We arrived in Downtown LA just before 10 p.m. on the night of May 28, where two buses headed to Phoenix were waiting to be boarded by a group of people, ranging from college-age looking kids to senior citizens, some in pajamas, clutching pillows. The Los Angeles A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) Coalition had organized the caravan of Angelinos going to protest Arizona’s recently passed immigration law, SB 1070, scheduled to go into effect on July 29, 2010. I was joined by my friend Tatiana Mendoza (founder of the Mendoza Science and Arts Autism Foundation, Inc.), along with her sister and seventeen-year-old niece. Tatiana had invited me a couple of weeks before, and when she told me the cost of the trip was only $40, I answered with an almost immediate “yes!”
When it comes to the issue of illegal immigration, I feel like too much of a bleeding heart liberal to take a logical position on the issue. I can respect the opinion that from a purely economical standpoint, the U.S. simply can’t afford it. But I don’t see all who cross the border illegally as ill-intended criminals trying to free load off the system. I hear the words “illegal immigrant” and I think of someone who must be coming from a pretty desperate situation to be willing to make such a risky decision. I get mental images of America and Candido from T.C. Boyle’s “Tortilla Curtain.” When you consider that the cost to immigrate legally to the United States can range in the tens of thousands, it seems cruel to condemn people whose financial situations make legal immigration impossible.
But that’s not why I decided to march against SB 1070. I’m against it because I don’t want people who came here legally, or were born here, to be harassed because of their skin color. I’ve read arguments that say SB 1070 won’t allow racial profiling, but “reasonable suspicion” isn’t clearly defined in the bill. And it’s a lot harder to believe this law isn’t motivated by racist sentiments when it was followed by a bill targeting ethnic studies classes in Arizona schools.
Before departing at 11 p.m., our bus captains informed us that there were rumors of counter protests, and reminded us to be smart about how we reacted if we did encounter them because “we won’t be in LA anymore.” Passengers then began to cheer and the bus began the five-hour drive to Phoenix.
The sun was already shining when we rolled into town, making us all think for a second that we had entered a different time zone, only to find out it really was 5:20 a.m.. The bus unloaded as some (like us) went off in search of coffee, while those participating in the boycott of Arizona businesses stayed behind at Steele Indian School Park.
Around 8 a.m. we headed back to the park where everyone was beginning to congregate. Reports on the official crowd size for the day varied. Most news outlets estimated between 10,000-20,000 people showed up, but according to Alternet, there were over 100,000 protestors. Like us, many had come from out of state. The Los Angeles Times reported people had traveled from as far as Rhode Island and Louisiana.
After locating A.N.S.W.E.R.’s table, we wandered around for a bit reading signs that were either provided by the various organizations that were present, or creatively homemade. One featured a mug shot of Dora the Explorer with a black eye, reading “SB1070- what racism looks like,” while an elementary school aged boy held one with Super Mario standing between the Mexican and American flags reading, “Mario does not support SB 1070.” Some signs featured references to the historical injustices against those indigenous to this continent, such as one reading “Columbus, A Real Illegal Alien.” We also spotted a bunch of piñatas in the shape of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
A traditional Aztec dance kicked off the opening ceremonies before speakers began to take the mic. After snapping photos, and participating in a crowd-wide jump, initiated by the chant, “El que no brinque es migra,” (If you don’t jump, you’re immigration enforcement), we sought relief from the already grueling Arizona heat on the shady side of the hill, until it seemed like people were getting ready to start walking. (9 a.m. in Phoenix felt like noon in the harshest summer days in the San Fernando Valley.)
As a second Aztec dance ended, the 5.6 mile march began as the massive crowd slowly funneled through the entrance of the park and onto the streets. The dancers stayed at the front of the line, and continued to dance, despite the 94 degree temperature.
A.N.S.W.E.R. kept our group together with banners to mark our contingent, and lead chants of “Si se puede” (yes we can), “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido,” (a people united will never be defeated), and “Arizona (or sometimes Obama) escucha, estamos en la lucha.” (Listen, we are all in the fight). We marched near the third banner at the end of the line, which kept passing over our heads, as we often fell behind. After catching up at one point, we were approached by an A.N.S.W.E.R. member, desperately trying to get rid of a sign he’d been coaxed into holding, without realizing it read “This is OUR continent, Not Yours.” The sign had originally belonged to a Latino protestor, but as this kid put it, “ I can’t hold this, I’m whiter than white!” We all had a good laugh, as Tatiana’s sister insisted on taking a picture before he handed it off, joking, “You could be from the Tea Party!”
I never spotted any counter protestors along the march. The people I saw who weren’t walking with us actually seemed to be on our side. We were met with honks and revving engines as we passed an auto shop, and a small group outside an apartment complex came out to clap and cheer at the crowd. My friend commented, though, that there didn’t seem to be a lot of spectator support, compared to the 2007 march for immigration reform in Los Angeles that she had attended, where she said many had come out to cheer them on, while some waived from the windows of offices.
Though the march definitely proved to be an endurance test, the demonstration remained peaceful. The vibe of the event was serious, but it was far from hostile. This was a major relief, since in the weeks leading up to the protest, I had been trying to ignore family and friend’s jokes of “Don’t get arrested!” I shouldn’t have been worried, since no arrests were reported.
Marchers found relief from the sweltering heat from volunteers with truck beds full of water bottles, and ice cream carts riding through the crowd. One woman on her front lawn along the route was hosing down overheated marchers. By the last mile and a half, our muscles were exhausted, and the heat was starting to take its toll, so we decided to take a quick breather since we’d already been separated from A.N.S.W.E.R. at that point. We sat on the sidewalk for just under ten minutes, observing the line of people that never seemed to end, before finally dragging ourselves to the finish line at the Capitol Building.
At the end of the route, we found our friend who’d been stuck with the unfortunate sign directing people to A.N.S.W.E.R.’s meeting spot. We collapsed between the members of our group and a family trying to comfort some very tired kids in the Capitol Building’s parking lot, watching a group arriving with a banner reading, “The Country that Speaks of Freedom and Justice has 12 million hard workers in the shadows with no rights for generations.”
I didn’t find out until I got home that the rally in favor of SB 1070 had actually been held in Tempe, a suburb just outside Phoenix. The attendance there was estimated to be around 7,000. Around 3 p.m., we headed back to the bus, passing another redheaded white girl wearing an “I could be illegal” button. People still seemed to be streaming in from the streets, as fired up speakers continued the rally onstage. Whether our turnout was 10,000 or 100,000, I was glad to be leaving only with memories of being among the larger mass peacefully standing in solidarity against SB 1070.