mayday may day???

by jason coe

may 2007

Begrudgingly, I awoke this morning to attend a “mandatory” 9 AM class because the instructor had written me an email specifically asking me to attend. My attendance record is substandard at best. While walking along the empty streets of Telegraph Avenue, I was well aware that today was International Workers’ Day and the anniversary of the Great American Boycott of 2006, but my main objective was to get my name on the class sign-in sheet and then promptly zone out. From the estimates I’d read in most major newspapers, I was doubtful that this year’s protests would bring out millions, shut down major freeways and make the voices of 12 million undocumented immigrants and their allies heard around the world like the protests of 2006.

However, despite my low expectations I was surprised by the paltry attendance of this major event by the students at the supposed activist capital of the world, UC Berkeley. Last year I remember the campus was nearly shut down as hundreds of students crowded Sproul Plaza, chanting “Si, se puede!” and holding signs that declared: “The Pilgrims Didn’t Have Green Cards!” and “No Human is Illegal!,” all in solidarity with the protests rocking the nation from March to May in 2006 – the largest protests in American history. Instead, this year’s contingent was a jumbled group of 30 or so impassioned students imploring walkers-by to join the boycott. People ignored them, figuring that it was just another ineffectual “Berkeley thing.” Embarrassed and slightly ashamed, I grabbed a flyer and sauntered off to class.

As I shuffled through the door, the graduate student instructor smiled and said with more than a hint of sarcasm, “I’m glad you made it.”

Racked with guilt coming from all sides, I looked at him and said, “Uhm, you know, there’s a boycott of classes today…”

He looked at me incredulously and said, “Dude, are you serious? Don’t walk out. I used to do that shit all of the time and there’s nothing more useless you could do to help immigrants than walking out of class. Trust me.”

Dumbfounded and intimidated, I took my normal seat in the back. I thought of all the responses I could have thrown back at this disillusioned former activist. But I couldn’t escape the mental image of the trash cans filled with crumpled flyers, the articles about the politically apathetic Asian American population at Cal, and protestors giving zealous speeches into loudspeakers that only motivated passersby to turn up the volume on their iPods.

For the record, I am far from being a strong political activist. Nearly a decade ago, when I first began my undergraduate studies, I joined a protest to end discrimination against Arab Americans after 9/11. After waving signs and shouting at the top of my lungs, I felt great. I felt mobilized, active, and more than anything, proud. But as the weeks passed and the political uproar dwindled, it dawned on me that our efforts had done little to curtail the continuing violent attacks against Arab Americans and the slow appropriation of American civil rights.

After that sad epiphany six years ago and reading more than my fair share of Milan Kundera (quote# 2), I swore to myself that I would never again march with a massive protest, shout slogans, nor pump my fist in the air (unless it was at a sporting event). I decided that journalism would be the avenue through which I expressed my political inclinations, a decision that would prohibit me from feeling good about myself for simply standing in a crowd with others.

Now that I’m a “super-duper senior” (AKA “super slacker”), I’ve steadfastly abided by this mantra throughout my undergrad career. However, at that moment the hypocrisy was agonizing, especially after I had written multiple articles about the importance of immigrant rights, lambasting my fellow Asian American students for not understanding the importance of the last year’s protests (page 3). Even hyphen represented last year at these major events. But this year, when the immigration movement needs more support than ever with the continuing raids by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agencies that are separating families, where were all of last year’s galvanized and fervent students? My face burned red.

Five minutes before the march was set to begin, I gritted my teeth and walked out of class. The instructor smirked at me and said, “Have fun,” as if that were my goal. “Believe me,” I thought, “fun would have been to ditch class completely and sleep in like I normally do when there are picket lines on campus.”

About forty strong, we left campus and walked against traffic along Telegraph Ave towards the Oakland City Center. I looked at all the students hustling past us to class, as I had only an hour ago, and felt disheartened. Among us, I counted very few actual students, and after a few blocks, and quite a few angry honks from already irritated morning commuters, most of the twenty-somethings with backpacks on began to peel off.

What began as a solidified march of the penguins-style protest turned into a rag-tag group of individuals trying their best to retain courage in the face of road rage. Despite my impulse to be interpellated, I tried my best ignore the double yellow lines and traffic lights against the behest of our small police escort. At Alcatraz Avenue, the Berkeley Police Department left us to the traffic. Soon after, the batteries in the protest leader’s microphone gave out, children began to whine asking to be carried by piggy-back, and my feet began to hurt when I saw the hazy outline of the Oakland Federal Building in the distant horizon.

But as we continued marching into the less affluent areas, we garnered more and more support. While we still received the occasional middle finger, drivers began to honk in encouragement, giving us a wave and a thumbs-up. People cheered as we walked past, and every few blocks or so a new contingent of American-flag waving protestors would join the walk. Every additional member was greeted with a huge cheer. As we passed 40th Street, our entourage had grown into the hundreds. High school and middle school students, who had joined us by jumping over fences chained by campus administrators in anticipation of the walkout, cajoled us with their antics and high-spirits. Soon a large contingent of Oakland police officers walked alongside us and blocked off intersections. We were too large to ignore. Suddenly, a six mile walk on a spring day didn’t seem too bad.

One of the marchers I was lucky enough to meet was Ramon, a recently laid-off construction worker and father of five. He had just turned in a job application in Berkeley when he saw us impeding traffic and spontaneously joined. Upon meeting me, he noted that I was the only Asian in our brigade. After having my morning caffeine, I was fully prepared for the conversation this time, and I informed him that out of the projected 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US, over a million originate from Asia. We just happened to be walking through Oakland Koreatown, and I pointed at the stores and restaurants and estimated that a few of the onlookers were in all likelihood immigrants that had overstayed their visas and were now working for poverty wages in this ethnic enclave. I then went on to tell him about how racist and unfair immigration laws had been leveled against Asian Americans since the mid 19th century, culminating with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Using cheap labor to bolster the economy is an American tradition.

Ramon then asked me, “Then how come more of Asians aren’t marching with us?”

A variety of responses flashed through my head, but none seemed adequate. I tried to explain that there hadn’t been much effort to reach out to this marginalized, but massive populace, and that myths perpetuated about Asians being the model minority had made it significantly harder for them to mobilize politically. I even forwarded a hypothesis that the media’s portrayal of the immigrant rights movement as being just a “Mexican issue” had convinced them that it wasn’t their struggle.

In the end, I just told him: “Well, I’m here.” And he smiled.

Just as our conversation ended, we rounded the corner of 14th and Broadway and met with a huge roar. We looked ahead to see thousands of protestors that had marched to the city center from the Fruitvale BART station. Cheers erupted from our ranks, as we scuttled to join the group moving towards the rallying point.

As I sifted through the enormous crowd in a fruitless search for my sister who had marched with the coalition from Laney College, I was happy to see people of all ethnicities, Asian included, chanting: “Si, se puede!”, “Pueblo escucha! Estamos en la lucha!” (“People listen! We’re in the fight together!”), and “El pueblo unido, jamas sera vencido!” (“The people united will never be defeated!”).

I felt like a visa-less Mayflower pilgrim that had just sighted land after nearly a year at sea. This was the promise of America: opportunity for everyone, not just those that have the financial means to obtain a green card. After all, except for those of American Indian descent, we’re all the children of immigrants. This is everyone’s fight, even mine.