A Sea of White

From last Monday, May Day, the day of the big immigration march:

It's a really beautiful day in San Francisco today, and after months of rain, it seems like a different city. I was on an errand about an hour ago and saw a a huge crowd of people marching down Mission Street toward Justin Herman Plaza in the Embarcadero. On my way back from doing my errand, I saw another wave of people walking down Market Street. A sea of people in white shirts.

I work in the Civic Center and I see a lot of protests because they all end up here, and I've never seen a protest (including the recent anti-war protests) as large, determined, and varied as today's Un Dia Sin Immigrante (A Day Without an Immigrant) march. And watching the march, and thinking about the debate I've been hearing about immigration, it occurred to me that maybe some of us don't have a lot in common with the people who are marching down Market Street. But while we don't share the same experience, we do share an anger at the way our government "solves" problems — stupidly, divisively, corruptly, incompetently.

I don't know the first thing about immigration policy, but I do know that the people in the white tshirts are expressing something I agree with: our government has failed us. And they have failed us in every area that touches on our common lives: our children are more poorly educated, our country is held in far less esteem, we are less safe here and abroad, we have no intelligent plan for when we run out of oil, when bird flu arrives, when the next hurricanes happen, we tax the wrong people, we don't care for our elderly or our poor, our legislators are not asked to behave with integrity: all things that have happened on Bush's watch. Literally in every area of civic life, our government has failed us.

The people in the white tshirts are easy to demonize. They tend not to speak up, they are brown, they are poor, and they have broken one of the most important rules in America (never mind that it is broken all the time): They have cut in line. When I listen to this kind of thing, I think about this:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
(Pastor Martin Niemöller)

It's easy to "come for" illegal immigrants. What's amazing is that so many people are speaking out about that today.

And a little later in the day, after lunch:

Horns, chants, roars, and a guy with the world's loudest whistle. From my office overlooking City Hall, I can't hear the helicopters, although I've heard they're up there. Right now, there's a guy with an eerie voice wailing a song that's very sad and sort of trimphant at the same time.

And later still:

At about 1:30 today, as I walked to the BART station from my office in the Civic Center, where today's march ended, I kept hearing “Sensenbrenner" over the loudspeakers. He's shorthand for why people came out in such force today: he stands for the government's belief that people who are here without permission are felons, like drug dealers, or murderers. And the people who care for them are felons too. It’s as simple as that, as insulting as that. If this is the best Congress can do, then people should be on the street.

The signs I saw were about families and that’s exactly who was out today, families. In front of the Asian Art Museum, a group of women from Nicaragua, ranging in age from 10 to 70 held up a banner that said, basically, “It is racist to break up families.”

At first I thought the crowd wasn’t that big, just the number of people that would fill the large plaza in front of City Hall and then I realized that the people I saw were just the small advance guard for the stream of white shirts coming behind them from Market Street. There were people as far as I could see marching down Market, spilling into the area in front of the library, by the statute of famous San Franciscans, where usually there are street guys wearing roller blades throwing a football over the heads of civil servants like me. Today, I saw students, grandmothers, people with strollers, people with a lot of piercings, guys in suits from the financial district, an Indian woman in an apricot-colored sari with gold threads that shone in the sun.

There weren’t a lot of signs, but the ones I saw were not very complicated. No human being is illegal was the basic idea. Whatever the rights and wrongs of how people got here, and who helps them work, and gives them shelter, you don't put people in jail for coming across the border illegally. Perhaps in an effort to mask who the true felons are, our government seems to want to shift attention to someone easier to victimize, and stigmatize — and that’s the great indignity that has people out here. The march did not appear to be organized around demands: I don't think there was any clarity about whether people were seeking amnesty or a raise in the minimum wage, or improved working conditions. It seemed to be about something so much more basic: you can’t take my father away, my mother, my brother, my sister, my cousin, my friend, me.

It wasn't even close to the final word on the problem facing us (which is, how many people should come into our country and what do we do about people who are here without permission) — the march was just the beginning of something. The march was a way of saying: "Before you make laws about me, you need to SEE me." We have permitted our government to do so many things because they have been done to someone else — to the person being extradicted, the person whose phone is being tapped, the person sent to Iraq to fight, the person standing on the roof of their house in in New Orleans waiting for a rescue that doesn't come. I'm sure you can think of a lot of others. The people who came out today were people on whom a great wrong may be inflicted and people who've woken up and realized that they need to speak up. Because any of us could be next.

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