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Camp Democracy and "We are America" Immigrant Reform Rally in Washington DC

by Sergio Reyes

Wash. DC, September 7, 2006.- On Wednesday close to midnight we boarded two buses with destination Washington, D.C. The great majority of us were Latino mostly from Central America. Our spirits were high. We were again on the move to demand rights for undocumented immigrants, to stop the criminalization of immigrant workers, to stop the deportations, some of us very clear in demanding a full general amnesty, complete legalization, whatever people choose to call it. The "We Are America Coalition" had called this rally and march to continue the mobilizations that have not been able to pick up force since the Great American Strike and Boycott of last May Day. I don't remember now how many thousands the Coalition had promised to gather.

Our buses, as expected arrived relatively early in the morning to Washington D.C. After a night of unstable and high-speed driving and sleeping badly we made our entrance to Union Station. At about 10 am we were ready to start our day of action in Washington. The options presented to us were 1) visit museums, 2) visit the offices of Senator Kennedy to have a picture taken with him, 3) go shopping, 4) visit Camp Democracy. We promoted Camp Democracy as an alternative given that a series of meetings and presentations were scheduled to deal with progressive issues regarding immigration and opposition to war. About 7 of us finally headed towards Camp Democracy located near the obelisque. The alternative was not so popular among our companions.


After about half-hour of finding our way on foot, passing enormous, impressive, arrogant buildings, among them ironically the Department of Justice and the Department of Labor buildings, we arrive to our destination: Camp Democracy. A set of tents with peace, American flags, a giant inflatable mocking image of Bush, the largest tent belonged to the National Immigrant Network. Tired of walking under the sun, we headed in that direction, both because of our interest in the subject but also to sit down, drink water and find relief under the shade of the tent. We walked through an scarcely populated camp.

After the showing of a film that was almost impossible to see due to the projection on a screen in daylight, we were summoned to march around the camp; a mini-march we were told and so it was. For us, walking from Union Station to the camp had already been our first march. This one was our second one. No more than 40 souls marched in circle around the park carrying signs with names of those who have died in their attempt to enter into the United States through the desert. The souls of the dead were so many more than our few walking souls. We were lead by a sister dressed as Lady Liberty. It was peculiar that the few brothers and sisters in the Veterans for Peace, and other peace groups, didn't join our march of souls for immigrant rights.

As we listened to the message coming from the organizers, the National Immigrant Network, we had a preview of what was later to come with stronger voices, louders sound systems, and an infinte larger audience: si, se puede, but first, you have to register and vote, naturally for the democrats. We heard an interesting interpretation of the recent past conference in Washington DC, which our brother Jesse Diaz, among others, promoted. We heard an activist say that that conference had changed her and that they had been energized to go back to their state and conduct citizenship education, voter education, voter registration. How diferent is this position from the position that many democratic politicians in the Somos America Coalition propose? -- I dare say. None. There is no need to have a separate Network for this. Just join forces with We Are America. Then we heard a message from Siu Hin. Finally, I was able to put a face with the hundres of emails sent by him. I remembered that once I wrote back to him to make a point regarding the tactics we are using in the movement, and he never replied. I took the opportunity the approach him and introduce myself and mentioned that I had written to him, but didn't get much more than a respectful bow. Not even mentioning we had come all the way from Boston and that we were 1/4 of those in attendance at the immigration tent of this Camp Democracy impressed him.

Then it was the turn for brother Carlos Arredondo to speak, his message always powerful, speaks of the death of his dear son in Irak. A double message against the war and for the rights of immigrants. Brother Arredondo approached me after he delivered his message and asked if I would speak. He recognized me from the May Day rally in the Commons, where he also delivered a strong speech using the right of free speech and open mike we granted those who wanted to address the rally. His hospitality made me feel welcome, but we were not there to give speeches.

We walked again for about 1/2 hour attempting to find a place to eat. We were sure that all we could afford was a McDonald and it wasn't easy to find. The business suits surrounded us on the streets. We remained together as a small band of brothers and sisters in the jungle of ostentation, marble, cement. A Jamaican metermaid sister pointed us in the right direction. A uniformed African American porter had previously suggested a "good" barbecue restaurant, a hamburger there was $14.50 and we were not dressed to code to be seated. After a good filling of french fries, burgers and coke at the MacDonald which didn't resemble the usual tacky McD, we headed back to an even more empty camp democracy, were we laid down for about 1/2 an hour before heading back to Union Station to meet with the rest of our comrades, whose stories we haven't heard yet. This time we couldn't walk anymore and we decided to make the distance in two taxis.


As we arrived to the park in fron of the station, most of our companions had assembled and were resting on the ground, activity which we joyously joined in. Some wrote slogans in the many cardboard hearts carried by Centro Presente. Others were on a cell phone on an interview with a radio station in Boston. At about 4pm we saw a contingent larger than other from the SEIU union in the direction of the rally at the Mall. We followed in orderly march on the sidewalk.

When we arrived at the rally point at the podium we could hear the voice of Senator (D) Edward Kennedy saying as many times as he could "si, se puede" in Spanish. He sounded good, youthful and powerful. He recognized that his own family was an immigrant family once, many years ago. He also recognized the many contributions of immigrant, in particular Latino immigrants in the field of war. He did know how many thousand have laid their lives in the defense of imperialist objectives. I couldn't resist but yell, "No a la guerra!", in the hope that others would follow the example. I yelled again, "No a la guerra!" and I could clearly hear my brother from Latinos for Social Change, Roberto, join in the protest. I wasn't alone. Others were too intoxicated in the promise of this politician that is such integral part of the empire. Then the senator went on to indicate how many immigrants had died heroically in Iraq. I then yelled, "U.S. out of Iraq", but there was no echo.

From that point on, it was all a barrage of what I have characterized in Spanish as, "votar, votar, que el mundo se va acabar!". Speaker after speaker repeated the same message: if you want to have comprehensive immigration reform, you have to vote your way to it electing democratic candidates who are friendly to the idea. The process goes like this, if you can vote, register, then vote. If you are a permanent resident who qualifies, become a citizen, then register, then vote. "Today we march, tomorrow we vote". By all means, carry your America flag, any size would do and learn the pledge of allegiance. The speakers included SEIU leaders, Representative Gutierrez, the president of the NAACP, the president of LULAC, and, a group of black clergymen who closed the rally. Regardless of the electoral message it was good to see a group of African American leaders call in for brown-black unity, although that was not represented in the rally attendance itself. Then another march down towards the Capitol. Was anybody there listening? They might not care perhaps about a small march where the majority have no rights to vote.

In my estimate, the attendance was about 3,000 people although others put it as high as 5,000. This indicates as it has also been the case in other cities around the country, that the mood of the millions of undocumented immigrants is a somber one. There is frustration, disilusionment, and even fear. After three months of intense mobilization, March, April and finally May, people expected more and they find themselves with nothing in their hand but more repression. The most xenophobic and racist right wing has stepped up their aggression campaign becoming more blatant. Locally, many police departments throughout the country are cooperating with ICE in their deportation efforts. The progressive democratic politicians are using the cause for getting out the vote and getting themselves elected. Republican politicians are seizing the moment to appeal to most right-wing anti-immigrant constituencies promising to complete the wall of shame, which President Bush is erecting anyway. The National Guard are already deployed at the southern border.

The main lesson of the day was that is clear what the We Are America Coalition is and what they want. The word "amnesty" or "legalization" is not part of their lexicon. They are however simpathetic to the idea of providing some sort of rights for undocumented immigrant workers, and many of their leaders are honestly in favor of reforms. However, we must assess alternative tactics, such as the massive strike and boycott of last May Day. We should also at the local level struggle against city governments who order their police to repress immigrants. Furthermore, we have to make efforts to internationalize the struggle for migrant workers rights in the context of a struggle for achieving a more humane world. An immigrant right struggle disconnected from the struggle for social change will contribute as much as Ronald Reagan's 1986 amnesty did to create a more humane, more just society.