By Joseph Grim Feinberg
Some time in late February, word began to spread around Chicago about a protest against HR 4437, a bill passed by the House of Representatives and currently being discussed in the Senate which would criminalise undocumented immigration, as well as aid given to undocumented immigrants (for more information see www.ilrc.org/HR4437.html). A humble-looking activist website had announced, in English and Spanish, “Unite! March against HR 4437. General Strike!” (www.somosunpueblo.com)
By the day of the protest, organisers predicted that several thousand people would turn out. Then throngs of people filled downtown Chicago, and soon hardly an inch of road or sidewalk was open on the 2.5-mile route of the march. Federal Plaza, the site of the rally where the march would end, was so packed that only a small fraction of marchers ever reached it. Estimates of the turnout ranged from 100,000 to 500,000, and it has been called the largest protest in Chicago history.
That is hard to judge, but for the sake of comparison: 80,000 are estimated to have marched through Chicago in the world’s first May Day demonstration, during the struggle for the eight-hour working day in 1886.
Like 120 years earlier, the demonstration of March 10, 2006 was organised by immigrants. Almost all of the demonstrators were Latin American, and almost all of the organising had taken place within the local Latino communities. Numerous community, labor, and activist groups responded to the call put out by the march’s original organisers, many of them renting buses to bring people in from the suburbs. Tens of thousands of people respected the “general strike” by walking out of school and work. They made it clear that the city cannot function normally without immigrant labor.
The central demand of the march was the rejection of HR 4437 — a modest demand, but one capable of uniting nearly the entire immigrant community, plus those who work with them and those who exploit them. Clearly, businesses employing immigrant labor have an interest in the status quo. A number of them closed for the day, either because they meant to express their support for the cause, or because it would be too much trouble to keep open with so many workers away. Many marchers carried American (i.e. US) flags. Some carried signs supporting a moderate “guest worker” proposal by senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy. Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley and Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich both attended and lent support to the march.
But more radical demands were also heard within the march. Many demanded a general amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Many denounced the racism of those who fear the influx of Latinos, and some called for a new civil rights movement. A few marchers demanded respect for immigrant workers’ rights — beyond the simple right to stay and work. These, too, were fairly modest demands. But modest demands can quickly become radical when they are backed by hundreds of thousands marching in the streets. For now, the movement has the support of important politicians and businesspeople, but it is by no means their initiative. As the movement progresses, we will see what new demands come to the fore, and how far the pro-immigrant sections of the ruling classes are willing to extend their support.
On Monday after the march, a coalition of organisations met to discuss the next moves. Their first decision was for a boycott campaign against the Miller beer company, which reportedly donates to the election campaigns of the Wisconsin Republican congressman James Sensenbrenner, who first proposed HR 4437. Their second decision was to begin organising for a national “megamarch” on Washington in October. With the cooperation of activists in other cities, and with much more time to prepare this time around, the march in October really could be huge, even if by that time HR 4437 has been defeated, or if a radicalisation of the movement scares away its more bourgeois supporters.
Another open question is how far this movement will extend beyond the communities of Latino immigrants. In spite of common interests with immigrants from other regions and, at a more general level, with all non-ruling people in the United States, the demonstration of March 10 was probably over 99% Latino. In Chicago there live hundreds and thousands of immigrants from Poland, as well as smaller communities from many other parts of the world. Not more than a handful of them were present at the march. The same is true of labour organisations and the traditional “left.”
On the one hand, organizers probably could have done more to publicise the event outside of their communities; on the other hand, this also shows how shamefully little contact there is between Latino communities, other immigrant communities, and the traditional left. If the various rising social movements in the country can come together, acting together when necessary, we could be powerful indeed.