Last week I was proud to be an American. On March 25, more than a million of my fellow freedom-loving countrymen and women took to the streets all over this great land to march peacefully in defense of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The fact that they were primarily Mexican-Americans, Central Americans and Latin Americans only underscored the diversity of deep-rooted democratic traditions that are native to this hemisphere.
Likewise, the heady days of demonstrations, forums, teach-ins and student walkouts that followed were significantly more than a gust of positive momentum from that initial wind of destiny that blew across the country in a week that was bookended by Cesar Chavez Day.
Certainly, the great labor organizer and civil-rights leader would have been proud of this non-violent protest heard round the world. Truth be told, the peaceful demonstrations that took place last week stood in marked contrast to the violence of House bill 4437, a tidy blueprint for mass roundups and denial of due process that I'm sure sounded more palatable in its original German. Simply put, if it had passed as presented, the terrorists would have won.
Chief among its many brutalities are the erosion of due process, confiscation of property, mandatory prison sentences and classification as felons for undocumented immigrants and anyone who "aids or assists" them. This means that doctors, clergy, employers, teachers, relatives and good Samaritans around the country would have been threatened with felony convictions, thereby denying them the right to vote for life.
I was in Orange County during the week, teaching high-school students how to use video and the Internet to create social-justice communities. Some had walked out of class, but many had not. Most agreed that they should find other avenues for constructive action, such as writing their representatives. Nonetheless, all of them were extremely articulate as to how they felt about HR 4437. Deep in their hearts, they knew it was wrong.
In their accounts of the walkouts, they spoke of seeing students pepper-sprayed by police, as occurred here in Oceanside. Their schools had been placed in "lockdown," a term which is also used in prisons. The scenes they recounted mirrored those of the 1968 walkouts, which were depicted in the recent HBO movie Walkout.
All the principles they'd learned in school about social justice were suddenly being put to use. These students, who face a 45-percent nationwide dropout rate, minimum-wage jobs and constant pressure from recruiters to join the military, had every reason to feel disenfranchised from the American Dream. And yet the spark of liberty was ignited in them, not only for themselves, but also for their parents and, just so there's no mistaking, for the future of America.
Old Glory waved proudly alongside flags from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and many countries where U.S. involvement in the 1980s resulted in large populations heading north. These were the children of those refugees. Compared to the volcanic protests that have kept Paris in flames this year, the protests against HR 4437 are models of civility.
I attended a student press conference at one Orange County high school, which consisted of about 50 students. The students carried signs that read "I Have A Dream," "I Am a Student, Not a Criminal" and "No Human is Illegal."
"I am protesting," said one student, "because my parents can't."
While certainly not as large as the 2,000 or so youths who gathered at Chicano Park last week, the press conference was effective at bringing several TV news crews, and the students spoke their piece. The local Fox news cameraman tried to bait one student who did not speak English into an interview. "I'll bet you weren't born here, either," he told the student, who refused to be interviewed. Unable to goad the student, the Fox cameraman turned his attention to one of the teachers, the wife of a Latino man running for the state Assembly.
Although the great majority of students who protested HR 4437 are not old enough to vote, they will be very soon. For those who have undocumented family members, the threat of losing this right has made it substantially more precious. They voted with their feet last week, and you can bet they will take the electoral process more seriously after this experience. If the peaceful actions of the past week are any indication, this generation will be instrumental in rescuing America from those who would destroy the liberties upon which the country was built.
Many students I talked to were surprised to learn that debate in the U.S. Senate had taken a much lass harsh tone; even the conservatives were offering legislation that was more liberal than the House bill. Their eyes lit up with pride when they realized that nonviolent protest could affect a positive change. The mountain had been moved, however slightly, and they helped move it.
But this was just one skirmish in a longer fight, one that stretches back for generations. It's clear that the students and the immigrants know this. They have gained a new perspective on their community, of its history and of their own roles in this society. They learned that you have to fight to defend your freedoms, not just in a war overseas, but in the war at home. They learned to defend the inalienable rights of those who cannot defend themselves. In short, they learned what it means to be American.
Victor Payan is a writer/producer and co-creator of keeponcrossin.com.