Un Pueblo Unido: Scenes From Houston's Immigration Protest

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Photos by Katharine Shilcutt
An estimated 7,000 people took to the streets of Gulfton on Saturday afternoon, part of a coordinated series of national protests against the passage of Arizona's SB 1070, a bill which many Hispanics in Arizona and across the nation have decried as racial profiling and have compared to Hitler's treatment of the Jews in Nazi Germany.

True to these comparisons, many protesters carried signs displaying swastikas and slogans like "Say no to Juan Crow laws." Aside from these potentially incendiary signs, however, the protest was non-violent, well-mannered and in keeping with Houston's generally laid-back attitude, while driving the point home that these thousands of people want only one thing: comprehensive immigration reform. Cars driving by the marchers as they wound down Bellaire Boulevard and Chimney Rock honked in solidarity, while HPD officers from the mounted division kept a stern eye on counterprotesters who showed up along the protest route.

Although a turnout of 7,000 is nothing to scoff at (and far more than the 1,000 that turned out in New York City), other cities across the nation saw much larger crowds at their events. Dallas had an estimated 20,000 protestors while Los Angeles saw about 50,000 protestors hit the streets.

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Bystanders watch the protestors march down Chimney Rock.
Professor Lorenzo Cano, the associate dean of Mexican-American Studies at the University of Houston, attributed our smaller turnout not to fears of an immigration crackdown, as had been rumored, but something much more benign: "It's very difficult to get the word out to people these days. A lot of the Spanish-language radio stations are not going out of their way to announce this or push for this thing. Part of the issue is that they're part of a broader corporate ownership and probably the word came down not to promote it, not to get involved in this effort."

Despite this, the crowd of 7,000 made themselves heard, from the thousands of signs to the loud cries of "Obama, escucha! Estamos en la lucha!" and "Un pueblo unido jamás será vencido." The old standby "Si se puede" was chanted throughout the march, with many protesters holding up yellow signs emblazoned with the slogan, courtesy of KPFT.

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Once the march reached Burnett Bayland Park, right next door to the courthouse on Chimney Rock, the protestors rallied around a main stage, listening to speaker after speaker address the crowd, which was heavily Hispanic but also featured healthy contingents of whites, blacks and Asians.

Congressman Al Green spoke with verve: "We stand with our Latino brothers and sisters!" he declared as the crowd greeted him with wild cheers. Across the park, the counterprotesters had caught up with the march and were cornered by HPD officers on horses.

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Actively discouraging any interaction between the counterprotesters and the main crowd, protest organizers directed people away from the area, yelling into the megaphones and pointing back to the main stage: "Allá es la reforma! Vamos a la reforma!" and warning anyone who thought they might make the 5 o'clock news that "No aceptamos provocaciones!" The tactics worked, as the protesters largely ignored the Minutemen and other assorted counterprotesters, who eventually left.

Back in the park, hundreds of Hispanics filled out paperwork at a makeshift voter registration table while others passed out cold bottled water to their fellow protesters. Despite it being only the first day of May, the sweltering 80-degree weather was oppressive. By 6 p.m., the protest -- which had begun at the corner of Belliare and Renwick at 4 p.m. -- was over, the crowd dissipating as some walked back to their cars and others took their children to the water park for some cooling off.

Asked if he thought the event was a success, Professor Cano answered, "I think any time you can get people to come out and publicly protest something that's unjust, you have to tip your hat to them and say 'That's a good thing.'"

For more photos from the protest, visit our slideshow.

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