Ruth Shepherd, director of the Just Communities of Arkansas, related an interesting anecdote at the group's annual banquet this week. Sampling racial feelings on a college campus, surveyors showed that answers could be influenced by the outlook of another person who turned up unexpectedly (a plant) and answered a question just as it was posed.
Thus: "Is there a racial problem here?"
The plant's answer -- variously given as yes or no -- was duplicated 90 percent of the time by the target of the question.
Moral: We are influenced by the witness and testimony of others.
This is a long windup for a report from Northwest Arkansas, where a group of peace activists and people friendly to the cause of immigrants turned up for a Springdale rally Thursday by Republican congressional candidate Gunner DeLay and immigration issue flame-thrower Tom Tancredo, the former congressman. Read on.
Tom Tancredo visits Springdale – Report from the Back Table
I hope Mr. Tancredo enjoyed his visit. I certainly did. Sometimes in this work of changing the world you get to feel like you accomplished something, and today was one of those days.
Mid afternoon, OMNI member Fernando Garcia called and said “can you come with us to Tom Tancredo's press conference? He's going to endorse Gunner Delay in Springdale, and it's in two hours.” There was only just time to shoot out a blast to the OMNI folks, and close up the office for the afternoon. I was so proud to have 3 other OMNI folks drop everything and show up too. Immigration is one of the biggest civil rights issue of our times, fraught with tension, and it's not always an easy thing to jump into a situation like this. I know more of you would have been there if you could. In fact a bunch of you wrote and told me so.
The press conference was at the Pontiac Coffeehouse on S. Thompson. It seems an odd place to hold an anti-immigrant endorsement, in a town that's 40% Hispanic and where the neighbors are all Mexican restaurants. But they seemed honestly surprised to see us. And before the talking even started it was clear that they were painfully aware of our presence. The other audience studiously ignored us, but the politicians and organizers shot us furtive and anxious glances. I counted the audience. There were 35 of “them” and 24 of “us”. We were a presence.
And we weren't all brown – as if it were brown vs. white. We were some of both. This is where allies come in. At the moment when push comes to shove, if allies are standing together they're both stronger. And the power of it showed. The “Secure Arkansas” people didn't quite feel confident enough to applaud when Tancredo made comments about Obama not respecting their constitution. They didn't cheer when Delay told them about the evils of multiculturalism and how illegals were taking their jobs. I think they wanted to, but the other humanity was palpably present and could not be dismissed so lightly.
After the talking was over the brown people and their friends high-tailed it to the parking lot where Tom and Gunner were posing for the 40/29 news camera. Bea got Gunner's ear for several minutes, and she gave him her mind. He quickly went from confident Mr. Bluster to a more sincere and uncertain tone. He finally had to give her the “please give me your email so we can continue this conversation” so she'd give up.
But his education wasn't finished. A tiny slip of a white woman with three very small, cute and Hispanic kids nabbed him next. What a politicians dilemma – the mandate to kiss babies faced off against the nativist angst about being seen kissing up to brown babies. The tiny mom told him straight up that her husband was a good, hardworking father and fine man who was also illegal. They had tried everything they could to get his papers straightened out, but needed help. He asked her if they'd tried getting a lawyer, and she said they had, but didn't have the $6,000 it takes to start the process. “$6,000 dollars?” Gunner marveled.
By this time Gunner is putting off amazingly humble vibes. I wonder if he's ever had this experience before? His handlers surround him and started shooing us away. They're all as tall as he is and look like linebackers. They may have been his sons.
Here's my feeling about those last 20 minutes in the parking lot: Bea and the tiny mom were very brave to go up to that great big 'ol would-be politician, stand their ground and make points with him. I'm really proud of them. But they couldn't have done that without a group of us standing at their backs. If over a third of the audience hadn't been clearly resisting the message Tancredo and Delay thought they were proud to make, it would have been much easier to dismiss them as marginal. Fernando Garcia and Jose Gomez organized the resistance. They made it possible for Gunner Delay to hear voices he really needed to hear. And OMNI Center, Reform Immigration for Families, Workers Justice Center and others, could be the foundation that Bea and the tiny mom could stand on to state their truth. Whew. I'm so proud of us all I could bust. Who cares if Gunner tries to forget it all tomorrow. We put a wedge in his confidence today.
OMNI Center for Peace, Justice & Ecology