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Solidarity in the streets

May 5, 2006 | Pages 6 and 7

NICOLE COLSON rounds up reports of actions for immigrant rights across the U.S. in the largest demonstration in U.S. history.

IT WAS a massive show of strength for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and their supporters.

In at least 153 cities across 39 states--and across the border, in Mexico and other Latin American countries--millions of people turned out to demand justice for immigrants on "un día sin inmigrantes"--a day without immigrants.

The numbers were staggering: As many as 600,000 in Chicago, more than 1 million at two separate demonstrations in Los Angeles, 100,000 in Atlanta, 100,000 in San Francisco, and half a million in New York City. Plus tens of thousands more in cities from Seattle and Portland, Ore.; to Sacramento, Calif., to Houston and Austin, Texas, to Denver, to Providence, R.I.

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AT THE heart of the day of action on May Day--the international workers' holiday--were immigrant workers. Across the country, businesses that rely on immigrant labor were forced to scale back or close down completely.

Meatpackers across the Midwest were particularly hard hit, with eight Perdue Farms and nine Tyson Foods' plants shut down. Cargill Meat Solutions, the nation's second-largest beef processor, announced that it would "voluntarily" close, giving its 15,000 workers the day off. Food giant General Mills was unexpectedly forced to stop production at two of its plants in the Boston area.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, truckers stayed away from the country's largest shipping port, and an estimated one-third of the city's small businesses were shuttered.

In "California Mart," the city's fashion district, retail workers and some factory workers in the garment industry organized on their lunch breaks during the days before the march to shut down the area's stores.

Half of the stores in the mart closed, but that wasn't good enough for the workers--who organized a 300-strong picket and march that proceeded to close down each one of the remaining open stores. "Where I work, we shut 30 stores," said Angie, a worker for the Hera Collection. "We told them that if you don't shut down, we'll shut down for you."

The sense of the power of protest was on display throughout the day, as marches rang out with chants like "Bush, escucha! Estamos en la lucha!" (Bush, listen! We're fighting back!) and "Aquí estamos, y no nos vamos" (We're here and we're not going anywhere).

"My brother is in Iraq fighting for his country," read a sign carried by Chicago protester Juan Zunida, whose brother-in-law, Elvis Gutierrez, has been stationed in Iraq since the invasion. "We brought [the sign] out because my brother in law is out there fighting," Zunida explained in an interview. "We're workers. We're not here for anything except for a better life."

In New York City, Rev. Jesse Jackson made a powerful plea for solidarity between Latino and Black workers at a rally that featured Rev. Al Sharpton, actor Susan Sarandon, and Transport Workers Union Local 100 President Roger Toussaint--who was recently released from jail for his role in last December's New York City transit strike. "They tell us it's the Mexicans that are taking our jobs," Jackson told the crowd, adding, "We won't fall for their divide-and-conquer tactics."

Across New York, thousands of protesters--including as many as 10,000 in Jackson Heights--linked hands across immigrant neighborhoods at 12:16 p.m.--to call attention to the date (December 16) that anti-immigrant legislation that would brand undocumented workers as criminals was passed by the U.S. House.

The same solidarity was echoed by Susan Sloam, a member of Service Employees International Union in Chicago, who turned out to march from the city's Union Park. "Why wouldn't you come out?" she asked. "I can't think of anybody--besides people who came as slaves and Native Americans--that didn't come as immigrants. The unions have to support the workers. There are no illegal human beings--only illegal policies."

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IN MANY cities, students joined in full force, with teach-ins and walkouts at high school and college campuses nationwide.

Student actions took place at the University of Vermont, Seattle Central Community College, San Diego State, Portland State, Ohio State, Northeastern Illinois University, University of Illinois-Chicago, Harold Washington College, Holyoke Community College, Mt. Holyoke, Hampshire College, Cornell University, Ithaca College, the University of Maryland, Amherst, University of Massachusetts, Southern Connecticut State and Yale University, among many others.

In San Francisco, the morning rally and march--which stretched for 15 blocks down Market Street--were dedicated to the memory of Anthony Soltero, the eighth-grade student who took his own life after being threatened by a school administrator for organizing a previous walkout.

In Providence, R.I., where as many as 40,000 marched, one report estimated that 40 percent of students were absent from school. In Chicago, so many public school students were expected to be absent that the school system announced it would not seek to punish students.

Meanwhile, in Santa Cruz, Calif., University of California students succeeded in briefly shutting down access to campus, before joining with community members for a 5,000-strong rally and march.

In Los Angeles, a student feeder march consisting of 350 students from five colleges and four high schools began at historic Salazar Park in East LA. And in New York City, as many as 5,000 students gathered for a feeder march from Washington Square Park to the main rally.

Organizing for immigrant rights couldn't be contained within U.S. borders. Activists in San Diego organized a march of 5,000--and on the opposite side of the border, in Tijuana, activists were also mobilizing.

Border traffic--already nearly non-existent due to the effect of the boycott--was briefly brought to a complete standstill when about 50 activists blocked many of the lanes leading to the nation's busiest border crossing with signs and banners.

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THE MASSIVE turnout on May 1 is all the more impressive considering that leaders of some immigrant rights organizations originally rejected the call for a boycott.

Dual demonstrations called in Los Angeles were the result of the split--one to celebrate the boycott and amnesty, and the other, set for after work hours, focused on more moderate demands like the "path to citizenship" in the Senate's "compromise."

But as momentum around the May 1 call built, some of those opposed to the boycott retreated. In California, for example, the state senate approved a resolution supporting the May 1 boycott.

Even threats of repression--like the raids carried out by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in April, which rounded up nearly 1,200 undocumented workers in a single day--couldn't keep people from marching.

In the days prior to May 1, thousands of immigrant workers across the country stayed home from work, due to rumors of random immigration sweeps. In Florida's Dade County, nearly one-third of farmworkers didn't come to work in the week before the protest.

But activists worked hard to turn back the tide of fear. In Chicago and elsewhere, city officials were eventually forced to issue public promises that immigration authorities would not be allowed to detain rally attendees.

Instead of shrinking under the threats, immigrants showed their power--spurred to action by a drive for dignity, justice and respect. As one sign in Chicago read, referring to the legislation that sparked this new movement: "Thank you Rep. Sensenbrenner, you woke up the lion!"

And protesters say that the struggle isn't over. "Next, we need to march from here to Sacramento, then to Salinas, then to Los Angeles," said San Francisco marcher Guadalupe Berumen, "We have to be in the streets."

Michele Bollinger, Dave Buckingham, Mark Clinton, Roger Dyer, Patrick Dyer, Elizabeth Fawthrop, Danielle Heck, Andrea Hektor, Lilah Hinde, Missy Jacob, Naveen Jaganathan, Pranav Jani, Zakiya Khabir, Sarah Knopp, Chris Murphy, Jenny Olson, Caitlin Powell, Jennifer Roesch, Gillian Russom, Kyle Schmaus, Adam Turl, Corrie Westing, Jason Yanowitz, Leela Yellesetty contributed to this report.

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