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A Day Without Immigrants in the Mission
Walking through the heart of San Francisco's Mission District often feels like stepping out of America and into a bustling Central or South American city. The neighborhood's vibrant street life, a medley of packed sidewalks, bright colors, and the smell of freshly cooked food, attracts residents and tourists year round. But yesterday, the Mission felt more like a ghost town.
Rows of shuttered businesses, closed in solidarity with the country-wide May 1 protests held to demand equal rights for immigrants, gave a harsh welcome to anyone venturing into the district's relatively deserted streets yesterday. Those restaurants and shops that chose to stay open did so at their own peril, telling those that asked that business had been terrible due to the rallies.
Protests held across the country yesterday varied in size and scope, with events ranging from massive work and school walk-outs to small lunch hour press conferences on the steps of the local City Hall.
The message was unified one, though * this is what a day without immigrants would look like. As lawmakers in Washington decide the fate of millions of people living in the United States who came from elsewhere, activists attempted to reframe the debate from what immigrants cost America to what America received from immigrants.
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The May Day Protest
Hundreds of protesters rallied in front of the Philip Burton Federal Building in downtown San Francisco Monday evening, capping a nationwide day of protest in which an estimated one million immigrants and supporters skipped work to push for amnesty for illegal immigrants. The San Francisco protest shut down a block of Golden Gate Street as demonstrators shouted “Si se puede” (“Yes we can” in Spanish) and demanded that Congress legalize all immigrants to the United States.
The nationwide May Day actions—dubbed by organizers the “Day Without Immigrants”—were called in response to federal legislation which would criminalize millions of illegal immigrants. The San Francisco protests included a morning march down Market Street, a daylong rally at Civic Center Plaza, and the convergence late afternoon at the Federal Building. The boisterous and diverse crowd included recent immigrants from Latin America, a contingent from the ANSWER coalition, and a group calling itself “European Descendants for Immigrant Rights,” among others.
San Francisco police did not estimate the size of the crowd, which certainly numbered in the thousands, but one officer said that the department dispatched three hundred policemen to the event.
Speakers alternated between English and Spanish and colored their speeches with references to other political movements as well as religious language.
Why the Market in United Nations Plaza Closed on May 1
( Ed: Mary Millman operates the San Francisco Antique and Artisans Market in United Nations Plaza)
On May 1, 2006, the San Francisco Antique and Artisan Market in United Plaza was closed the entire day. The decision to take this action was not made lightly. Many of our citizen merchants take a financial hit by our closing of the market. Yet, by this action we, in a very visible way, demonstrate our support for all Americans and immigrants demanding justice, basic civic rights and civil liberties for immigrant workers and their families. For our market to be closed on this historic day is totally appropriate. "A Day Without Immigrants" underscores how this movement shares many of the highest principles upon which the United Nations was founded 60 years ago in our Civic Center.
Monday afternoon, thousands will march down Market Street to City Hall. When they march through United Nations Plaza, they will see our support, not our market.
By our absence they will know we support and join millions across America who call on Congress to reject HR4437 and begin a complete reform of our immigration policies which are both inhumane and unrealistic.
On any other Monday, and certainly this Thursday and Friday, nearly 100 citizen merchants gather in United Nations Plaza. They represent many cultures and countries including Africa, America, China, Japan, Thailand, England, Israel, Turkey, Afghanistan, Peru, Mexico and Tibet.
Voices of the March
Ed. note: Beyoond Chron's Rita Mandelenis interviewed several participants in yesterday's protest march...)
How would you feel if the bill passes?
• “I’d be very disappointed in the government and the American people. I would consider leaving the U.S. and go to another country, maybe somewhere in Europe.”—Fernando Ramirez (and son)
• “Its not fair to all the families that aren’t legal. This situation is like the 1940s when people were treated badly, but the only difference today is they have written laws like minimum wage. But we still can’t make a living off it. I think a lot of Americans just don’t know what it is like until they walk in our shoes.”—Anonymous
Will it affect you personally if the bill passes?
• “Basically, my whole future will change.”—Gladys
• “As an ESL teacher I would loose my profession and the close relationships I have with that community. I think the Latino community is the grassroots, or the foundation of this city and many others. The country would be at a great economic and cultural loss if this bill passes.”—Rebecca (wearing a homemade Human Rights shirt)
What brought you out here today?
• “This is just ridiculous, making criminals out of people. I’m a peoplist—I like everyone. I’m not a feminist or a senior citizen. And, everyone deserves equal rights.”—86-year-old Jane Morrison
• “The San Francisco democratic party brought me out here today. And, I’m here to show my support for all undocumented immigrants. I would feel great if this bill does not pass.”—Jason Wong
After the Protests: Next Steps for Immigrant Rights
The mammoth immigrants rights protests in San Francisco and across America have made one point crystal clear: the Latino community is no longer an “invisible giant.” More Latinos took to the streets on May 1, 2006 than at any time in American history, with many people coming out not because they were told to protest by some leader but because they personally identified with the cause. Politicians ignore this growing movement at their peril. Many of these new marchers will soon become new voters, and can shift national politics leftward as Latino voters have done in California. Meanwhile, the corporate media invents its own reality. CNN is highlighting Lou Dobbs’ claim that “radical groups,” including the ANSWER coalition, have “taken control” of the immigrants rights movement, while the San Francisco Chronicle and other media criticize the movement’s “tactics.”
As tens of thousands of Latino immigrants marched through San Francisco, the debate about the decision to call for a work, school and business boycott became as irrelevant to current political reality as President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech of May 1, 2003 is to the current nightmare in Iraq.
The grassroots turnout by the Latino community was as breathtaking as it was politically momentous.
As SEIU Vice-President Eliseo Medina described it, “I have been organizing for 41 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it. Rather than organizers creating an activity, it’s the activity that is creating an organization.”