Lumberton, NC – The first sign that Robeson county is a good place for an immigration protest actually hangs over the county fairgrounds. It's an ad for the Cinco de Mayo celebration coming up this weekend. And the long line of cars pulling into the lot Monday afternoon looked like they could easily be arriving for those festivities. The mood was just as giddy. The crowd ranged from families with baby strollers, to giggling teenage girls and clusters of young men in cowboy boots. They took the three-mile march to town hall in stride.
Si se puede - yes, we will do it! - this simple chant was easily the crowd's favorite. It's a rallying cry that dates back to the farm workers movement of the 1960s. For UNC-Pembroke student Ramos Zappella, too young to remember the original, that old spirit has been reborn. He says, what you see right now is the newest type of movements of the immigrants. It's not necessarily from workers any more, it's all types of immigrants. Not only from Latin American countries, but all kinds of immigrants, fighting for their rights and human rights.
The march was organized by the newly-formed Coalition for Justice, a group with strong ties to the labor movement. They worked with city and police officials to ensure Monday's protest went smoothly. Nearly fifty officers from six different forces kept watch on the march, but reported no incidents.
Although the demonstration was actually somewhat smaller than organizers anticipated, the several thousand people who did turn out made it the largest Lumberton protest in recent memory. Many of those protesters work at the region's meat packing plants and several local plants gave their workers the day off, although they'll have to make it up this weekend.
Felix, a worker at the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, said he's hopeful the protest will improve the current situation for undocumented immigrants. His sister-in-law, Dawn, translated for him. He's very worried, she said because the least little thing and they try to treat them like criminals and that's not what they're here for.
Marchers said the march was well-advertised by signs in their neighborhoods and media advertisements. Almost all the march materials - the tee-shirts, chants, and speeches - were in Spanish. But outreach beyond the Latino community seemed less well organized. Many of the residents along the route watched the march from their front yards, but said they'd only heard about it that day. Seventh graders Joshua Hester and Lisa Jefferson stood along the roadside, taking pictures with a camera phone. They'd noticed a number of their Latino classmates missing from school Monday.
For Hester, this was his first real live encounter with a protest. I really feel for them too, he said, because that happened to us, like Martin Luther King really happened to us. Now we see it when we're young, so it's going to be up in American history books now.
Other onlookers were less enthusiastic. Karen Overstreet, sitting outside Overstreet Auto Body Shop, said she feels illegal immigration has hurt Robeson county.
It's cut out a lot of public services because there's such you know overpopulation of Mexican Americans. You know, and it's just, it's snowballed. It's really, it's out of control. It's not really anybody's fault, it's just gone out of control.
Overstreet has the region's congressman on her side. Representative Mike MacIntyre was the only Democrat to vote with house Republicans in favor of a bill which would make illegal immigration a felony. Yesterday's march ended in front of Lumberton's city hall, across the street from MacIntyre's offices. As the sun set over the protest, loudspeakers boomed out the day's first English-language programming - the Star-Spangled Banner.
Megan Williams, WHQR News