A Day Without Gringos?

A bit of revolution hit the streets of New York on May Day. Across the five boroughs and beyond, tens of thousands of immigrants left jobs and schools then converged on Manhattan’s Union Square Park. Folks will debate the size of the crowd that jammed Union Square on Monday afternoon. People filled sidewalks along side streets, searching for a way past the police barricades strung up all around the park. By 3 p.m. the park was full; by 5 it was bursting-so much so that police pulled back the barricades blocking 14th Street and let the throngs spill down Broadway, an hour before the rally was supposed to end.

When the front of the march, led by Reverend Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Transit Workers Union president Roger Toussaint, reached Foley Square downtown, the back of the march was still waiting to step off.

Exuberant organizers put the turnout in the hundreds of thousands, noting that the march, which stretched for about 26 blocks, felt thicker than Saturday’s peace march, and appeared bigger than the 125,000 or so who came out for the union-backed immigration rally at City Hall on April 10.

It’s hard to know for sure, because on Monday the cops segmented the masses to let crosstown traffic through, so that marchers were leaving Foley Square as others were still arriving. (Certainly there were many tens of thousands.) The cops seemed taken aback at times by the scale of this spirited, largely nonwhite crowd and were far more controlling than they’d been in dealing with Saturday’s spirited, largely white peace crowd.

The radical part was just how grassroots this “Day Without Immigrants” was. For once, May Day in New York wasn’t just a throwback holiday for black-clad anarchists and preachy sectarians.

Instead, Mexican day laborers and landscapers from New Jersey and Connecticut marched alongside Senegalese street vendors, Chinese waiters, Puerto Rican independistas, Bangladeshis shop owners, Caribbean nannies, Uruguayan musicians, Dominican busboys, and revolutionary Filipinos.

Lefties from the Troops Out Now Coalition (a spin-off of Ramsey Clark’s International Action Center ) may have helped pull the event together with immigrant groups on a shoestring budget of $10,000. But the bulk of the crowd was brought in by word of mouth and flyers printed up by neighborhood activists in Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Russian, French, Creole, and Urdu.

Whole families marched together, mothers pushing strollers and older kids who skipped school to link up with their parents (attendance was down by about 10 percent in city high schools). The majority of protesters were Mexican, but there were many other Latin Americans, Africans, Asia

If there was a demographic slice missing it was the corps of white peaceniks who’d paraded down Broadway on Saturday. That protest felt a bit like a roving street fair with colorful signs and the habitual entertainers–Billionaires for Bush, Missile Dick Chicks, big puppets–along with a group posing as Muslim detainees in prison garb, dragging a guy in a cage.

By contrast, the immigrants marching on Monday were peaceful yet defiant, and loud. All down Broadway they drummed, blew whistles, and chanted, “Bush, escucha, estamos en la lucha!” (Bush, listen up, we are in the struggle!) And unlike the costumed anti-warriors who revel in their moral righteousness then go home to their blogosphere, these people really seemed to mean it.

Across the city, hundreds of immigrant owners shuttered their businesses and many thousands more gave up a day’s pay to join the protests. Though many got their employers’ blessing, others risked their jobs, and the undocumented braved fears of being detained and deported by authorities, amid pervasive rumors of workplace raids.

“White Americans don’t know what it’s like to live every day without papers,” said Carlos, an undocumented construction worker from Washington Heights who took the day off to march with his wife and 13-year-old daughter, out of school for the day. (They did not want to give their last name.)

“We’ve been working here eight years. We’ve been paying taxes. Our children are going to school. Now we have to pay more to send our other daughter to City College because we are not ‘residents.’ We have been applying for papers, but it’s impossible. You get a sponsor for work but then they tell you the [Green Card] program is closed, and you can’t do anything. You get a lawyer and you never know if they are real or not. They steal your money and then disappear.”

“The only right we have is to work hard and not demand anything,” Carlos added.

Many of the demonstrators waved signs demanding “full amnesty” that were printed up by the knee-jerk anti-imperialists of ANSWER (who seem to adopt their positions just to oppose whatever the U.S. does). But the marchers on Monday weren’t anti-American. There were as many American flags waved as there were Mexican and South American ones.

It’s just that many Latino marchers define American patriotism a little differently.

“The way I see it, 500 years ago, they tried to get rid of our people,” explained Alvaro Andrade, an Ecuadoran Indian who works as a carpenter in Long Island. “When Columbus and then the pilgrims came, they put us down with disease and made us slaves. Now they’re all freaking out because they look at it as the browning of America. But it’s not. It’s the re-browning of America. Because we are the true Americans. We’re the future of America. So now you say you’re going to build a wall along the border? So who’s gonna build it? ”

“Bush messed up by making a war for oil,” added Frank, a fellow Ecuadoran and former U.S. Army specialist from Washington Heights, who also declined to give his last name. “Now he’s pointing at the Mexicans and Latinos and making people believe that we’re the problem with the economy. But we are just the scapegoat.”

“We are the new black men of America,” Frank charged.

Jesse Jackson too sought to dispel efforts to pit Black Americans against immigrants. “Immigrants aren’t sending good jobs overseas, corporations are,” he told the crowd.

There’s an obvious alliance waiting to happen between the broader anti-war movement and the immigrant-rights struggle, if activists on both sides can look beyond their most immediate demands.

While the Minutemen and their allies talk about how immigrants steal jobs and drain the economy, it’s really the war that’s siphoning tax dollars and sending the deficit upward at a frightening rate.

One common focus could be to expose how the Bush administraton’s Iraq venture is eating into pensions, education, and social services-putting the squeeze on American workers and their standard of living-because those threatened workers, blacks and whites, are now turning the blame on immigrants.

The competition for money becomes apparent when you consider that Senate Republicans voted last week to divert money from the troops in Iraq to pay for more border security.

Linking the anti-war and immigrant rights movements could also expose how the war on terror is dovetailing into a war on immigrants, with affects for all our civil liberties. Consider the title of the House bill HR 4437 : “The Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005.”

Although the so-called “compromise” legislation being debated in the Senate isn’t quite so draconian, it still calls for building a highly policed 700-mile border fence, using domestic military bases to detain immigrants, and enabling Homeland Security agents to expel foreigners without hearings.

“After 9-11, the war on terror became a silencer for the immigrant community,” says Carolyn D. Hermogenes, a Filipino organizer with CAAV and member of Immigrant Communities in Action, a coalition of 20 groups representing various nationalities that formed to oppose HR 4437. “But this legislation became a wake-up call that if we don’t speak up now, we’re going to lose our rights. So people are seeing now that they need to fight against the war too, because they are using the war on terror to silence communities of color.”

At Monday’s march, many immigrants said they would have liked to attend Saturday’s anti-war march but couldn’t afford to take time off for both.

Among them was Salvador Ardon, who came to the U.S. as a teenager to escape the war in El Salvador and is still without citizenship 24 years later. He marched with a placard displaying pictures of his sister, a staff sergeant in the army who is now on her second tour in Iraq. Also pictured were his two nephews in the army, one of whom just returned from Iraq.

“I gave my country what I love the most, my children,” Ardon wrote on his sign, referring to his sister’s family. On the back he added: “We love USA.”

But even Ardon said he opposed the war in Iraq and wants his sister to come home. “It’s just too dangerous over there now,” he says, shaking his head.

Although peace activists have been complaining about the relatively sparse media coverage of their march on Saturday, it’s not surprising that the immigrant demonstrations across the country have been overshadowing the antiwar cause. These uprisings are the new wildcard. “The white left is always wringing its hands in anguish about why it is can’t attract more people of color, but when it comes to supporting movements that are non-white, they’re slow to react,” commented journalist and WBAI radio producer Bill Weinberg, who was marching with a group of Japanese peace activists, when asked why there weren’t more folks there like him.

SARAH FERGUSON writes for the Village Voice website, where an earlier version of this piece originally appeared. She can be reached at: fergie33@earthlink.net