, and I was already twenty minutes late – and a bit drunk.
I had walked in a large arc up around the Koin center, and then started back in the other direction, walking toward Burnside, zig-zagging along streets, scanning up and down each block looking for action. This quest is proving more and more futile as I finally make my way all the way back to Pioneer Place, so I decide that I need some elevation, and jog to the top of one of the Smart Parks along fourth.
On the top level I still can’t see any surging mass of marchers, but I do see the two circling news helicopters that have been echoing in the periphery of my hearing for the past half hour. Giving up on my high ground, I decide to return to the street, and after a short wait, I board an elevator headed down. On the fourth floor the car stops, and takes on a suburban couple.
“I don’t know what they are doing,” the wife says to the husband – referring to the helicopters – “maybe they are practicing circling for the Rose Parade.”
I exit the lift shaking my head and immediately begin walking briskly back up the street in the general direction of the circling choppers. I figure that this is my best bet for finding the action.
My instinct doesn’t fail me, and within five minutes I have come up to an intersection blocked off by police and forded by a thick throng of marchers, a majority of them are suited up in a natural uniform of jeans and white t-shirts.
I turn up to my right, and walk up the street in the opposite direction of the marchers, taking pictures as I dodge bicycle police weaving down along the sidewalk. I continue walking, block after block. I’m looking for the end of the march.
This isn’t my march. This isn’t my cause. I’m an anglo. A gringo. More important than my ethnicity, I am a citizen.
I am here to show support. Solidarity. I will respectfully bring up the rear, while those who have earned the honor to do so, take the lead.
Bringing up the rear is harder than I expected. Block on block I wonder how far back this mass of people extends. All the way up to 8th, and then left, and then a few more blocks, I finally make it to where the contiguous mass of participants thins into a milling crowd of spectators. I turn and step into the mille, empty my paper cup and throw it into a garbage can, and then start slowly back down the path from whence I came.
I’ve walked about a mile, down and twisting around the streets of downtown Portland. The only thing of note to strike me came as I walked under the glass bridge that spans the two building of the World Trade Center. There, a business man in a suit stood leaning up against the glass, staring down onto the mass of people in the street. It struck me that this could very well be the one single thing that this man feared the most – the masses joined as one, rising up like a great wave, high enough to wash him out of his glass tower.
But in the end, he had nothing to fear. We were a peaceful bunch, demanding only justice and not vengeance. Even if that weren’t the case, there was still an army of police - on horses, motorcycles, and bicycles, carrying pepper spray, tazers, shotguns, and glocks, constantly on alert, ready to give us an unforgettable reminder of the origins of our non-violent ideals.
The headline on the sign read “Work is Bullshit.” I hadn’t noticed it ‘till I hear two women behind me discussing it.
“Yo man, you’re in the wrong march,” one of them had said.
“Yeah,” the other replied, “it’s like that sign that said ‘legalize now,’ they got the legalize part right, but drugs ‘got nothing to do with it.”
The two of them joked back and forth about this, while I began to contemplate heavily on the meaning of the relationship between the few Caucasians who showed out, and the overwhelming Hispanic mass that embodied the march.
“What is it that separates us?” I asked myself.
It may seem like an intractable question, but for those of us who are keen to the answer, it is really only a matter of denial that prevents us from replying to it.
The fact is, that in the U.S. the only unions we have are built around dying industries – autos, steel, airlines. And while their industries collapse, and their membership shrinks, the fates of their corrupt leadership become increasingly tied together with those of their corporate employers.
This pernicious influence aside, the simple lust for power is enough to separate most union leaders from the will to carry on the fight for labor as a whole. Faced with a declining membership in their core shops, the old time bosses know that new recruits will inevitably bring new leaders and new centers of power that dilute their own control, and so anachronistic local presidents cling to their old ways, like the captains of fatally smitten ships, sullenly awaiting the cold embrace of the deep.
This is why the Teamsters didn’t represent today, this is why the SEIU was barely felt (despite their departure from the AFL-CIO and their supposed commitment to organizing). This is why organized labor IS the Democratic party – they WOULD NOT exist without us – but we get nothing from it, besides our corrupt leadership using their congressional ties, bought with our money, to maintain their seats of power in our union.
This is the state of organized labor in these United States, and reflective of it, this is the state of the political discourse in these United States, and this is why HR 4437 is on the table, being seriously contemplated, by law makers whose election campaigns were paid for by Jack Abramoff. This is the sickening state of our body politic.
All of this being what it is, we still enjoy a quality of life envied by people around the world. In spite of all our complaints, ours is still a country that offers opportunity unsurpassed anywhere else in the world. There are still a hundred others of every nationality willing to take the place of even the lowliest citizen in this society of ours.
This duality is ever present, and it was unmistakable today, as thousands marched, not in the name of peace, not in the name of reform, not in the name of some right, or claim to a right, but simply to remain on this soil, to be given a chance to stand up and prove their worth through hard work and sacrifice, to be judged equally against us native inhabitants, and to be given equal consideration before our laws.
Whether this is a small thing, or large, varies dramatically from one person’s perspective to the next, but I would argue, and defend, that this is the essence of justice, and the essence of our American ideal, that all men are create equal, endowed with certain inalienable rights, among these, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And that is why I was in the street today.
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