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Out of the Shadows: The Seattle Immigration March

April 15, 2006
By Paul Rogat Loeb

People marched because families and futures were at stake. Seattle didn't have a half million marching for immigrant rights, 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. "I heard it on the radio," people said. "I heard it at my church." "I heard it from a friend." Students came on chartered buses from farm towns 40 miles away. One family drove ninety miles after hearing on the nightly news that a march was going to happen and traffic might be swamped. Except for some students passing the word through MySpace and scattered social justice listservs, this march didn't rely on the on-line networks that have become our activist standard. It built on more intimate networks, and as coverage rippled out, people came and brought others, affirming that this was now their country too, and they wanted to be treated with dignity and respect.

"It moved me to tears to see people coming out of the shadows to find their voice," said my friend Jay Sauceda, a community activist who grew up poor in South Texas. "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 proclaimed "Liberty, Equality and Dignity" and showed pictures of crops that they picked. Children paraded in strollers, teenagers laughed with their friends, elderly women helped each other walk step by step. The march was mostly Latino but also Koreans, Filipinos, Somalians, marchers of every race.

There's been a lot of flag brandishing for blind patriotism these days. The sea of American flags here were part political strategy-a more salable image than a sea of Mexican flags, but they also 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 promises of refuge and hope. The flags felt so far from the "we're number one" belligerence of sealed-off Bush rallies.

The marchers chanted in Spanish, waved signs in English, speaking to each other and to those who watched from the sidelines. "Si, Se Puede," they chanted, "yes we can," the call of Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers and Latino social justice movements ever since. The yes they called for was to be treated with dignity, to no longer be invisible people used for every job at the bottom and discarded when convenient. "I work hard. I get good grades. I've lived here since I was five," said a high school senior. "Why should I and my family have to go back.

Immigration politics are complicated -- flooding this or any country with cheap labor can and will drive down wages, especially when unions are being busted and undocumented workers live in fear of deportation. 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 at the march reminded us, we're all children of immigrants, except for the Native Americans. And those marching and chanting reminded those of us who are legal because our ancestors immigrated earlier on that even in the land of Microsoft, we are tied with the people who pick our crops, build our houses, clean our office buildings, tied in what King called "an inescapable network of mutuality...a single garment of destiny."

The march may not have found perfect policy solutions -- the ideal path to citizenship, the ideal way to respond to all 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. It was more about recognizing those who participated and all like them as having core human dignity, being fellow children of God, worthy of respect and gratitude for their innate 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? Anti-war marches were huge before Bush went into Iraq, since then far more disappointing, even as the polls steadily shift. Maybe it's because those more comfortable sit behind our computers too much and believe we can do all politics with the click of a mouse.. Maybe the issues feel abstract or intransigent. Unless you have a son or daughter over serving it doesn't hit home nearly as much as the raw callousness of Congressman Sensenbrenner's plan to make 12 million people instant 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 these marches and outcries, then life would have gotten instantly far 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 these voices represent, and do what we can to ensure they are heard. We also need to link this issue of fundamental human dignity to all the threats that make it difficult for people to simply live and flourish on this earth. Maybe by finding their voice and courage, those who marched in America these past weeks can teach the rest of us how 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. See www.paulloeb.org

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