May Day in Asheville, North Carolina

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May Day in North Carolina, USA.  The weather is perfect.  A march for immigrant rights begins this afternoon — part of the nationwide movement to prevent the passage of a legislation that would make it a felony offense to be in the US without papers or to help anyone that is here without said papers.  As an organizing pamphlet stated: “Not since the Fugitive Slave Law of the 1800s has there been such a piece of repressive legislation passed in the US.”  Like the aforementioned Fugitive Slave Act, HR 4437 would make it a felony to help out a fellow human being trying to make a better life for themselves and their family.  The point of the protests and the May Day 2006 boycott was to prevent that legislation, which is known as HR 4437 in the House.  After that point of agreement, the demands diverge.

I’ve been helping a friend homeschool her eleven-year-old daughter this semester.  The May Day protest in Asheville was her week’s lesson in real democracy.  There are two  things that make a democracy, she told me as we walked from our house to the Catholic church in downtown Asheville where the opening rally was taking place when we arrived.  The first is protesting for change and the second is voting.  Tuesday will be this week’s second lesson in democracy, then.  That’s when North Carolina holds its primary elections.  I hope that the Congressman from my district will end up with an opponent in November that can beat him.  So did most of the people present at the rally, since Congressman Taylor voted for HR 4437.

When we arrived at the church, the speakers were already talking.  The primary content of the speeches was liberal in nature, but the signs and banners varied from slogans echoing the philosophy summed up best by the words “No One Is Illegal” to signs stating (in Spanish and English) “Nosotros Somos Americanos.”  Besides the speeches, there were also detailed legal instructions announced repeatedly over the loudspeakers and distributed in leaflet form throughout the crowd.  These instructions were necessary given the uncertain immigration status of some of the participants.  They included phone numbers for legal aid should any of the participants face reprisals in the future because of their participation in the protest.  One of the speakers asked how many of the rallygoers had skipped work or school.  When the question was asked in English, the response was loud.  When the question was asked in Spanish, the response was deafening.  There weren’t that many speeches, since every  phrase had to be translated, either from English to Spanish or from Spanish to English.

The march began.  It was orderly and it was loud.  Most of the bystanders, no matter what their skin tone, honked their car horn or gave another sign of agreement.  Those who disagreed either said nothing or cursed quietly to their friends.  Oh yeah, there was one guy that held a sign calling on “Real Americans” to take back their country.  People on the march ignored him.  Pointedly.  Before the entire group of marchers had passed him by, he had left.  Slogans shouted by the marchers varied from “Sí, Se Puede” to “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” to the variation on the latter — “Latinos, unidos, jamás serán vencidos.”  As the march progressed hundreds more joined.  Most of them were Latinos that had finally made it downtown.  Police were generally pleasant, although there were some with cameras on parking garage rooftops using telephoto lenses to take pictures of the march participants.  If those photos end up in the hands of  the INS, I won’t be surprised.

A band greeted us when we arrived at the end of the march.  When they finished their tune, each member was introduced with their family’s heritage included.  The point was obviously to remind the crowd and the media that most of us are either immigrants or descendants of immigrants.  In the part of the country where the Cherokee Trail of Tears began, this should not be big news.  Yet every time a new group of immigrants wants their place at the US table, it seems like the entire country needs to be reminded of our real history.  The good and the bad.

My homeschool charge and I left the closing rally after another song by the band.  One thing I noticed as we walked to the bus stop was that downtown Asheville, which is usually quite slender on Latino faces and the Spanish language, was full of Latinos this evening.  I don’t know what El Dia Sin Inmigrantes looked like in other parts of the United States, but here in Asheville, NC it was a day of witness for those of us who really believe that no human is illegal.  The next time it might not be so nice.

Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch‘s new collection on music, art and sex: Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at <>.