The Sleeping Giant Awakes

— Meleiza Figueroa

LOS ANGELES—PRESSURE is building. Times are getting nastier. The stakes are incredibly high. And on the streets, during this time of unseasonable cold for this city, the “sleeping giant” of Latino and immigrant communities has begun to awake.

Over the past two years or so—nationwide and especially in California and Arizona—there has been an unprecedented attack in motion upon undocumented immigrants. The draconian Sensenbrenner Bill has passed the House of Representatives, a bill which, among other things, would criminalize immigrants and those aiding them as aggravated felons, and give local cops the added authority and duties of immigration enforcement, allowing them to apprehend anyone who “looks” like an illegal immigrant. Can we say “racial profiling?”

Vigilantes like the Minutemen and Save Our State are harassing people trying to cross the border. A number of heated confrontations between these groups and various immigrant rights/anti-racist groups have been taking place, including one in Laguna Beach where a group of neo-Nazis showed up in full regalia, and also in Garden Grove where a Minuteman tried to run over some protesters.

Even the racists in my own hometown of Burbank have come out in small but attention-grabbing numbers, joining the SOS at recent Home Depot protests, bearing signs with such phrases as “Americans made America great, Mexicans made Mexico great ... to Leave.”

In contrast to the 20–40 people who have usually attended SOS/Minutemen rallies, between 500,000 and ONE MILLION people marched on the streets of Los Angeles on March 25 to protest anti-immigrant actions and legislation, in particular the Sensenbrenner/ King Bill (HR 4437). This enormous statement made by Latino and immigrant communities was also one of the largest demonstrations for any cause in U.S. history, closing down twenty-six blocks of Downtown LA.

Demonstrations also took place across the country—a rally estimated around 300,000 had been held the week before in Chicago, 20,000 in Phoenix, 50,000 in Denver (the largest demonstration in that city’s history), and even in Jim Sensenbrenner’s home state of Wisconsin, 10,000 took to the streets in Milwaukee in a protest named “A Day Without Latinos.”

It was (and continues to be) a struggle that reaches far beyond the usual “choir,” into the homes, hearts and wallets of the “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Only a few times in my life have I ever felt so proud—profoundly, throughout my body—of myself, my immigrant heritage, and of my city, and such faith and pride in the ability of ordinary people to stand up and fight against injustice.

Jam Packed

This is my personal experience at the Los Angeles demonstration of March 25.

I decided to take the train from Universal City into the Downtown area in order to avoid traffic. I had heard that a huge turnout was expected, and I had no idea what to expect.

The parking lot at the train station was packed, quite unusual for a Saturday. I parked at a space in the back and saw many families streaming through the parking lot. I didn’t think much of it at first—this was Universal City, after all, and families would park here all the time to avoid the parking fees at the Universal Studios theme park.

I reached the escalators and waited for a friend who had never taken the train before and wanted to go with someone. To my amazement, as I stood there I realized the families were not going to Universal Studios. Except for about six people who walked on to the Universal crosswalk, EVERYONE was going into the train station. I asked several people if they were going to the march—”Going downtown for the march?” “Van a la marcha?”—and everyone I asked responded affirmatively.

I stood there for over 20 minutes, watching hundreds of people in white shirts heading down the escalators. That’s when it first hit me that this demonstration—unlike many of the relatively insular anti-war marches of the recent past would be something BIG.

We descended into the train station. Everywhere, the place was packed—at the ticket machines, on the escalators, and on the train platform. A train was leaving as we approached the platform, and we could see the people packed in there very tightly, like no LA rush hour I’d ever seen. We pushed to the front of the platform—our train arrived, already filled with people coming from the North Hollywood station—we pressed in, barely any space between people, the trains groaning with the weight.

As we came out with most of the passengers onto Seventh at Metro Street, more people were coming in from every block for as far as the eye can see. We never made it to the starting point of the march on Olympic and Broadway—at barely 10:00 a.m. people were already heading south to march on City Hall. With literally no more room on Broadway, people just started to take the streets on either side. The thousand or so of us who had been jam-packed on our train became our own feeder march, feeding off the electric energy in the air as we started to cheer and raise our fists.

Men, women, grandmothers, babies in strollers, jornaleros (day laborers), street vendors, middle-class immigrants who have been here for decades, union members, students, blue-collar workers and more—united, solemn and festive at the same time, were confronting years of injustice and racism with love and solidarity.

With the sea of humanity we made our way onto Broadway, joined along the way by workers at construction sites and others who had climbed up on top of bus stops, light poles, anywhere they could find. We passed a scaffold on which the workers had hung a banner with the old United Farm Workers slogan, “Si se puede!” (“Yes we can!”)

Between the crowd on the scaffolding and the crowd below, we began to chant—“Si se puede! Si se puede!”—a celebration and march to war at the same time. Among all of us, Latinos as well as Koreans, Filipinos, homegrown Chicanos, gringos and immigrants of all races, citizens, documented and undocumented, this was a celebration of our common struggle for human rights and for everyone to be treated as the human beings we all are.

No matter where I climbed up and looked, it was people, as far as the eye can see. (Another friend told me later, as she saw the march through aerial coverage on TV, that she had thought the ground was covered with white petals, or snow—until she realized that it was actually people, dressed in white.) We reached the intersection of Temple and Spring, and as the crowd got thicker and thicker, we knew there was nowhere else to march—the crowd stretched continuously throughout the march route from beginning to end.

As the rally started, from three blocks away I could hear, at the far end of City Hall from where I stood, the crowd chanting with one voice, drowning out all the hustle and bustle of Downtown LA and the freeways below: “SI SE PUEDE! SI SE PUEDE!

A few blocks away from City Hall, we passed loudspeakers where Spanish radio hosts (including Piolín, a morning shock-jock type of host) were interviewing many of the marchers who told personal stories and expressed love and solidarity with the crowd. Still others gave comment on the Sensenbrenner bill and how it would hurt working families, California’s economy, and codify racial profiling.

I kept trying to call people on my cell phone—so many people were in the same area that the cell networks were JAMMED solid and I couldn’t get a connection for a long time. Finally, after a couple frustrating hours, I got through to another friend, who said he would meet us at the south end of City Hall.

Pushing through the crowd to get there was a chore, but watching the crowd movements was even more fascinating. I could see thousands of people starting to leave down First street, but then ten thousand more would stream in and take their place in front of City Hall. The scene was tremendous: The rally lasted till about 2 p.m., and by the time we left the main rally area at about 4 p.m., people were still joining the crowd in mass numbers, triumphant feeder marches energizing the crowd as they arrived.

Many people carried sticks with both the United States flag and the flag of their national origins. Many past immigrant-rights marches have been dominated by Mexican nationalism, but that was not the case this time around. All nations to the south were represented, and the large number of U.S. flags also radiated a strong message of the people’s hopes and dreams in this country.

U.S. culture and the primacy of the “American Dream” have been dangled in front of people’s faces in other parts of the world for so long, and so people have come here, have worked for years on the lawns and in the laundry rooms and garages of others living the life they could only dream about. They are demanding that their hard work be compensated with basic dignity and respect.

A Politicized Struggle

This march was also much more highly politicized than other immigrant marches. Although the main issue on the table was immigration, related issues such as the War in Iraq, racism, and corporate media lies were front and center as well.

Military families of immigrant soldiers were also very prevalent. An almost invisible issue surrounding the Iraq war is the fact that many undocumented immigrants are recruited directly into the Armed Forces upon being detained.

These undocumented, invisible soldiers are not counted as official casualties when they are injured or killed—their lives, just like the lives of the Iraqi people, are swept under the rug, less than nothing to the country that sent them to fight for Bush and his cronies.

At one point the Fox News truck was surrounded by people in a spontaneous protest of the network, demanding the truth on television. The Fox cameraman on top of the truck kept avoiding filming the increasingly vocal crowd (who hurled chants such as “No Fox News!” “Culero!” and “Bush! Escucha! El pueblo está en la lucha!”), but eventually was forced to acknowledge the people around him, as the truck became completely surrounded and their voices too loud to ignore.

At around 4 p.m., we started walking back toward Union Station, and as we passed Temple Street we saw the freeway overpasses filled with people continuing to chant and cheer and express their demands. Even though our feet were falling off and we were exhausted, we joined them on the overpass.

The energy was tremendous, as their cheers were answered by a cacophony of honking and cheering from the freeway below. Drivers blinked their lights in solidarity, and one passenger even leaned out of his car and unfurled a giant Che flag that billowed out behind them as they passed by. I eventually left for Union Station, prouder to be an Angeleno than ever before.

The fight against HR 4437 and towards equitable and reasonable immigration reform continues. The people of those communities have been activated and mobilized in a way they have not been for years, and the lessons these mobilizations have taught will not easily be forgotten.

If, as an activist, my life was changed that day, imagine the numbers of people at the March 25 event who had NEVER been to any kind of political event before, who felt the power ordinary people are able to wield when they are organized and work together for justice.

This was, to me, my city. This was my America.

Meleiza Figueroa was the lead researcher on Robert Greenwald’s documentary film Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. Her article on Wal-Mart appeared in our previous issue. Photos accompanying this article are by the author.

ATC 122, May–June 2006