Tucson May Day March

by George Saunders


About 5,000 people came out to march on May Day in Tucson to demand “Stop the Raids and Deportations.” They marched for justice for immigrants and to protest government immigration policies that have caused thousands of deaths in the Arizona desert over the last dozen years as immigrants have crossed through this sparsely inhabited, hot, and inhospitable landscape in search of work, just to try and earn a livelihood. As one large banner carried by marchers said, “We Are Workers, Not Criminals.” Another homemade sign declared: “Better Life Opportunities—Education, Jobs—That’s Not Criminal.”

Aztec dancers led the march, affirming the native culture that has survived centuries of European invasion and occupation. The dancers were followed by the May 1 Coalition banner: “No to the War in Iraq, and No to the War on the Border.”

The march was a genuine outpouring of Tucson’s Mexican American community, with entire families present, from infants in strollers to grandparents. The spirit of the marchers was warm, cheerful, and energetic. Some signs said “Viva Chicanos” and “Chicano Power.” One T-shirt read: “Brown and Proud.” There were some Mexican flags and a few U.S. flags. Young people took turns riding on each other’s shoulders to wave the Mexican flag higher.

Mexican Americans are now more than 50 percent of Tucson’s population, according to newspaper reports published last fall. And this is a metropolitan area of about one million people. Two hours to the north, the Phoenix metro area, now among the ten largest in the U.S., also has a Mexican American majority. This is similar to southern California, where the numbers are of course even larger. If aroused and organized, these communities could completely change society in this part of the world.

Hundreds of school-age youth came to the march, despite intimidation attempts by the Arizona superintendent of schools. The day before the march, he appealed to parents not to let their children take an unexcused absence from school. The May 1 Coalition urged parents to get excused absences. Whatever way they worked it, between a third and a half of the marchers were young people, from kindergarten through college.

The adults were mostly working people who, like the majority of U.S. workers, are not organized in unions. One young man carried a sign saying “Union Makes Us Strong.” He sure had the right idea, but it turned out he was not a union member. Still, some unions were represented among the marchers: for example, the Machinists, UFCW, Unite-Here, CWA, AFSCME, SEIU, and the National Writers Union.

Liberal Democrat politicians were notable by their absence.

The May 1 Coalition, which very effectively organized and built the march, is an alliance of several dozen mostly young activists from many different groups as well as unaffiliated individuals. Probably the main contributor to the Coalition was the group known as Derechos Humanos, which has been fighting in opposition to U.S. border and immigration policy for more than two decades.

The first speaker at the noontime rally was Isabel Garcia, who is generally recognized as the leading spokesperson for Derechos Humanos. She stressed that the march was demanding full rights for everyone, and that we are fighting against the biggest and most powerful empire ever known. A young woman named Liz, speaking for the group Tierra y Libertad, followed Isabel Garcia, giving an excellent talk, which we hope to reprint at a later time.

Violeta Dominguez, a University of Arizona student from Mexico City, spoke in opposition to any “guest worker” program, or as the proposed “STRIVE” bill before Congress calls it, a “new worker” program. She works with former “braceros,” who are still fighting to get their unpaid wages from the unjust bracero program that was in operation from the 1940s and into the 1960s. Half a dozen former braceros were part of the march, with signs saying in Spanish: “Braceros of Yesterday in Solidarity with Braceros of Today.”

Also speaking was Leilani Clark, a Tucson high school student who is part Native American and part African American. She read a poem written by a young Mexican, a poem Leilani encountered this past weekend during a visit by Black Americans for Justice to Immigrants (BAJI) across the border just south of Tucson, a staging area for those preparing to make the deadly trip on foot through the desert.

The march began at about 10 a.m. in South Tucson, which is mostly Mexican American. The route went directly north, along Sixth Avenue, to the center of town, and the marchers in their thousands gathered in front of the Federal Building and Federal Court to make known their opposition to U.S. policies and to the proposed “STRIVE” bill now before Congress. Then they returned to Armory Park, on Sixth Avenue, for the noontime rally.

Totally legal and peaceful, this march and rally made up, in a way, for an ugly and intimidating event that happened at the April 10 march last year in Tucson. At that time, on instructions from the top political leadership of the city, the police allowed a dozen vigilante Minuteman types to establish a presence in the park where the rally was held, right in the middle of the 15,000 or more marchers and rally attendees. These “Border Guardians” provocatively burned not one, but two, Mexican flags—and their provocative presence was protected by the police for hours.

Toward the end of last year’s April 10 rally some young people threw a few drops of water on the burning Mexican flag—and were attacked by the police protectors of the vigilantes! A long political and legal struggle resulted, and the half dozen Mexican Americans, mostly youth, who the cops arrested and beat up were freed from the toils of the “justice” system after a few minimal penalties and some unnecessarily costly fines. In the course of the fight over this issue, last year’s April 10 Coalition evolved into this year’s May 1 Coalition, and in the process the groups carried out many protest activities—going to City Council hearings, meeting with City Council members, organizing a play to dramatize and protest what the politicians and cops had done, not being quiet or intimidated, not just slinking away.

One result of the past year’s protest efforts was that the police were on relatively good behavior for this year’s May Day. As for the vigilante types, there were only half a dozen this year, truly like a flea on the toe of an elephant. This time the police kept them away from the rally area, with their three or four stupid signs expressing a hopelessly regimented mentality: “It’s a Crime to Boycott School”; “Illegal Mexicans Are Criminals.” They forgot “Do What Teacher Tells You.”

A good answer to these numskulls was a sign I noticed several times among the May Day marchers:

“Justice over Authority.”