By 8:30 on the morning of May 1, the kids in white had gathered on the sidewalk in front of Citibank, a few doors down from Casual Male Big & Tall and across the street from Boudin Bakery & Cafe and Bank of America, where the cops in the ballistic vests had taken up position. The cops and the kids were like the terminals of an idle battery: purposefully separated, nervously charged, and waiting for the switch to be thrown. And soon it was, by a traffic-confounding battalion of bicyclists careening along Market Street, yelling chants and banging on kitchenware. As the cacophony passed Citibank, the kids in white flooded off the sidewalk to welcome it, and the agglomeration marched and pedaled off down the boulevard toward the Ferry Building, cops in awkward pursuit. In front of Boudin, a barista took in the spectacle. “San Francisco,” she marveled, laughing. “No matter what they’re protesting, they always march on the sunny side of the street.”
Sure enough, for the next few hours, the protest abided by the standard rules of engagement, the slogan-shouters and fist-pumpers returning up Market and looping through the business district, and every time they passed Casual Male they seemed to have doubled in numbers and noise. The cops tagged along lugging riot helmets, and by 9:30 they were wearing them. The face shields were down, and the tensions up. But then the script fell apart. By noon, when the events of Un Día Sin Inmigrantes had reached critical mass and the marchers had become 50,000 strong on Market Street—and 75,000 in Denver; 100,000 in San Jose; 400,000 each in Los Angeles and Chicago—a mysterious change had waved its wand over the protest. The crowds were whistling and cheering in a festival of American and Latin American flags; the cops were spectating from the sidelines, relaxed and laughing; and some among the office workers caught in the frenzy only because they were headed out to lunch found themselves unaccountably moved by what they saw. May Day had transmogrified into the Fourth of July.
few behaviors so reliably characterize a nation as the manner of its protests. (For documentation, compare the accounts of Piolín and Patkar, pages 13 and 17, and the column by James Galbraith, page 26.) There is nothing in the United States to resemble the near-ecstatic male rage of a street demonstration in Tehran or Ramallah, and nothing like the choreographed Grand Guignol anarchy of a Paris manifestation: We’re neither bred to those things nor trained. Our own homegrown forms of protest, unfortunately, have fallen into disrepair. Any American who has taken to the streets to defend a cause knows the problem. However useful, whatever their compensations of solidarity and comradeship, marches tend to be dispiriting exercises. There have been some sweet innovations, like the cell-phone mobilizing that in 1999 turned the ponderous infantry of Seattle into an anti-wto light cavalry. But by and large, our protests are as ossified an art form as contra dancing. When the chants (Whaddawe want? Whennawe want it?) are twice as old as the chanters yelling “Now!” (has “Now” ever seemed so “Then”?), one gets the distinct impression that we’re deploying a creaky old war nag against a very innovative opponent.
This is partly a matter of style. The late Stew Albert, founding yippie and prominent veteran of such landmarks of civic misbehavior as Chicago ’68, expressed in his blog and Internet postings his disappointment with some of the anti-Iraq-war rallies he attended in 2002 and 2003: the “funereal tone…the predictable coffins and die-ins,” the litany of “personal grand philosophies and causes,” “the usual tales of woe folk songs…sung in the manner of a dirge,” and “laundry lists of demands and nobody really listens.”
The frayed stagecraft reflects a prevailing reality. When power has been winning for so long it no longer takes note of dissent, when discord is cordoned off into designated “free speech zones,” dissent can be hard to maintain without resignation or escalation. That’s why a blue funk of preordained defeat has seemed built into the dna of many modern protests. Behind the bluster and racket, we hear the life grumble of citizens who have been summarily shunned, locked outside the walls of civic debate. From that far exile, no protest can long prosper. Sure, protest is oppositional to power, by definition. But it is also an ardent exercise of citizenship, an application to full franchise, an appeal to power, and when that appeal is as routinely rebuffed as it has been of late, neither the defenders of the status quo nor its assailants remain undisfigured.
The Un Día Sin Inmigrantes marches broke this stalemate. For one thing, the protesters had an ironclad credential: They were, as the phrase goes, organic to the system, meaning the economy couldn’t survive without them. No one dared meet this mass with jeers of “Get a job!” The marchers’ own chants were anything but complaining. “Peace and Plenty,” they repeated, and “Sí se puede.” That undimmed aspiration made the marches a patriotic mobilization by a group whose Americanism still shines from fresh minting. Citizenship, the unstated demand of any protest, was explicit here. And so, finally, voice was explicitly given to a disfranchised mass far larger than the immigrants, including the multitude of Americans whose good sense and outrage have gone unheeded by their current government. It was the first national victory parade the left has enjoyed in quite a while.
In fact, “protest” seems the wrong name for such triumphant expression. “Protest” better describes the anti-immigrant crankiness of our curmudgeonly Congress, unaware it has already lost the battle. “Mañana votamos,” the protesters sang. Whatever else they wanted, they weren’t asking to be endowed with Americanism, for they were already patriots, the most ardent America has. That’s what the marchers were celebrating, their residency in that deep citizenship. They were doing something else, too: inviting us in.