For good reason, many Americans are outraged by HR 4437, a House bill that will stiffen the penalties around illegal immigration. Over the weekend, protests began with over 500,000 people taking to the streets on Saturday. Online, teens wrote bulletin board posts on MySpace, encouraging their peers to speak out against the bill. On Monday, instigated through MySpace postings, thousands of teens across the country walked out of school and marched in protest. In Los Angeles alone, 36,000 students walked out and took to the streets. Throughout the country, thousands of teens walked out in protest.
I am in awe of what these students did. As a population, teens are silenced by society, ineligible to vote. And yet, they took to the streets to stand up for what they believe in. They used the digital public to rally each other, to spread information and encouragement even though most knew they faced disapproving schools. They stood in solidarity, speaking out for an oppressed population that resides in this country. How amazing is that?
What disappoints me the most is how school officials, law enforcement and the press handled the situation. We bitch about how young people are not politically engaged, but when they speak out for something that hegemonic society disapproves of, they are slapped down. Ah, the irony.
Public officials and school administrators spoke out against the students’ actions. Quoting these figures, the press gave the impression that administrators were concerned for the safety of their students. The discussions on MySpace painted a different picture as students discussed how schools would be docked $50 for each student who did not attend. In admonishing the students, administrators told the press that kids should return to school where they can have conversations about immigration in a “productive” way. The tone was quite condescending, arguing that a school day is more important than this political act. When LA Mayor Villaraigosa spoke to the young protesters, he said: “You’ve come today, you registered your commitment to your families, your opposition to the Sensenbrenner legislation, but it’s time to go back to school.” I am particularly bothered by Villaraigosa’s statements given his activist history and stance on immigrants.
In some towns, teens were charged with truancy for participating in the protest. Many students are faced with detentions and other punishments for their participation.
And people wonder why teens don’t engage politically…..
Of course, what is most depressing is how the press covered the story. The first coverage i heard was from NPR where they had soundbytes of youth stumbling, trying to explain why they were protesting. The coverage made them look stupid and naive and the commentator talked about how the youth were uninformed.
Now, not all of the protesting youth fully understood what they were speaking out against. Yet, most did. At the very least, they understood that something was gravely wrong about the bill. Yet, many students were quite informed. Articulate students spoke about how the bill represented a form of racist oppression that would permit racial profiling. Other spoke about the fundamental problems with the economic system, about how Mexicans are a critical labor force that is systematically oppressed. Other kids talked about how their parents came to this country to give them a chance. They crafted banners and posters, brought flags to signify the diversity of cultures that people came from, chanted about Cesar Chavez and human rights.
And still, the press talked about how the students were just looking for a day off school. Almost every story covered that aspect. There is no doubt that some students were looking for exactly that. Then again, there were plenty of adults protesting the war so that they didn’t have to go to work. Yet, the news never talked about truant adults.
By trivializing the youths’ participation, the press failed to capture the significance of this political act. How long has it been since so many students took a public stance? Has it been since Vietnam?
What is gained by belittling the students, punishing their act, and pooh-poohing their engagement with the public sphere? Sadly, this is yet-another act of ageist oppression meant to silence the youth when they stand for something that contradicts hegemonic values.
One of the things that really bothers me about how this story played out concerns the issue of race and class. I wonder how a protest would be handled if privileged white kids all took to the streets backed by their parents. By listening to these teens speak out, it is clear that anti-Mexican sentiments are running high in this country.
The issue of illegal immigrants is raw with racism and injustice. On one hand, we are a land of immigrants (who decimated the native population). On the other, we have a fucked-up attitude about who has the right to be here. And that does not include people who come to do manual labor or people who speak a language that threatens English dominance.
To complicate matters, a huge portion of the economy of the southwest and California depends on illegal immigrants. Who picks the strawberries that you eat? Who works in the meat factories? Who cleans the toilets? How often do officials look the other way during harvest only to violently deport the immigrants once they are no longer needed? I often hear people bitch about how illegal immigrants take jobs away from Americans and use up our precious tax money. Of course, these people fail to recognize that most Americans refuse to do the jobs that illegal immigrants do and that this population deserves some dignity and access to resources for what they contribute to this society.
I’m quite curious what will happen to privileged society if all illegal immigrants are deported. Will there be a food shortage? How much will the cost of everything rise?
Unfortunately, i doubt that this bill will do anything to help the people who are the backbone of American manual labor. I doubt it will improve labor conditions and it certainly won’t improve race relations. This is quite unfortunate, because i definitely don’t think that the current approach to immigrants is just. Where is Cesar Chavez when you need him?
Update: NPR has a great short piece on the issue of students walking out.
It’s actually really good to hear the principal in this segment talk about her conflicted feelings – she makes it very clear that she needs to keep the students in school for the money (Fresno loses $30 a day for each absent student). What adminstrators are offering students as an alternative (write letters to your representatives) is not nearly as empowering as walking out. IMHO, the students aren’t stupid – they know that walking out of school will get the press attention and make the issue far more visible than writing letters. They also know that doing it on a school day instead of on a weekend will make it very clear that youth care and that they aren’t just there because of their parents. They were written out of the stories of Saturday’s protests (even though they were very present). By making their own, they are saying loud and clear that this isn’t acceptable to the younger generation.