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Protesters are music to his ears

MORE than a century ago, poet Walt Whitman heard America singing.

He heard a carpenter, a deckhand on a steamboat and the “varied carols” of a shoemaker, a ploughboy and a woodcutter.

Whitman was heeding the chorale of a growing America, the husky basso of strength and happiness, the vibrato of hope and union.

That was before the dominating roar of machinery, the beep of electronics and the barely audible whisper of words and images flying through cyberspace.

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Whitman was celebrating the creative labor of a nation at work at a time less complicated than the entangled relationships between worker and employer that exist today; the tenuous unity of a string, easily broken.

The singing he might hear if he walked the streets of 21st century America would include the rising voices of diversity that filled the air Saturday when up to a million people gathered in the heart of L.A. to announce a new presence at the bargaining table of decision making.

It was a joyful sound, an a cappella in Spanish and English, a “yes we can!” in two languages, challenging the moral antinomies that exist in the silence beyond the harmony. The music was a symphony of hope sung by Latinos and whites and Asians and blacks, in the new America of many voices.

Whitman would have heard the music of protest, sung fortissimo, because poets sense what others miss. They perceive the strings as well as the drums, and glory in the grand union of their orchestration.

He would have heard the hatreds too, and the fears of those who hide from the new music, because the marchers in the streets both Saturday and thereafter sang of change, and a million voices rising down Broadway and into the side streets and onto the freeways is a powerful and unsettling choir for those who seek refuge in the status quo.

The march came in response to the demagogues who would criminalize the presence of “illegals” in America, who would deny the children of immigrants the services that others are granted, often in excess, who would build walls to keep out those who work our fields, clean our houses, dig in our gardens.

Saturday’s music, and the music that continues to swell in other parts of the new America, says, “We are people too!” and ennobles the human race by its diversity and its unity, beyond borders, beyond biases, beyond the protected margins of country and continent. It says, “Respect us!”

I heard the music of their message on the fringes of the crowd Saturday as it spread into the garment district and the flower mart, down lower Broadway and Main and Figueroa. They were young people generally, which surprised me at first, but it shouldn’t have.

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Many great revolutions for social change have historically originated on campuses, among students who see futures no longer clear to their elders, who yearn for days the old won’t live to enjoy. The young pursue the tomorrows of which they sing.

When I returned to my computer, there was an e-mail message awaiting me. In the subject section it said: “Thanks for the wake up call!” At first, I thought it referred to hearing the music of equality still resonating in the streets of L.A. Instead, it was a call to rally those who see America as an island, and to label the millions who seek its promises as intruders.

The music of our land is also the music of legislation, and we hear among the discordant tunes of protectionists the sanity of softer voices who sing of better ways, more human ways, to deal with the masses that risk their lives to hear freedom’s sweet song as we do, up close.

The e-mailer warned of those “carrying another country’s flag.” But among the marchers who waved the banner of Mexico were at least as many waving the Stars and Stripes, carried over one of the greatest mass gatherings of immigrants the nation has ever seen, here, where newness is a credo and change snaps in the wind.

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Humanizing the laws that would allow both entry and contribution won’t be easy. Legislators, the queasy people we vote into office, and voters, to whom the future is scary, will squirm and duck in the face of this new migration, as they cowed and hid from each wave of foreign newcomers to our shores.

But Saturday told us that the immigrants will come and they will demand respect. On a day as bright as heaven, we heard America singing, and the varied carols of joyful protesters resounded over the land.

Al Martinez’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. E-mail al.martinez@latimes.com.


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