April 19-25, 2006

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The Byrne Report

¡Viva Roseland!

By Peter Byrne

Desperate to divide the American people, the Republican Party has proposed the most draconian anti-immigrant legislation in history. As the bling-bling of President George W. Bush explodes in the heat of Iraq, Katrina, Leakgate and rolling indictments, Bush's ideological storm troopers in Congress are carrying the political bomb for him.

The prez himself cannot call for criminalizing 11 million immigrants because many of his corporate backers rely on cheap immigrant labor to boost profits. So his political plug-uglies are maneuvering to make "illegal" immigration the divisive issue for this fall's Congressional elections (remember gay marriage?). Only by stirring up racist hatred can the Republicans hope to escape the displeasure of Bush-weary voters.

Millions of immigrants are taking to the streets, demonstrating where real political power lies--no longer in the ballot box, which Bush has discredited as a democratic tool here and abroad, but in people power. The same sort of forceful mass action that has brought down corrupt governments from the Philippines to Eastern Europe to Thailand to Latin America may be emerging here.

On Monday, April 10, I attended the immigrant rally and march sponsored by the Committee for Immigrant Rights in Santa Rosa's Roseland district. It was an uplifting, festive, powerful experience. Parking a few blocks west of the dilapidated Roseland Mall in the thriving barrio, I joined a stream of families strolling east toward the mall to protest the Republican agenda with lively chants, short speeches and their feet.

Remarkably, I was one of the very few non-Latino people in the mix. I am not sure what kept the usual crowd of protesters and vanguard party newspaper sellers away from the ultraproletarian event. Perhaps it was fear of a police crackdown, which happens often during wild nights in Roseland. Perhaps they felt uncomfortable not being in charge. Regardless, they were conspicuously absent.

On April 10 in Roseland, thousands of people of color waved American flags as if mocking the xenophobia of a Bush campaign barbecue in Texas. Some people held the stars and stripes upside down in the universal distress signal; others proudly wrapped themselves in the Mexican flag. Keyhole spy satellites trained on Roseland would have searched in vain for a "Support the Troops" ribbon, or a pro-life banner. The message was clear: "We are Americans, too. Get used to it."

Davin Cardenas, a west Sonoma County labor organizer, was one of the main organizers of the event. He rallied the crowd in Spanish, saying, "We want legislation for everybody or nothing! It cannot be citizenship for some and not for others." Others spoke briefly, including an activist priest, an immigration lawyer and a member of the United Farm Workers. As dusk descended, the ever-growing crowd marched slowly, squeezing itself onto the narrow sidewalk of Sonoma Avenue.

The prospect of Congress felonizing entire neighborhoods is a somber issue, a matter of life and death for these families, many of whom are living here without government sanction, working dangerous jobs without employee benefits and sending their non-English-speaking children to public schools in a state that forbids the use of Spanish as a classroom language.

When we reached Stony Point Road, the crowd turned, leisurely coiled into itself, and sprang like a giant panther into the street, full-force. For a long half-mile, the road was a muscular mass of moving, conscious, determined Latino families. Watching cops, shadowing the demonstration along side streets, were obviously tense. The police had quietly sealed off Roseland, blocking streets leading toward more gentrified areas of Santa Rosa. This night, though, the Roselanders were not in the mood to rumble. The crowd was thinking, pondering its next move, sharpening its political claws, broadcasting a warning to possible predators that a panther stretches before it hunts.

The morning after the rally, Cardenas, who hosts a weekly radio show on KBBF 89.1-FM called Aztlan en Vivo, told me: "Congress wants to scapegoat the workers. To divide citizen from non-citizen. While we point the finger at each other, the politicians and large corporations make off with the loot." Fearing deportation, he says, entire families are showing up for educational community forums that put the situation into political and economic context.

"When people look at this attack on immigrants," Cardenas remarks, "they learn to see the system as a whole. They learn to link causes and effects. Like NAFTA, which has increased poverty in Mexico and is destroying the agricultural sector, forcing people to emigrate. People are starting to ask how can the United States, that illegally invades other countries, talk about the rule of law?"

Cadenas' organization is calling for a general strike, "A Day Without Immigrants," on May 1. See you there.

Contact Peter Byrne or send a letter to the editor about this story.