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Protesters shut down Dallas

Immigrants' rights protesters flood streets of Dallas
By Stephen Webster
Investigative Reporter
Publication date: Tuesday, April 11, 2006 – Lone Star Iconoclast

When Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) introduced House Resolution 4437 in December of 2005, his Republican supporters in Congress must not have had any idea of the backlash it would cause. On Sunday, April 9, over half a million protesters flooded the streets of downtown Dallas, marching against the bill which was recently approved by the House of Representatives, mostly along party lines. It was only one of thousands of protests that have dotted the nation over the last 60 days, nearly all of them in fierce opposition to the immigration reform proposal.

The sign says it all.
Photo by Stephen Webster

HR 4437, in short, would make it a felony to enter or live within the United States without proper documentation. HR 4437 also makes it a felony to offer aid or assistance to any illegal immigrant. Hospitals would not be allowed to treat their wounds. Churches would not be allowed to feed their hungry. Volunteer educators would not be allowed to teach them English. Over 12 million illegal immigrants and the people closest to them would become criminals overnight, should HR 4437 pass.

"Viva America!" he yelled as he crossed the street.
Photo by Stephen Webster

The groups began to mobilize en masse after a series of student-lead walkouts triggered national media attention. High school and college students planned demonstrations over MySpace.com, now the largest hotbed of student-organized political dissent in the history of the world. Priests within the Catholic Church, concerned by the potential criminalization of good Samaritans, began organizing from behind the pulpit, urging congregations to join the protests. Police in cities all around the nation have been shocked at the size of the demonstrations, completely underestimating the organizing power of the Spanish-speaking media. “Desgaste las camisas blancas” (Wear the white shirts), said organizers on Saturday. “Y traiga banderas Americanas.” (And bring American flags.)

They came by the carload. They came by bike, by train and by foot. Entire churches piled into busses after Sunday morning services all over the metropolis, spending hours on the surrounding roads trying to find parking. The rally was scheduled to begin at 1:00 p.m., in front of the Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe. By noon there were thousands, meandering through the streets toward the church. By 3:00 p.m., the city was awash in white t-shirts and denim. Almost all commerce in downtown Dallas had come to a standstill. The only ones making any money were street-cart vendors selling ice cream and water.

The D.A.R.T. rail system was completely overloaded as the protest came to a close.
Photo by Stephen Webster

I drove to the protest from my home in Lewisville. Around 1:00 p.m., I found myself stuck on a highway in North Dallas. The directions I had printed off the internet pointed me toward an exit that had been blockaded by police. “Special events” read their barricades. The next four exits were the same. Moving inch by inch through the traffic, my car’s engine began to shake and sputter. Then, steam and smoke started rising from under the hood. I stopped the car and pushed it onto the shoulder. Traffic remained at a standstill. Sitting on the Interstate looking south, a massive stream of white shirts and American flags could be seen moving slowly through the streets in the distance; the gaps between buildings providing a preview of what I was about to enter.

Ninety minutes and two breakdowns later, I had found parking behind a series of cones, right across the street from The Dallas Morning News building. I had come to a rolling stop, having overheated yet again while waiting at a never-ending stoplight. I put on my emergency blinkers and jumped out to push. A man in a white shirt and jeans walked up to the back of my car and began helping. Once I had parked, I thanked him. He smiled and nodded, saying nothing and disappearing as quickly as he came.

In the thick of it -- Most people were carrying American flags.
Photo by Stephen Webster

I had parked nearly two miles from where the march was to begin, and I had no idea where everyone would ultimately end up. I began walking toward the ever-growing sea of people, passing a very crowded McDonalds on my way. It occurred to me that I needed some water. Walking to the front of the fast-food joint, I realized this would be impossible. Around 500 people sat outside the building, the crowd spilling over into the parking lot. At the front door, a large, burly-looking man with a headset stood like a VIP room bouncer, counting heads as people entered. “I’m sorry. No more room,” he said to a group of boys, turning them away.

Nearing the center of dissent, I began noticing a large police presence. Along the sides of each street through downtown, police stood behind metal barriers, hands behind their backs. Officers zipped back and forward behind the barriers on motorcycles. Recently, the Motorola Company announced a sponsorship for major police forces. The company’s logo was clearly embossed on Dallas police vehicles. Officers with stun-guns attached to their belts walked among the crowd, and unmarked, black SUV’s seemed to appear wherever large numbers of protesters were gathering.

Corporate sponsorship of the police is a reality. Note the Motorola symbol on the officer's motorcycle.
Photo by Stephen Webster

After trying to heard the majority of the protesters through a pre-determined route, Dallas cops gave up and took down makeshift-roadblocks. There was absolutely nothing they could do but sit and watch.
Photo by Stephen Webster

I had finally realized a bleak reality: there are practically no convenience stores in downtown Dallas. I decided to look for shade and refreshment at a Greyhound Bus station. There were only a few people outside. As I walked toward the side-entrance, I noticed a police officer talking to a tall man in a white fedora and black suit. Brushing past them I headed for the refreshments area and picked up three bottles of water.

“You with the protesters?” asked a woman behind the counter.

“Yes,” I said. “Well, sort of. I’m with the press. Newspaper. Ah, but I’m here for the protest.” I held up my camera and smiled.

“Hm. That’s weird,” she said. “They let you in here?”

“I just walked right in,” I replied. “I’m thirsty, and my car overheated. I need some water. Was I not supposed to come in?”

“No, no. You’re good. Don’t worry,” she said with a look of unease. “But you’re lucky. They’ve been turning away all the Mexicans. We’ve got guards at all the doors.”

“So, they let me in because I’m white?” I asked.

“Well, what do you think? Uh, just don’t put my name in the story,” she said, covering her name-badge. “And write something nice about Greyhound, okay?”

I thanked her and walked outside.

The church where many gathered for shade and cold water. Almost all downtown business were closed. Others simply turned away "Mexicans," said a Greyhound Bus employee.
Photo by Stephen Webster

Back in the streets, the protesters’ numbers had begun to burst at the seams. As I approached a dense group of white shirts near Pearl Street, I watched as a group of Dallas Police – probably 10 of them – nodded in unison as they listened to their radios. Seconds later they began dismantling the roadblock they had been guarding. Less than two minutes later, the street was shoulder to shoulder with protesters cutting through from a parallel road. About a half hour later I spotted a group of four officers sitting on the steps of a colonial-era landmark, laughing at each other’s jokes and smoking cigarettes.

After the first four hours, cops finally stopped trying to corral the crowd in the streets. Many took seats and relaxed as the crowds began to dwindle.
Photo by Stephen Webster

As I approached the Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, where the protesters were to begin the march, I turned to a woman next to me and aimed my camera. She smiled, noticing me, and then turned giving a full view of her sign. “We are workers, not criminals,” it read. “My name is Candy Hernandez,” she said as she waived her small American flag. “I live in Lewisville and clean houses for a living. Who are you?”

I told her I am a reporter, and I would be writing a story about the protest.

“They can’t pass this law. We’re all same. We’re all in this together. Will you put that in your story?” she asked.

“Well, sure,” I said. “Anything else?”

“Well, okay … Let me think,” she began. “Okay, first, we are not criminals. We are workers, just like the sign says. Today we are marching, but this November we will vote. They better keep that in mind. Shame on the Republicans for trying to do this to us! We are part of this country! They can’t just throw all the Mexicans in jail.” I thanked her and moved on.

Candy Hernandez from Lewisville (holding the sign): "Thank you for coming to support us. We work hard and follow the law. We are not criminals!"
Photo by Stephen Webster

While the day’s protest was clearly and overwhelmingly opposed to the passage of HR 4437, other groups joined in, perhaps to merge popular discontent over many issues into a single movement. A man in his early 20’s stood on a corner passing out pamphlets detailing a $385 million contract given to Halliburton by the Department of Homeland Security – money that Halliburton its self claimed to be designated to the construction of “detention camps” for illegal immigrants. He was wearing a white shirt with a marker-written message: “The Government is LYING about 9/11!”

This protest attracted more than just immigrants' rights activists. Peace in Iraq and 9/11 Truth supporters made a showing as well.
Photo by Stephen Webster

“For Congress to think that this bill is something that is helpful or good is just ignorant,” said Matthew Swain of Lewisville. “They lied about our elections in 2000 and 2004, they lied about September 11, and they lied about Iraq’s WMD’s. Now the Department of Homeland Security is giving Halliburton millions of dollars to build ‘Immigrant Detention Facilities’ in America? What is our government thinking? I’m not Mexican, and I was born in America. But I am half Puerto Rican. I am part Latino. I am proud to stand up for my brothers and sisters. The government thinks they are just going to round up 12 million people? How much closer to Nazi Germany is this Congress going to take us? I don’t think so. We will resist. This is just the beginning.”

Protesters gathered at the Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Downtown Dallas. Note the cute kid with the flag.
Photo by Stephen Webster

More from the church (and the kid).
Photo by Stephen Webster

Another group of mostly white, college-age protesters marched in a straight line down Pearl Street, each holding part of a large banner that read, “Immigrants’ Rights – Peace in Iraq – Justice for All. We are ONE. We are AMERICA.”

Despite the seemingly unending animosity for Republicans who support HR 4437, I managed to find at least one person who still likes President George W. Bush. “We are friends with Bush/Cheney ‘04” read a piece of cardboard with a Bush campaign sign from the last election cycle taped to the bottom. When I approached the woman holding it and asked if she would speak to me, she just shook her head and continued marching.

More from the D.A.R.T. public transportation rails.
Photo by Stephen Webster

“It was amazing to see how many people are coming out to try to make change and make the world better,” said Shalen Hillard of Lewisville. “I just think it is amazing. They are us. We are a country of immigrants. It is sad that we have to stand up for ourselves against our government. I am just glad that so many people agree with me. We can’t let this happen.”

I continued marching until my feet could no longer withstand the battery. After my sixth hour in the streets, I reluctantly sat down against a road median in the shade of a highway overpass, watching as thousands of people walked past me over the course of just a few minutes. Young and old of all races marched with unity of purpose in the face of a government seeking to criminalize their very existence. It was the first time I had ever experienced such upheaval in my society. It was a first for everyone there that day.

So-called experts have labeled this “a civil rights movement reborn.” But to the people in the streets, it was different. There were no “hippies.” There were no Marxist youth or Communist Revolutionaries. They were poor, working, immigrant families huddling around each other. They took turns carrying their youngest on their backs and pushing their oldest along in wheelchairs, marching on for miles and miles. From inside the fray, the sea of people had no beginning and no end.

A sea of white shirts.
Photo by Stephen Webster

As I rested my weight against the concrete girder, a boy who could not have been older than 10 walked toward me, balancing carefully on the median.

“Hey,” I said. “Having fun?”

“No,” he replied. “It’s hot. But my dad said I need to be here. He said the cops were gonna take him away if I didn’t come.”

“Don’t be afraid,” I said to him. “That is why so many people have come here. They don’t want that to happen.”

“I just don’t my dad to go away,” he responded, wavering left and right before finally regaining his balance. His shirt read, “I’m not a terrorist. I’m just a wet-back. Necesito libertad! (I need freedom!)”

“I just want to be with my dad,” he said. “Why would they take him away?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “But everything will be okay.” I did not say that with any certainty.

“Hijo,” yelled his father from a distance, waiving to the boy. His head popped up as he scanned the crowd. “Debemos apresurarnos. Tenemos mucho por hacer.” With that he jumped down from the median and waved at me. “Thanks! Adios!” he said cheerfully, running off.

I had my recorder running, and caught what his father said. The next day I asked a friend translate it for me.

“Son, we must hurry,” he had said. “We have much to do.”

Indeed we do.

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