RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Learn from the New Guys

The stunning images of immigrant marchers in the major cities of America absolutely demonstrated the power and determination of a group that were off many of our radar screens. Here is a partial list of the numbers that turned out, according to Z Magazine: 10,000 in Phoenix. 30,000 in Milwaukee. 50,000 in Denver. A million in LA.

Even the small marches, like the 200 marchers in Providence, R.I., got good press. Within hours of the marches, the urgency of finding solutions to this extremely complex subject became clear to the general public. That is the power of a good, peaceful demonstration.

At the same time, there is an equally complicated set of issues in the middle east. Everyone in their right mind wants peace rather than war. But peace marches, which are the movement's major media opportunities and the major way to bring people into the antiwar movement, attract little attention.

What makes one issue so palpable while the other is so blurry? What can the peace seekers learn from the immigrants?

First of all, note that media consumers, leafing through the newspaper or punching radio buttons in the car, channel surfing or Googling, are looking for simple answers and simpler questions. Who died? Who's at fault? How will they pay? Those are the things that grab attention, whether it's in USA Today or William Shakespeare.

The immigrant-rights movement has done an excellent job of breaking their complex issue into simple questions. NPR's aristocratic centrist, Diane Rehm, conducted a discussion around the question of "Who will spread our mulch?" while radio hosts on the far right ranted "What are the jobs Americans don't want?" and litanied lists of the jobs the hosts themselves, now blabbing from air-conditioned radio studios, had performed before they were rich.

Who would do the low-paying jobs? How much do illegals cost in social services? What's the history of amnesty? Those questions hide much deeper complexity, of course, having to do with access to education and the insulting wages offered to labor of all kind. Despite the lack of consensus, the immigrants-rights issue has been broken into such small bites that the media and media consumers find a grab-hold.

Peace arguments, on the other hand, are mired in complexity. Instead of asking, "Who does the fighting? How much does it cost? What happened last time we had a war?" the peace movement gets bogged down in accusations and philosophy. Signs at the protests require explanation. "Who would Jesus bomb?" asks one, and "No war for oil" asks another.

Last month, when third-anniversary marches were called, the media reported that the rallies discussed ideas like "imposing Western ideas on a Middle Eastern Country." Compare that to "Who will spread the mulch?"

There is a time and place for philosophy and discussion. We need urgent discussion of US actions in every thoughtful venue. If the Washington Post and Sy Hersh of The New Yorker are correct, and our leaders are fantasizing about lobbing nuclear devices into Iran, we need to voice opposition and alternatives. At the same time, for the average media event, those discussions are too complex to attract people, or the media, into the peace tent.

An admirable piece of the immigrants-rights movement is the one-issue focus. Even though the participants come from all over the globe, speak many native tongues, represent every major and minor religious belief, work in every industry and display a diversity of educational backgrounds, they share one problem. Doctors, computer programmers, waiters, child care workers, multigenerational families and single people have united to solve it. This diversity is absolutely possible for the peace movement but, so far, only middle-class, educated intellectuals are carrying signs.

Perhaps the biggest achievement of the immigrants-rights organizers is getting the kids involved, and calling the marches for midweek rather than weekends. It's easy to get the word out in a high school -- just tell one charismatic kid and the word spreads geometrically through discussion, notes, texting and cell phones.

The genius of bringing in high school marchers is enhanced by the sometimes-foolish reactions of school officials when students leave class. While there's a bottom-line sensibility for the school officials, when school dollars depend on attendance days, it is still easy for the immigrant-rights leaders to claim that officials are insensitive or cruel when they act to keep students in class.

Peace activists should also be able to involve high schoolers in marches, since youth are often the victims of the war system. While teenaged apathy may have to do with violent video games, or increased military recruiting in the high schools, one reason must be that the peace movement hasn't really tried. It is highly unusual to see an experienced peace activist dragging a teen to a peace march or enlisting a garage band to bring their culture to liven up the scene.

The immigrant-rights movement is effective in pointing out the inadequacies of the current system. Don't know if they'll get the changes they need, but it's time the peace movement learns and gets the attention they deserve.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2006

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