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Rallying Cry

Megan O'Neil | Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Americans, those of my generation anyway, have never been big on public demonstration. Even when we have something to get worked up about we generally remain mute.

Our unwillingness to participate in protests stands in stark contrast with youth around the globe. Just look at the French university students who camped out for days at a time in opposition to labor laws during the last month. They faced riot police and their doctors in order to make themselves heard.

Studying in Spain in the spring of 2003 I remember well the tremendous public outpouring of grief following the March 11 terrorist attack in the Madrid train station. Millions of Spaniards took to the streets, joined by members of the royal family, waving banners and vocalizing their opposition to violence.

Such massive demonstrations never seem to happen state-side, however.

I suppose this is why I was so heartened last weekend to see images of hundreds of thousands of Angelenos gathered in downtown Los Angeles protesting immigration legislation currently making its way through Congress. The rally was followed by a week during which teenagers successfully organized and staged school walkouts via the Internet and word of mouth.

Some might find such protests threatening or disruptive. Indeed they are disruptive – one group of students attempted to close a freeway by running up an onramp. After a few days, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had to risk alienating his Hispanic base and tell students to go back to class.

But that’s the point.

No barrage of phone calls and no letter writing campaign could ever have the effect of such demonstrations. If the old saying stands true Congress received a 500,000,000-word letter on March 26 – 1,000 words for each of the estimated 500,000 protesters who became the pictures that day.

Pro-immigrant demonstrators’ efforts cannot be ignored. The Latino demographic in the United States has long been powerful in numbers, but now it has proven itself to be powerful in the political arena as well.

It would be premature to label the pro-immigrant rights rallies in California and other parts of the country as an all-out success. It will take weeks and many debates before any new immigration legislation is finalized.

They have proven, however, that such demonstrations are a powerful tool in a democratic society. There are already talks of compromise in Washington, of a possible guest-worker program by which immigrants can work in the United States legally.

Further, they provide hope that if we take the recent demonstrations as a example we can make ourselves heard on other pressing issues such as the war in Iraq.