Obamagration?: Searching for significance in a modern-day march

The crowd listening to a speech at the Immigration Reform March for America in Washington, DC (courtesy of Shahrukh Hasan/Flickr)

Cindy Agustin is trying to get a bus-load of tired Chicago-area students, friends, and parents to share what made them decide to march. “Come on, guys,” says the University of Chicago fourth-year trip organizer, upbeat and timid as a substitute teacher enforcing a mandatory show-and-tell, “everyone will have to go at some point.” Before long, Monica steps up to the front of the bus and takes the mic. After Monica comes Veronica, and about twenty people later comes Jesús, who says simply, “Hello, my name is Jesús, and God knows we need immigration reform.”

The journey that has drawn the fifty of us together is the March 21st rally for comprehensive immigration reform in Washington D.C., meant to demonstrate to President Obama the importance of this issue. The trip has been organized by the University of Chicago chapter of Chicago Students for Immigration Reform, but the group’s link with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights allowed community members, as well as students from other Chicago area colleges, to complete our contingent. Now it is late, everyone is tired, and most of us are sleeping in our seats. But you don’t ride fourteen hours on a bus without a damn good reason.

Most people I know wouldn’t think it acceptable that one marcher’s best friend could not apply to college, despite being in the top ten of his high school class. Or that some people in this country walk with a hundred dollars stuffed in their shoes in case an Immigration and Naturalization Services representative picks them up in LA and dumps them across the border, many leaving behind children who were born and raised in the United States. But whether or not the average American thinks this is all right, most don’t go on marches. To step, one foot in front of the other, seems natural enough. But now, as we stumble sleepily off the bus and onto Pennsylvania Avenue, we are prepared to do more than walk. Not for the first time I am left wondering: what do we do when we march, and what, if anything, does it accomplish?

Marching means more than movement; it means defiance. It means treading a strange gray zone that is both scary and liberating. Not only are you separating yourself from the larger group; you are asking for something more than what everyone else seems to think is just fine.

Of course, you don’t always have to ride fourteen hours to exercise your right to mobile dissent. There have been occasions when I have joined in marches passing by on the street just because I agreed with the cause. There was just something that felt so irresistibly simple and American about it; I felt that I had accomplished something simply by joining with others to agree that something needs to be accomplished.
Other marches are more party than protest. In Boston’s hugely attended Walk For Hunger, I toured the city on a clearly demarcated path while local groups showered free gifts and cheer upon us. They called us fighters, courageous defenders–when really we were just fundraisers. There was no opponent to our point of view. Policemen were present, but merely so that they could guide us across the streets, and keep us within our given track like the bouncers on the walls of a self-righteous bumper car rink.

But this march is neither convenient nor without its risks. According to the packet one of the group leaders handed me as soon as I entered the bus, “Immigration law is federal. Local police are responsible for enforcing local laws, not immigration laws.” Several pages of the packet detailed how to deal with spontaneous police questioning, and in case we didn’t read the packet, one of the group members summarized these rights to the group before we got off the bus.

This initially led me to believe that the march was going to be about fear. After all the constant threat of deportation in the United States is a scary part of life for undocumented workers. Being “an illegal” means having anxiety embedded into your life, day in and day out, that your family and your world could come apart at any moment. And while the INS makes no visible appearance at today’s protest, the tension they embody reveals itself in little ways; protesters give me their first names only when I take notes on our conversations.

But for the most part, it is the rejection of fear that galvanizes this march. All around me, thousands of people are wearing T-shirts emblazoned with slogans such as “Undocumented and Unafraid” or carrying signs demanding “No More Raids.” Right now, for me at least, “to march” means “to walk without fear.”
That’s an important statement, and right now it feels more urgent than ever. As at many events for immigration reform, “Si, se puede!” is the rallying cry of the moment. But the phrase made famous for what it did to put Obama in office is now being used to punctuate speeches urging him to remember his promises on a platform constructed across the street from the White House.