A Day of Power 

Can Congress pick up the vibe of the movement?

Wednesday, May 3 2006

IN THE CHURNING CENTER of Monday’s immigration-rights march up Broadway, under a pale and merciless midday sun, a chorus of women made revolution with their hips. The May Day marchers were shaking it hard, jubilantly, to a euphoric beat made by guys pounding upon drums, their lips pursed in revelatory fury.

“What do you mean why am I so happy?” asked Guadalupe Paredes, 29, her face shiny and her hair wet with sweat. “We are a united pueblo! I feel so good because I can feel the heat of everyone around me!” Paredes, a U.S. citizen, said she was marching for her friends and relatives who work here but don’t have papers yet. She was as verbose and passionate as natives of Mexico City tend to be: “I clean houses, very honorably,” she said. In a moment of rapture, she added, “If they fire me, I don’t care!”

Paredes kept dancing and screaming above the noise all around her. The drumming. The chanting. The people pounding on news boxes. The random rises of woo-hoos. The helicopters hovering above downtown’s high-rise canyons. The audible sensation of thousands of pairs of feet pounding on pavement.

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It was another day of big-ass protests all over Los Angeles and the country, and another reminder that this is an immigration-rights movement that has already succeeded in changing the nation, no matter what, if any, immigration reform eventually emerges from Washington. Small businesses stayed shut, truckers at the port stayed home, and tens of thousands of Los Angeles students didn’t show up for class. Ultimately, the economic toll of the boycott could be deemed negligible. But the symbolism was limitless. They called Monday “A Day Without Immigrants,” the “Great American Boycott” and May Day. Above all, it was a big party.

A sense of giddy accomplishment and destiny floated in the air above the city’s two major marches — first in downtown and then through Koreatown and Mid-Wilshire — that drew nearly a million people. It was upbeat, even late in the day, after the marine layer rolled back in, and after hundreds of thousands of people marched for four hard-won miles from MacArthur Park to Wilshire Boulevard and La Brea Avenue. More Koreans, African-Americans, Arab-Americans, Jews and whites joined the march through the Wilshire Corridor. Marches also took place in San Francisco, Fresno and Santa Ana, and in San Ysidro and Tijuana, where activists on the Mexican side succeeded in blocking the busiest international border crossing in the world for two hours.

The English-language media, led by the juggernaut Los Angeles Times, sent out armies of reporters to cover the marches, atonement in a way for being caught unprepared for the big March 25 rally in downtown L.A. that startled the country awake. Photo bloggers crowded the Internet with personalized reports from cities far and wide. Commentators on Fox News seemed at a loss, rehashing old talking points that felt more and more like rhetorical relics with each fresh image from yet another U.S. city crowded by a sea of humans in white.

Here and there, the media response crossed the line into high absurdity.

Local newscasts in English and Spanish fulfilled their duty of conducting on-the-spot interviews with the most incoherent people possible, often in their second language. When Fox 11 news anchor Steve Edwards asked Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform to address his anti-immigration stance and the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty — the one that talks about “give me your tired, your poor .?.?.” and so on — Mehlman concluded, “You can’t make public policy based on a poem written by a 16-year-old girl.”

Suddenly, despite Mehlman and those who would like to see illegal immigrants disappear, the brown faces which before this spring rarely entered the collective American consciousness stood front and center in the evolving adventure that is the USA, all the while pushing baby strollers, waving U.S. flags and having a blast.

It was a day that developed organically.

A split in the coalition behind the movement meant that illegal-immigrant workers and their friends received mixed messages in the days leading up to May 1. Some leaders, such as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Cardinal Roger Mahony, told people to go to work and school and march in the afternoon, while the more grassroots and ideologically aligned organizers told people to engage in full-scale non-cooperation: no school, no work, no buying, no selling. The mainstream side promoted the afternoon march on Wilshire, and the grassroots side pushed the earlier, much shorter one-mile march from Broadway and Olympic Boulevard to City Hall.

Complicating matters, Spanish-language media also split on the message sent to millions of viewers, listeners and readers, unlike the united message largely responsible for huge turnout for the March 25 demonstration. Responding to this, one man in Monday’s march on Broadway, retired journalist Arturo Sanchez, carried a well-received homemade sign accusing the mammoth Univision network of “confusing the people.”

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