Strange bedfellows

May 20, 2006|By MARJORIE VALBRUN

President Bush's nationally televised speech this week on immigration reform may have jump-started stalled negotiations in Congress, but the real action and more colorful debate took place outside the halls of the Capitol a few days earlier.

Just beyond the Senate building, on a grassy knoll that is the Upper Senate Park, an assortment of like-minded demonstrators - they prefer to be called patriots - held forth on the finer details of an issue that has lately divided Americans along racial, political and ethnic lines. Not so this group of about 100 mostly middle-age white conservatives, interspersed with a handful of black activists, a sprinkling of angry housewives and grandmothers, and idealistic college students.

They rallied under the banner of the Minuteman Project, united in their belief that the U.S. is under "invasion" by millions of illegal immigrants who are destroying the economy and altering American culture - and not in the feel-good, melting-pot kind of way.

Shared outrage makes for strange bedfellows, which would explain the incongruent juxtaposition of a few black men, calling themselves "the Crispus Attucks Brigade," teaming up with a group of mostly white men to oppose granting amnesty to undocumented brown people.

"This issue trumps our problems with white people," said Jack Johnson, a father of two and a marketing salesman who traveled from Los Angeles to attend the rally. "Illegal immigration hurts black people the most."

Mr. Johnson said well-paying construction jobs that were once a path to the middle class for black men now go almost exclusively to Hispanic immigrants who work for less pay.

"If we can get some support from white people on this, I welcome it. We need to do something about illegal immigration now; we can go back to dealing with our differences with white people later," he said.

Ted Hayes, formerly of Aberdeen and now a Los Angeles activist, heads the Crispus Attucks Brigade and said their concerns reflect larger American sentiments. "Black people have a stake in this country," said Mr. Hayes, whose dreadlocked hair, ankle-length hooded robe and black velvet boots were a stark contrast to the mostly jeans-wearing Minutemen. "We have no problem with legal immigrants, but illegal immigrants are breaking the law."

The brigade is named after a black man who was the first to die in what was to become the American Revolution; Crispus Attucks was killed, as were four others after him, in the Boston Massacre in 1770.

As Mr. Hayes and two other black demonstrators held court with reporters covering the rally, Jay Marx, a white roller-blader from D.C., listened quietly, looking slightly disappointed. "Doesn't this seem racist to you?" he finally asked them. They responded that it did not.

"I object to the Minutemen appropriating the name of heroic American Revolutionary soldiers as a cover for their vigilantism with its racist, elitist and xenophobic strain," he said. "If they seem racist to me, why don't they seem racist to some African-Americans and Latinos?"

Mr. Hayes said they were looking at the bigger picture. Illegal immigrants from Mexico should not be demanding rights in the U.S., he said. They should be protesting against the Mexican government and demanding jobs and a decent standard of living back home.

"Black people have the moral high ground in this battle," he said. "We didn't go to Canada and Mexico to fight for our civil rights - we fought for them right here."

Mr. Hayes was back at the grassy knoll two days later at another rally he had organized to draw African-Americans who shared his views. Only two black people showed, however - Mr. Hayes and Cameron Bonner, a supporter from Los Angeles. They held the rally anyway and Mr. Hayes held court for three hours with an audience of 12 white Minutemen and women.

One of them came up to Mr. Hayes afterward. "Where are all the black people?" he asked. "I'm very disappointed."

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