The politics of protest

IT SAYS SOMETHING ABOUT THE patience and good humor of those protesting U.S. immigration policy that they have embraced suggestions from the very people who would love to see many of them deported. After last month's impressive rally in downtown Los Angeles, some pundits and politicians noted with grave disapproval that a sizable minority of national insignia on display at the demonstration showed the colors of Mexico. "They need to be carrying American flags," declared Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.).

At the modest candlelight vigil at La Placita Church on Monday night, attended by several thousand, most of the few Mexican and Salvadoran flags were rolled up at the request of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa exhorted the crowd to "wave those American flags!"

That was one contrast with last month's demonstration, which drew 500,000 people. Despite that peaceful and upbeat assembly, some commentators warned that the magnitude of the protests planned for Monday — when hundreds of thousands marched in scores of U.S. cities — could trigger a counterproductive backlash. When Monday's protests revealed a sea of Old Glory, the complaint shifted. Obviously, critics noted, the protesters were instructed to do so. Anti-demonstration bloggers with blurry camera phones did their level best to reveal the Che Guevara T-shirts the mainstream media were afraid to show you. And despite the calm proceedings, some commentators remained in full alarm. "At some point," one cable news commentator warned, "this could all turn very violent as Americans become fed up."

It is a paranoid fantasy that Latino immigrants are any less patriotic than the Europeans who came here a century ago. One in 20 of those who currently serve in the U.S. armed forces are foreign-born. More than 20,000 U.S. soldiers have been naturalized since 9/11, and 75 achieved full legal status by dying for their country. But such is the political climate protesters are navigating.

Today's protesters are facing criticism no different from that leveled against the civil rights movement four decades ago. "Mass demonstrations serve a useful purpose in focusing attention on the running sore of racial oppression. But they also strengthen diehard, extremist opposition," one newspaper editorial warned in 1965. Organizers "should ask themselves whether their cause would not be better served now by a period of calm … rather than by new demonstrations which heat the emotions and fears even of moderate" citizens. That newspaper was the one you are now reading, and the organizers it was addressing were those who marched on Montgomery, Ala.

Marching publicly and chanting slogans is not the same as being right, as French students prove almost daily. And size doesn't equal political momentum, as the 300,000 who traveled to New York in 2004 to demonstrate at the Republican National Convention can attest. But it's both striking and hopeful that in the face of the Senate's failure to produce a reform bill, the protesters have presented their arguments in such a dignified way.

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