Tens of thousands of protesters from across the country marched from Indian Steele Park in mid-town Phoenix to the state Capitol May 29, trying to send a message to state and federal politicians: Repeal Arizona’s new immigration law.
The protesters say Arizona’s new law promotes racial profiling and degrades the civil rights of every Hispanic person in Arizona. The May 29 march is the first demonstration of what organizers say will be a long summer of activism to raise awareness of their discontent. Many of the organizers of the protest are also promoting the recent boycotts against Arizona over the new law.
Alfredo Gutierrez, a former Democratic state senator and one of the directors of Somos America, a Hispanic civil rights activist organization, estimated the crowd at more than 50,000 people when the march began. Salvador Reza, an activist with Puente Movement and one of the protest’s organizers, said the front of the march reached the Capitol when the back of the crowd was still at Central & Virginia, a distance of about 3.5 miles.
Police refused to provide an official estimate of the crowd size.
Once the crowd reached the Capitol, poets, musicians and politicians took to a large stage set up on the Capitol lawn to express their support for the rally.
Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon thanked the crowd for remaining peaceful and commended the police for their work, before extolling the protesters for keeping Arizona and the issue of immigration reform in the national spotlight. Gordon said the continued protests of the new law is the only way to prompt federal action to fix the federal immigration system.
“Welcome to the site of the next civil-rights movement,” Gordon said. “There’s more than just hope here, there’s action.”
Gordon said the upside to Arizona’s new law is that it has prompted the federal government to begin working toward comprehensive immigration reform.
“Immigration reform is now front and center,” Gordon said.
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democratic from Phoenix, said she has personally asked Tom Perez, who works for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department, to advance a lawsuit against Arizona over the new law, and that she will continue to organize community events to oppose the law.
Reza said President Obama is responsible for doing whatever is necessary to stop the new law from going into effect, and that if the federal government does not take action against it, he thinks there will be more vociferous opposition to come.
“There’s going to be more boycotts against Arizona, and if Obama lets this fester, we’re going to have boycotts against the U.S., just like with South Africa in apartheid,” Reza said. “I hope it doesn’t get to that, but if it does, it’s going to be on Obama’s hands.”
Gutierrez said the May 29 march is part of a larger strategy to get Arizona’s new law repealed and convince politicians to change federal immigration policy.
“It’s going to be a long and difficult summer with this new law going into effect,” Gutierrez said, “but we’re going to have actions like this, with thousands of people coming out to resist the law, take part in civic engagement, show that we’re not backing down and promote regime change.”
Gutierrez said the economic boycotts of Arizona have already been tremendously effective by putting pressure on businesses in Arizona to push for the law’s repeal.
“Look at the Diamondbacks,” Gutierrez said. “Their owner, Ken Kendrick, specifically contributed to the lawmakers who made this possible. So we’re not going to give him another dime. And every time the Diamondbacks go to L.A., Miami, New York, anywhere, Hispanics should be there protesting.”
About 7,000 supporters of Arizona’s law gathered Saturday evening at a baseball stadium in suburban Tempe, encouraging like-minded Americans to “buycott” Arizona by planning vacations in the state.
Charlene Pellin answered that call. The 64-year-old suicide prevention speaker drove to Phoenix for a four-day vacation from her home in Huntington Beach, Calif., to attend Saturday’s rally.
“Hopefully if enough people show support for Arizona more states will follow suit,” Pellin said.
Supporters said they are standing with Arizona for trying to enforce immigration laws because the federal government has failed to do so.
“The operative word in all this is ‘illegal,'” said Christine Griswold, a 54-year-old gynecologist in Palm Desert, Calif. “It has nothing to do with their race. It’s that they’re coming to the country illegally.”
The law requires that police conducting traffic stops or questioning people about possible legal violations ask them about their immigration status if there is “reasonable suspicion” that they’re in the country illegally.
Critics of the law, set to take effect July 29, say it unfairly targets Hispanics and could lead to racial profiling. Proponents insist racial profiling will not be tolerated, but civil rights leaders worry that officers will still assume illegal immigrants are Hispanic.
Humberto Gomez, a representative of Labors’ International Union of North America, who immigrated to the U.S. during the 1980s and now lives in Los Angeles, said his union will not be passive during the passage of laws his group sees as unfair.
“Being here is business and personal,” Gomez said. “We need to send a message to Washington that the only solution is to make comprehensive immigration reform. It’s their responsibility.”
Pablo Alvarado, a representative of the National Day Labor Organizing Network, said his group invited members from across the country, and that he knew of people coming from at least a half-dozen states.
Alvarado, who became a citizen in 2008, said he was proud to cast his first vote as an American for Barack Obama. But now Alvarado says President Obama needs to live up to the change he promised during the campaign.
“The only way for 1070 to get repealed is with the Obama administration,” Alvarado said. “He can make the federal agents refuse to accept those arrested under this law, with the stroke of his pen.”
To deal with the massive crowd, several different city and state police agencies coordinated a large task force, made of hundreds of officers, to make sure the protest remained safe. Arizona Capitol Police Cmdr. Andy Staubitz said his officers have teamed up with the Department of Public Safety, the Phoenix Police Department and horse- and bicycle-mounted police from Scottsdale and Tempe to monitor the Capitol.
Staubitz said there were no arrests during the march or the rally, only a few heat-related medical incidents of dehydration.
“I’ve got all my officers down here at the Capitol today,” Staubitz said. “Everything went according to plan, and we didn’t have any trouble. There were a small number of counter-protesters, but nothing got out of hand.”
The new law, which makes being in the country illegally a state crime and requires local police officers to check the immigration status of someone where there is “reasonable suspicion” that they may be in the country illegally, goes into effect on July 29.
-The Associated Press contributed to this story.