¡SI SE PUEDE! 


;"¡Si se puede! ¡Si se puede! ¡Si se puede!"

;

;The chant — "Yes we can!," in English — was audible from blocks away as I walked toward the TD Waterhouse Centre May 1. May Day, of course, carries with it the legacy of workers' movements around the world. Across the globe, millions of workers took to the streets to protest poor working conditions and oppression.

;

;In this country the rallies were all about rights for the 12 million undocumented workers who pick our fruit and build our homes, and whose livelihoods, even their freedom, have come under attack. In Chicago, more than 300,000 people showed up for a May Day march. In Los Angeles, the number was more than 500,000. According to the New York Times, more than 100 cities had demonstrations Monday, including New York; Houston; Dallas; Phoenix; Madison, Wis.; Garden City, Kan.; Belle Glade and, yes, Orlando. Here, more than 25,000 people — me included — spent three hot afternoon hours circling downtown and Lake Eola.

;;I showed up at 11:30 a.m., 30 minutes before the march was set to begin, dressed as instructed in a white T-shirt (to symbolize peace). There were maybe 4,000 people milling about in the parking lot of the TD Waterhouse Centre, drinking water, standing in line for the portable toilets, listening to speeches (which were mostly spoken in English and repeated in Spanish, or vice versa, despite what you may have read on the Orlando Sentinel's editorial page), chant-ing and waving flags. Most of the flags were American flags; the organizers made a point of discouraging banners of other nationalities. They were conscious of the fact that this rally, if done wrong, could cause a backlash, as earlier Mexican flag–laden rallies in the Southwest had. A lot of the demonstrators were Mexican, but by no means all. I saw white labor activists, Haitians and people of nearly every Central and South American country.

;

;There were hundreds of handmade posters. One said, "No human is illegal." A socialist group that was passing out water in the back had a poster demanding amnesty for illegal immigrants next to another poster urging the United States to get troops out of Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo and Haiti. A boy, probably 10, held a sign that read, "No mercy say yes to equality"; another, "Free to a good home." My favorite — though I doubt the organizers were thrilled with the image it projected — was a red poster that declared, "Arm the rightless." A man walked through the crowd passing out Spanish-language Bible tracts. Above us, a plane circled around the arena with a banner that urged the crowd to march and then register to vote.

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;We took a moment of silence, then prayed. We were separated into two groups on each side of the parking lot, sort of like parting the Red Sea, so the rally's leaders could start the march. And then we were off, down Livingston Street east to Hughey Avenue, south to Central Avenue, east to Magnolia Avenue, south to Jackson Avenue, east to Rosalind Avenue in front of the Orange County administration building, north to Central again, east around Lake Eola, back to Robinson Street (where U.S. Rep. Ric Keller's office is), back to Garland Avenue, then to Livingston Street, then to the parking lot where the whole thing got started. It was a 3.5-mile trek.

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;There were plenty of media representatives to document it. Local ACLU leader George Crossley took a phone call from a Reuters reporter in Miami; WDBO reporter Mike Synan told me he had to put some material together for Sean Hannity's afternoon radio show. There were hundreds of photographers out in front of the march snapping pictures. I saw television stations from all over the state represented, and three or four news helicopters hovered over us the entire time. Radio Luz, WRLZ-AM (1270), broadcast live from the march all day.

;

;We marched, and we chanted. "¡Si se puede!" was constant, as was "U-S-A!
;U-S-A!," which sounded a bit patronizing, as if the marchers were going out of their way to convey their love of America, thus sidestepping a conservative reaction. That part didn't feel genuine.

;

;Then again, neither did the pathetic counter-demonstration. Maybe 30 people, perhaps fewer, stood on a few street corners carrying signs urging marchers to "march back to Mexico" or declaring that hiring illegal workers amounted to economic treason. A few marchers goaded the counter-
;protesters, but things never got out of hand.

;

;Crossley told me that the rally's organizers had received dozens of threats. There were also rumors that immigration officials were going to use the rallies to make massive round-ups. It didn't happen, but organizers had dozens of lawyers, orange-shirted security volunteers and people with video cameras sprinkled throughout the march, just in case.

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;Perhaps the counter-protest fizzled because its leader was in jail. At 10:20 a.m., the Rev. John Butler Book was arrested for trespassing and resisting arrest when he refused to move his demonstration to the other side of Livingston Street. Book was protesting on Centroplex property; since the marchers had the permit, and they didn't want him there, that was a no-no. Had he moved across the street, he wouldn't have been cuffed and stuffed.

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;Crossley's wry take on the arrest: "Bigotry and intolerance got locked up, and I'm not sorry about that at all."

;

;(Later, I talked to another counter-
;protester who apparently was forced to leave the TD Waterhouse Centre. He claimed discrimination — despite the fact that the rally had a permit and he didn't: "I was told that the TD Waterhouse was a private property and we had to leave. Personally, I think it's prejudice because they saw that I was Polish and I was in the minority, and they didn't want me there.")

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;The march moved quickly at the beginning; too quickly, actually. Organizers kept asking the front part of the group to slow down, so those at the back wouldn't have to sprint to catch up. And we were loud. Really friggin' loud. When we passed under I-4, the throng let out a mind-numbing roar that reverberated for a good two minutes. It was hard to grasp just how big this thing really was. Standing under I-4 on Central Avenue, I watched wave after wave pass. I saw a line of people spread out across the width of the street, as far as I could see. And if I'd yet to catch on to this thing's magnitude, the
;reality check was coming.

;

;When the front of the line was marching north up Rosalind Avenue, we could look west and see an equally thick, equally emphatic line of comrades tracing our footsteps from a half-hour ago. When we circled Lake Eola, maybe 90 minutes into the march, we heard there were still people leaving the arena. It was a breathtaking, amazing display, especially for usually apathetic Orlando.

;

;What was the point of it all? First and foremost, marchers wanted to demonstrate against a bill the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed that would make illegal immigration a felony. The idea is pretty much dead on arrival in the Senate, but it got people in a huff nonetheless. The stated goal at the end-of-march pep rally was to "reach the ears of senators and representatives in favor of fair immigration reform."

;

;Amnesty? President Bush's right-wing base has already blasted him for proposing a guest worker program, in which immigrants could come into this country for a few months every year to work, then go back home. They would fillet him if he endorsed anything more generous than that. After all, these illegal immigrants, by definition, broke the law. Should they be rewarded? On the other hand, rounding up and deporting 12 million people — or jailing them — is a remarkably bad idea, a bone tossed by hard-right politicos to their reactionary base.

;

;Guest worker programs are problematic too, because they put workers at the mercy of employers; people allowed to stay in this country only so long as they keep a job are, in essence, voiceless serfs, nothing more than mere commodities in the global market.

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;Many illegal workers live in squalor. But they have no options. They can't organize and demand better pay. I talked to a man from an organization called Unite Here! who spoke of a meat-packing plant in Texas. He said the plant's managers would hire a truckload of illegal immigrants, let them work for two weeks and then call in immigration officials to round them up before payday.

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;The immigration issue has ripped apart the GOP, pitting the party's right-wing base against the chamber-of-commerce Republicans who want cheap labor, leaving Bush — and his low-30 percent approval ratings — somewhere in the middle.

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;Democrats, by and large, back either amnesty or a guest worker program. (Everyone seems to agree that increasing border security is a good idea.) But Democratic governors in New Mexico and Arizona have declared states of emergency because of the impact the influx of illegal immigrants has had on the states' education and health care systems.

;

;Immigration is a thorny issue, which is probably why many of the marchers couched their concerns in terms of rights. A woman named Carol reminded me that "this country was based on immigrants. You are an immigrant, I'm sure. I think everybody should have the opportunity to make a better place to live."

;

;Jeremy, the guy from Unite Here!, compared the march to the civil rights movement. "It was illegal to drink from a white water fountain. I see a clear nexus between those two things. They're here and they're being worked. Most of the [illegal immigrants] are being brought in by companies who know they're breaking the law, and if there were any sort of penalty for that, they wouldn't do it."

;

;His solution: "A clear path for folks to get citizenship so we can concentrate on the people who don't belong here. Pay 'em good wages, give them a living standard so they can take care of their families. When they are legal, they can go to the labor board. Allow them to come out of the shadows."

;

;But specifics weren't the point of the march; the idea was to convey power and solidarity, and to frame immigration in a way that anyone could relate to. As one speaker told the crowd toward the end of the afternoon, "We love this country! We want this country to progress! We love to work! We are not criminals!"

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;As I stood on the steps of the arena and watched the masses pile into the parking lot, signs in tow and a peaceful march behind them, with reporters and TV cameras capturing every move, the inescapable conclusion was that they had made their point.

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