Saturday, March 18, 2006

An eye-witness account of the Immigrant Rights March that took place in Chicago last week

Here is an eye-witness account of the Immigrant Rights March that took place in Chicago last week. It comes by way of George Schmidt, author of SUBSTANCE Magazine but who is now also research director for SEIU Local 73. The Local represents the largest percentage of the non-teaching people working for Chicago public schools (5,000 custodians and security people) and another 18,000 public employees across Illinois. A couple of news reports are included below as well.

Also, check out this link for video clips:
I'll also be posting George's narrative in other posts.




Yes, I am lucky to be working for SEIU, today even more so that two
days ago. What happened in Chicago yesterday was the beginning of
something bigger than any of us will appreciate yet.

If you want, I hope you will also share this with your students and
others. The march in Chicago yesterday was organized in part by SEIU,
which, as you know, represents a lot of people who have been left out.
I have photographs of the organizer who first came up with the idea,
and who was criticized for it until suddenly...

I stayed on the ground throughout the march and walked more than four
miles yesterday in the course of covering it and taking photographs.

Although police ultimately estimated that 100,000 people marched in
Chicago yesterday, I think that estimate is low -- very low. More about
that later.

The most important thing to note about the march is that it was the
largest civil rights (or human rights) march in Chicago history and
that it was probably the largest march of any kind in Chicago history.
The only event that might compare took place last year to celebrate the
World Series victory of our (international) Chicago White Sox. And the
tone was the same.

When I arrived at Union Park at Lake and Ashland Ave. in Chicago
yesterday at noon, at first it looked like there was a small turnout.
The park itself was half empty. The reason the park was half empty,
however, was that the street west of the park was filled with people
for at least two miles, curb to curb, and the crowd kept growing. I
arrived by elevated train at about noon, and was able to take
photographs looking north and south from the elevated stairs so that I
have some photographs of the crowd from above. It was virtually
impossible to get shots from ground level that showed the vastness of
the crowd.

North from my first vantage point, the crowd stretched at least
three-quarters of a mile to Grand Ave. However, that was as far as I
could see, and people told me it actually filled the street as far
north as Chicago Ave. (one mile north of the city's east west axis) by
the time the march began moving towards the Loop (two miles to the
east) at 1:00. So there were a mile's worth of people north of the
center point before the march began.

But then I looked south, and the sea of people stretched even farther
to the south. I could only see as far south as the Congress Expressway
(I-90), which is raised. I was later told that the people arriving from
the south were walking up Ashland Ave. from 18th St. (one of Chicago's
traditional Mexican communities) and that what happened was that as
people got farther north it became impossible to walk on the sidewalks,
so people spilled into the streets until, at about Taylor St., the
police realized they had to close Ashland Ave because it was filled
with people. That was a mile south of where I was, so by the time the
march actually began, there were about two miles of people spread along
Ashland Ave. from roughtly Chicago Ave. on the north to Taylor St. on
the south. Anyone with a Chicago map can see the great distance this
was. Anyway, if you are using a map to share this, think of that entire
space filled with people so tightly that it was difficult to walk.

I finally headed west one block in order to get near the point where
the march turned east (at Jackson Blvd.). By the time I got to Jackson,
the march stretched east as far as the eye could see, and Ashland was
still filled and filling up even more.

My son Danny attends school at Whitney Young High School, a public
school, which is one block east of Ashland. The marchers were streaming
down Jackson towards the Sears Tower, which loomed on the horizon like
a beacon or compass point. Everyone was heading towards the tallest
building in Chicago (once in the world).

Whitney Young High School has an overpass above Jackson Blvd. under
which the crowd was streaming. I called my son Danny on his cell phone
and left a message that he should join me for the march, since
participation in it would be a better way to deal with government
(which he is studying in an AP class) and U.S. History (which he is
also studying) than sitting in a classroom. Then I went into Whitney
Young, where the principal and I talked and she agreed I could take my
son out on what is called an "early dismissal" for the march. I went up
to the walkway and took photogaphs of the sea of people strecthing west
and east from that point, and then went down and joined the march again.

About a half mile to the east, I stopped when Danny finally called me
back and waited for him to reach me. By that point, it was clear that
Chicago was experiencing its "Day without Mexicans." I saw men walking
out of buildings wearing custodial worker uniforms and other men and
women walking out of those expensive restaurants in Greek Town. I have
a hunch that the owners of some of Chicago's most expensive restaurants
had to bus their own tables yesterday, because the working people along
the line of march were leaving work to join the march. When Danny
caught up with me at Halsted St., still a mile from the site of the
rally, we talked about what was happening, and I pointed to those huge
buildings ahead of us, framed around the Sears Tower.

"If Chicago really had to face a day without the people we're marching
with, every toilet in every one of those buildings would clog up within
a day and the whole place would have to shut down within two days," was
one of the things I said. I just couldn't help thinking of how stupid
has been the narrative that puts a "CEO" at the center of every story
about this country today.

The march was a family affair. There were thousands of children, many
in arms, on shoulders, and in strollers. The youngest marchers were
only a few days old. The eldest, some in wheelchairs, were in their 70s
or older. But most of the marchers were that wonderful "demographic"
that marketing and political people talk about -- teenagers and young
adults in their prime. Hard working people. There were thousands of
teenagers marching arm in arm with their boyfriends and girlfriends. At
some points it was like that scene from "Close Encounters..." where
everyone is heading towards the same place, almost a vision.

There were banners and signs, but most people were simply walking.
Although American flags dominated, second among the flags were the
Mexican flag, followed by the flag of every nation south of the Rio
Grande River, and other flags including (I saw and recognized) Poland
and Ireland. Although the main language of the march was Spanish, if
you were listening closely you could hear many other languages as well.

Although the flag of Mexico was the most common, flags of other nations
were also everywhere. You could feel the combination of both flags --
the stars and stripes and the others --- as almost a human poem to what
we have built in this country, when this country at its best is before
us in our humanity.

I didn't have a radio, but was told that the Spanish radio and TV
stations were reporting continually on the march, and that people were
being told to join the march from school or work. It was clear that
students were walking out of perhaps a dozen Chicago high schools also
day. I don't have attendance figures yet, but teachers I met from one
high school (Senn, which has had the anit militarism struggles) said
"attendance is way down." Senn is about ten miles from the assembly
point of the march. A teacher from Gage Park High School (about eight
miles south of the march) said that her school began emptying out
around noon and continued to do so. Nearby schools (especially Benito
Juarez High School, which is on Ashhland Ave. two miles south of where
the march turned towards the Loop) were reportedly empty by lunch time.

When we got across the Chicago River and into the Loop, I saw something
I had never seen before. The Chicago Police had closed off six streets
to all but emergency traffic. Wells St., LaSalle St., Clark St.,
Dearborn St., and two smaller streets that run north to south were shut
down -- except for thousands of people walking on them -- from Adams
St. south to Congress, a distance of a bout a quarter mile. I took
pictures of each street filled with people and empty of cars, because
that is unprecedented, too.

I have to leave for a union meeting, but there are a couple of other
things I'd like to share.

If, as I suspect, a quarter million people marched in Chicago
yesterday, it was the most peaceful assembly of that many people in the
history of this city. Police reported that a couple of people were
arrested for graffiti. That's it. My estimate of the numbers, which I'll
be revising, came after I tried to count the number in one block and
came up with "5,000 to 7,000" (curb to curb) in one Chicago block.
There are 16 blocks in a mile, and the front of the march was entering
the federal plaza by 2:00 p.m. while the tail of the march was still
stuck on Ashland Ave., two miles to the west, waiting to begin. But
people were also entering the march from all other points, not just
through the march itself.

There were dozens of songs. In federal plaza, a group of Mexican
dancers with huge feather headdresses danced the entire afternoon. All
of the streets were packed so tightly that it was at times impossible
to move. Yet people were making sure to look for the little ones, who
generally didn't look frightened, even in the tightest crowd.

Because the Chicago Board of Education building sits right above the
federal plaza, I was able to talk my way into one of the south offices
towards the end of the march (about 4:30 p.m.) and take my last
photographs from 14 floors above Adams St.

For a time as I was walking along, choruses from an old union song --
Solidarity Forever -- kept going through my head:

It is we who plowed the prairies, built the cities where they play,
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad lay,
Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made,
But the union makes us strong.

It was a day when all of us could be proud to be Americans and proud to
be truly for democracy. It was a day when the Plutocrats must have
trembled slightly after their years of lies and CEO worship, after
their foisting of stupid millionaires into the White House and
horrifying wars...

And so much more.

I'll share more as I find the time to work it up. I hope this -- one
narrative among thousands -- helps us build that counter narrative
we've talked about so long.

George N. Schmidt, Editor, Substance
A show of strength

Thousands march to Loop for immigrants' rights
Workers, students unite in opposition to toughening of law

By Oscar Avila and Antonio Olivo

Tribune staff reporters
Published March 11, 2006

In a show of strength that surprised even organizers, tens of thousand of immigrants poured into the Loop Friday, bringing their calls for immigration reform to the heart of the city's economic and political power.

What started as a word-of-mouth campaign, then spread through the foreign language media, grabbed the attention of the entire city by midday, as a throng 2 miles long marched from Union Park on the Near West Side to Federal Plaza.

Police estimated the crowd as large as 100,000, making it one of the biggest pro-immigrant rallies in U.S. history, according to national advocates.

Observers said the turnout could galvanize both sides in the immigration debate, launching a grass-roots pro-immigrant movement while provoking a backlash among those who want stricter controls.

The trigger for the rally was a controversial federal bill that would crack down on those who employ or help illegal immigrants. But the broader message--carried mostly by Mexicans, but also by a smattering of Poles, Irish and Chinese--was that immigrants are too integral and large a part of Chicago to be ignored.

The rally drew some of the state's most powerful politicans, including Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Mayor Richard Daley, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and dozens of aldermen and state lawmakers.

But the men and women who pushed baby strollers and waved homemade signs, the workers who clean hotel bathrooms and landscape suburban lawns, flexed their muscle too.

American flags bobbed overhead while also decorating shawls, placards and the scarf on a baby's head. That dominant motif was set off by the colors of Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala and, of course, Mexico.

Urgent chants of "Si, se puede," or "Yes, you can," echoed off the walls of downtown skyscrapers, with drums adding a festive backbeat.

Despite the density of the crowd, shoulders and elbows rubbing from one sidewalk to the other, police said there were no incidents or arrests. But the event shut down traffic in parts of the Loop, and snarled the evening commute as marchers competed with office workers for space on jammed trains and rerouted buses.

As they transformed the Loop with their presence, immigrants made a powerful statement elsewhere by their absence.

Without his immigrant employees, a Northwest Side body shop owner gave up and closed for the day. An Italian restaurant in Downers Grove relied on temps to cook and managers to bus tables. High school students walked out en masse. "I have never been prouder to march, to show my commitment to a cause, than I have been today," U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) told the crowd. "We have brought together the true fabric of what Chicago is, of what our country is."

After a moment of silence for soldiers in Iraq, a young girl led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Jose Soberanis, 21, led a group with a poster of Martin Luther King Jr. that he had sketched with his 11-year-old sister, Cecilia. He equated his fight with the civil-rights movements of the 1960s.

"As the saying goes, `I have a dream.' Well, we have dreams, too," Soberanis said. "African-Americans were looking for social acceptance. That is what we want too."

Hundreds of high school students were no-shows, and officials speculated that most of them attended the rally. At Farragut Career Academy in Lawndale, about half the 2,500 students walked out after attendance was taken at 10:40 a.m.

Josue Martinez, a Tilden High School senior who attended, said: "We're supporting our parents and our parents' parents, who came here and worked hard. A lot of classrooms are empty today."

Whole shifts of workers left their jobs to underscore the importance of immigrant workers. One server from an Italian restaurant came in his work tie and apron, draped with a U.S. flag. Construction workers, still wearing hardhats, came straight from their job sites. Clerks from the El Guero market in Aurora piled into the store's delivery van, riding on produce boxes.

Alex Garcia and about 10 co-workers from a Joliet commercial sign company rode a Metra train to Chicago's Union Station, walked out to Union Park, and then retraced their steps as they marched back to the Loop.

"Most people don't realize how much work we do, but it's part of their daily lives," he said. "We are putting up all the buildings and cooking all the food. Today, they'll understand."

Crowds stretched back at least 20 blocks from Federal Plaza at one point. The procession was so long that some marchers still hadn't made it to the plaza when the two-hour rally ended.

Sensing the scope of the rally, critics of illegal immigration from around the country had flown into Chicago to support local activists at a news conference earlier in the day.

Sandra Gunn, government relations field associate for the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, said she hoped politicians would ignore the "display of arrogance and intimidation" from protesters who she said flout immigration laws: "It is our voices that they must heed."

Some bystanders, marveling at the crowd's size, shared similar opinions.

"They have a right to march," said Alicia Corley, an insurance claims adjuster standing outside a Potbelly sandwich shop on Adams Street. "But we can't even take care of our own people without more coming in from other countries. Look at all the homeless in the city. Let's take care of them first."

Rally organizers originally mobilized to fight H.R. 4437, a bill approved in the U.S. House of Representatives that would drastically strengthen immigration enforcement, including extending a fence along the Mexican border and severe punishment for those who aid illegal immigrants.

They back a competing bill that would provide legal status for most undocumented immigrants and make it easier for legal immigrants to bring in relatives. That legislation, sponsored by U.S. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass), also would expand temporary work visas.

Frank Sharry, executive director of the Washington-based National Immigration Forum, said the Chicago rally would get the attention of Capitol Hill lawmakers. Sharry's first reaction when a Chicago participant e-mailed him photos from his cell phone: "Wow."


Chicago Sun Times
March 10, 2006

Thousands protest immigration bill


Tens of thousands of immigrants from throughout the Chicago area, many carrying U.S. flags, marched into downtown Chicago on Friday in a show of support for immigrant rights.

The rally came as the U.S. Senate struggles with a bill to stiffen border enforcement and a new report estimates the illegal immigrant population has grown from about 8.4 million in 2000 to nearly 12 million.

Shouts of "Si se puede" (Yes, it can be done) could be heard throughout city streets as marchers descended upon the plaza across from the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, where they listened to speeches voicing support for pro-immigrant legislation and opposition to a measure that would toughen penalties for illegal immigrants.

"Raise those American flags!" shouted U.S. Rep Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill. "This is our country, and this is where we will stay."

The peaceful marchers stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the plaza. Some carried signs that read "Keep our Families Together," "No human being is illegal" and "Do not criminalize the American dream."

Abigail Marquez, 35, said she came to the rally with her husband and teenage son to express her support for Latino issues.

Marquez, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico, said she did not expect so many people to participate in the march, organized by dozens of activist groups.

"I had no idea. There are just so many people here," she said in Spanish. "I feel very happy because it shows that we are all united."

From a platform, Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich addressed the massive crowd in Spanish, telling them that he is the son of immigrant parents and understands the issues that are important to them.

His proclamation that "Ustedes no son criminales. Ustedes son trabajadores" (You are not criminals. You are workers) elicited loud cheers.

Hours later, marchers still thronged streets in the city's downtown business district, sometimes clogging streets and preventing vehicle traffic from moving.

The Illinois Minuteman Project, which is affiliated with a national volunteer civilian border patrol group that aims to stem illegal immigration, held a news conference before the march began to speak out against it.

Rosanna Pulido, the group's state director, said she doesn't want to see Chicago become "sanctuary city" for illegal immigrants.

"There are 14 million underemployed Americans. Don't they have the right to have a better life and support their families? Let's give them an opportunity because this is their country," she said.

The march began at noon at a park several miles west of the downtown Loop business district. Police estimated that more than 75,000 people marched into downtown, sporadically shutting down traffic in the Loop and many surrounding streets.

Students and housewives pushing strollers marched side-by-side with construction workers, mechanics and senior citizens. Some marchers called out the names of their neighborhoods or suburbs; communities across northern Illinois were represented.

One worker said he hadn't seen that many people in the Loop since a ticker-tape parade was held for the Chicago White Sox after they won the 2005 World Series.

"In terms of a protest, I've never seen anything this big. I'm impressed by the magnitude," of the crowd, said Tom Bonk.

But one person who wasn't impressed was Pulido, who said that the demonstrators were essentially promoting illegal immigration.

"What it means is that 75,000 people marched for lawlessness in Chicago," she said.


  1. Interesting story. Too bad that hasn't happened in Texas.

  2. I am very impressed! I am glad that they are making noise. Estoy segura que la Iniciativa de Liderazgo Universitario se pondra en contacto con ellos y asi formar una coalicion a nivel nacional.

  3. I am so impressed by the masses of people that showed up and marched for a reason they believed and did it peacefully. Efforts like this are likely to happen alot more in the upcoming weeks with the immigration senate bill being drafted as we speek. Let your voice be heard and call your senator and tell him to support the new amendments being proposed for a way to legalization. And tell him you are opposed to any kinds of criminalization of the hard working immigrants and those that help them. Just one last comment go to my website I uploaded a link to videos from this march!

  4. I am very glad that diverse people from on of America's largest city's are organizing to voice out against this outrageous bill. This should definitley send a clear and strong message to those "smart ones" at Capitol Hill how we feel of such immigrant bills. This type of unity from differenty ethnic backgrounds should be the first of many to come to show how strongly we support of such policies. I believe that we should start one here in Austin too... just let me know when and where and I will definitly be there..... peace =).

  5. Where is the leadership in Texas????