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Problematic Protest

The story of a peaceful march that took a turn for the worse

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Betty Ortiz, an employee at Valencia Market, on West 29th Street, leaned against a broom just outside the shop, waiting to see pro-immigrant marchers file by.

Ortiz had given permission to her teenage daughters to march, because everyone they know has connections to the immigrant community. It's important to stand together, she said.

"The people in Mexico are so poor," Ortiz said. "I think they have the right to work to get their families going."

The march was staged on Monday, April 10 in objection to HR 4437, a bill that passed the national House of Representatives and would make living here illegally a felony, as well as provide funding to build a wall on the border. Many protesters said they wanted immigration reform that made it easier for people to come to this country and make an honest living.

"One of our messages is an absolute 'no' to HR 4437," said Maryada Vallet, an organizer with humanitarian group No More Deaths. "We're going to continue being vocal about what principles a comprehensive immigration-reform bill would encompass: permanent residency; a safe, just, humane border; and family reunification."

Thousands of marchers slowly made their way from a southside church to downtown's Armory Park, absorbing crowds that lined the streets along the way. The sea of faces included people of all colors and ages, but there were large numbers of young people and children--some walking solemnly hand-in-hand with adults, others splashing each other with water bottles as they darted through the fringes of the march.

"All of our friends are here," said 13-year-old Melinda Torres, a student at Wakefield Middle School. "We're all here to support our families."

But not everyone felt as the marchers did. Standing with his wife at the northwest corner of 10th Avenue and 29th Street--on the opposite side of the road from immigrant supporters--Barry Coe expressed frustration with a government that seemed unwilling to stem the flow of foreigners into the United States.

"The way it is now, they're displacing a lot of workers in Tucson," he said, citing his son, who has been unable to get a job in construction, as an example. "They're not poor immigrants. They're shopping at Circle K. They're shopping at Kmart. They're shopping at Wal-Mart."

Coe held his sign protesting the loss of American jobs high as wave upon wave of marchers surrounded him a short time later.

Eventually, the march entered Armory Park after snaking through downtown neighborhoods, prompting people to step outside homes and businesses to watch. More supporters, as well as about a dozen non-supporters calling themselves the Border Guardians, were waiting at the park.

Waving American flags and signs saying things like "America not Mexico," the Border Guardians took a position on a shuffleboard court in the northeast corner of the park, as thousands of people continued streaming in from the south.

Dozens of pro-immigrant marchers then locked arms and formed a ring around the Border Guardians. They turned their backs and beseeched onlookers to ignore the Border Guardians inside of the ring. However, that did not work; bystanders--many of whom were teenagers or young adults--gathered to see what was going on or to shout at the counter-demonstrators.

A man with the Border Guardians, who was wearing white clothes and had tape over his mouth, danced on a Mexican flag. Another man wore a shirt that said "Proud Nativist American." Perennial congressional candidate and self-avowed racist Joe Sweeney, who stood with the Border Guardians, attempted to chat with reporters who were more interested in monitoring the tension between the two crowds.

Kenneth Moore likened Sweeney to a well-known man in Austin, Texas, who often posed for pictures with tourists wearing a bikini top, a thong and high heels.

"No one pays attention to him, but he's there all the time," Moore said. "If he (Sweeney) had a beard, he'd kind of look like him. He's like the person that you never invite to the party, but he shows up."

Police later augmented the marchers' barrier with a ring of their own as the crowd began pushing toward the Border Guardians. One of the counter-demonstrators, Roy Warden, then started insisting that members of the media stand outside the ring, after abruptly pushing a Telemundo cameraman out of the circle. He also shouldered a photographer who he thought was encroaching on the group's space.

"You need to push out, because when we start burning flags, a whole lot of people may get burned up, too," he told a woman who was part of the ring surrounding the Border Guardians.

"They're trying to provoke violence," said Michelle Golden, as she was shoved around while trying to maintain her part of the human barrier separating the demonstrations. "This is what they do. They want attention."

"It's their country, too," said Democratic state Rep. Tom Prezelski. "A lot of what they're saying is based on mythology, I think, about America and how this country was settled. They seem to not want to acknowledge that human rights are universal and that our immigration policies are not working."

The two demonstrations coexisted uneasily for several hours as the rally unfolded on a dais at the opposite end of the park. A few people tossed empty water bottles or bits of trash at the Border Guardians as they took turns using a bullhorn. A full bottle of water also glanced off the side of Warden's head.

Things quickly turned chaotic, however, after Border Guardians burned two flags at about 2 p.m.

Officers escorted 16-year-old Marisol Luna--who one witness said threw water at one of the burning flags, dousing an officer--toward the nearby downtown station. A large crowd chanting, "Let her go!" followed as she was led away

A man then tried to break through the ring of officers surrounding the girl, and a scuffle broke out. As many as six people were reportedly detained after police, sirens blaring, descended upon the intersection of McCormick Street and Scott Avenue to restore order.

In addition, at least three people, including 14-year old Marina Estrella, were pepper-sprayed as the crowds pressed toward McCormick Street and Scott Avenue.

Estrella, who was coughing, gagging and spitting, could be seen lying on the ground, pouring water over her face. Her mother, Mayte, said an officer pushed her daughter's head back and sprayed her in the mouth.

"What kind of peaceful march is this? Arresting kids? Spraying kids? You're protecting the wrong people!" yelled Estrella's aunt, Sara Sandoval, as officers formed a line to push the crowd back toward the park.

After the scuffle with police, Christina Pina, who was wearing a bandana around her mouth, worried the fight would overshadow the purpose of the rally.

"They're not going to show the American people the peaceful march," she said. "All they're going to show the American public is what went down. Everything that we've done is now undone.

"It's not over!" Pina shouted at officers, her eyes watering. "This is just the beginning!"

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