Latino Memphis and the DACA March

Originally published on March 19th, 2018, to Si Se Puede Memphis

Some photos from the original piece have been removed for copyright.

On Saturday, August 19th, 2017, under the leadership of Latino Memphis, a Memphis-based non-profit organization instituted to serve the Latinx community, local leaders and community members stood together in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. Mauricio Calvo, the executive director of Latino Memphis, Gina John, the organization’s advocacy coordinator, and other members of the staff planned for the event to begin at the National Civil Rights Museum at 5 PM and end at 7 PM at Handy Park on Beale Street.

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The official flyer for the event (above) was disseminated via electronic means, being uploaded and shared on the organization’s Facebook and Instagram sites.

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Sign in Support of DACA (Original Photo)
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Crowd marches down Beale Street (Original Photo)
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A crowd gathers to listen to local high school students discuss experiences as DACA recipients (Original Photo)

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Father and son march (Original Photo)
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Protestors hold signs on Beale (Original Photo)
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Protestor holds sign in support of DACA (Original Photo)

Context

The Political Preface: 2016 Campaigns, Election, and Aftermath

A mainstay in modern United States politics, the topic of immigration has inspired extreme divisions among the American populace for decades. The 2016 presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton (D) and Donald Trump (R) only intensified this polarization, especially between those in support of stricter southern border control and those who opposed such a political agenda. In particular, Trump’s “Build a Wall,” one of the many slogans that emerged through his campaign, rhetorically operated to rally those against the empowerment of undocumented Latinx groups.

In the wake of President Trump’s eventual election, anti-immigration sentiments engulfed the American news cycle and infiltrated common discourses in a manner unseen in over a decade. It was not since the 2001 September 11 attacks that the country participated in such impassioned debate on immigration; this time, however, the target this conversation was placed firmly on the Latinx community. Through the illumination of this intersection of issues related to citizenship, race, and ethnicity, the landscape of the country seemed to change. Several related hot-button topics debated within immigration discourse, too, reemerged mid and post-election, including American language policy (or the lack thereof), hiring practices regarding undocumented immigrants, and access to education.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was established under the Obama administration in 2012. This was an American immigration policy that allowed approved childhood arrivals to the United States to receive work visas and to defer deportation to their respective countries of origin. In 2017, under the Trump administration, negotiations to alter the policy went into effect, making the process more stringent than ever. This was Trump’s first step in fulfilling his promise to repeal the policy in its entirety.

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DACA is supported by the Human Rights Campaign

In response to Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-Latinx, and anti-DACA rhetorics and stances, an international outcry among various communities, but especially those in the Latinx community, thrust itself center stage, demanding to be heard.

In 2017, these voices could not be denied. However, it must be stated that, for the victims of these issues, whispers did not grow into screams overnight; rather, the long-ignored pleas of the marginalized were finally positioned in a cultural moment that lent itself to the amplification of their cause. The year of 2017 was, for the reasons above, the kairotic moment for the DACA March that took place in Memphis, Tennessee, in 2017 at the Civil Rights Museum.

Although the above serves only as an abridged summation of the factors that led to the formation of the featured activist event (“The Defend DACA March”), the author of this site recognizes that its contents do not and cannot possibly capture the full story; that is, there are certainly various vantage points from which the events, featured and supporting, can be viewed and analyzed, and this site’s scope will be limited.

Furthermore, the author of this site recognizes that their political leanings, choices in media consumption, and personal connection to the topic may have some bearing on their account of the featured event.


Rhetorical Function

The Event

Having witnessed the DACA march and met the organizers of the event, I have firsthand knowledge of how the event was organized and how it was received by some of the publics that were most closely related to the issue at hand.

Led by the Latino Memphis staff, the DACA march operated much like a well-oiled machine in that every portion of the event began promptly and occurred as planned. At 5 PM, marchers were called by loudspeaker to stand before the Lorraine Motel to listen to various Latino Memphis workers discuss their personal ties to the cause and the need for change.

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Students stand before the Civil Rights Museum (once the Lorraine Motel) holding sign (Original Photo)

The march commenced, and men, women, children, and pets, either chanted, panted, or waved colorful posters in the air in support. Police stood on the sidewalks guiding the participants.

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Families march in support of DACA minutes after the event commences (Original Photo)

The march culminated with a large gathering comprised of student speakers from various Mid-South high schools. News crews readied their equipment, anchors stood before their cameras, and kids stood proudly in the background, holding their flamboyant signs before the dark lenses of the cameras.

Theory: Collective Bodies as Machine

According to Simons, social movements operate much like machines on three bases: their duties to “attract and mold workers into an efficiently organized unit,” “secure adoption of their product by the larger structure”, and “react to resistance generated by the larger structure” (Simons). In light of this, Cox and Foust viewed Simons’ research as the foundation for the functional approach to social movement rhetoric (SMR), which asserted that rhetoric is the primary agency through which social movements perform…functions that enable them to come into existence, meet opposition, and… succeed in bringing about or resisting change” (Stewart).

Analysis: Success?

With this research in mind, the success of the DACA March protest is questionable. The group certainly operated as a unit, and their body rhetoric was certainly seen and heard in the streets of downtown Memphis. This worked in accordance with Simons claim that movements must organize workers (followers) into a single unit (Simons). As can be viewed below, the group was galvanized by chants in both English (“Down, down, with deportation! Up, up, with education!”) and Spanish (Si, Se Puede!). Here, it can be seen that English-speakers and Spanish-speakers chanted in unison to rhetorically form a singular body that would act as a symbol for the cause. This disruptive, unified voice clearly attracted the attention of bystanders and news outlets.

However, there was an odd dynamic between the marchers and the police that seemed to violate (or, at least, raise suspicions regarding) Simons’ last point, that social movements must “react to resistance generated by the larger structure” (Simons). If the government’s first act of resistance was the moment their officials called for the repeal of DACA, the appropriate response of the opposing community would be to protest, which they did. However, the manner in which and channels through which the slighted parties protested are concerning. Is protest ever true protest if it is supported by those who are viewed as the opponents?

Quite alarming was a comment one of the officers offered a Latino Memphis staff member: “This was the [most respectful] protest I’ve ever seen. I wish all protests were like this one.” Even worse, this prefaced a protest that took place only minutes afterward and just miles away, which sprang from citizens’ desire to remove the statues of white supremacists from the downtown Memphis area. That protest, however, was characterized by police antagonism, erupted in violence, and resulted in arrests. It was also spearheaded largely by African Americans and the board of Choose 901.

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DACA protests line the streets of Beale alongside police officers (Original Photo)

Protestors and police officers encounter each other at “Take ‘Em Down” event

During a time wherein large bodies of African Americans have been met with hostility and even military presence and the institution of law enforcement has been positioned as an appendage to the most discriminatory parts of the U.S. government, state-sanctioned protest appears odd, dangerous, and indicative of a siding that places more likable marginalized groups on one side of a line and those who are less well-liked on the other.

Of course, Latino Memphis and Choose 901 are very different organizations in their relationships with the Memphis community, and it would be dishonest and irresponsible to compare the two activist efforts without examining the characteristics of the two events more closely. Moreover, it would be incredibly unethical to compare the two gatherings without closely analyzing the national conversations that have taken place regarding the issues separately.

Despite these concerns, it is important to recognize how all activist events are neither created equally nor held to the same standards.

Citation

Cox, Robert, and Christina R. Foust. “Social movement rhetoric.” (2009).

Simons, Herbert W., Elizabeth W. Mechling, and Howard N. Schreier. “The functions of human communication in mobilizing for action from the bottom up: The rhetoric of social movements.” Handbook of rhetorical and communication theory (1984): 792-867.

Stewart, Charles J. “A functional approach to the rhetoric of social movements.” Communication Studies 31.4 (1980): 298-305.


Place-As-Rhetoric

The location of Memphis as the site for the DACA March is essential to the analysis of the action, as, by nature of the issue, place is an important component of any discourse on the immigration. Even more, Memphis’ history concerning the Civil Rights movement renders the city, itself, a rhetorically significant site for political activism.

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Protestors gather before Nation Civil Rights Museum

Theory: Place-As-Rhetoric and Pre-Existing Meaning

According to Endres and Senda-Cook (2011), place-as-rhetoric asserts that the physical and embodied characteristics of a place hold rhetorical meaning and, therefore, are, in and of itself, rhetorical (265). Furthermore, they define places that are renowned as places of protest as sites wherein the pre-existing meaning of the site can be capitalized on by activists.

The Civil Rights Museum, then, seems to satisfy the necessary requirements for categories of place, as it is both a place wherein its objects (the museum/the site of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination/ motel) hold meaning and it is also a site wherein many other smaller organizations have gathered to protest because of its historical significance.

Applied Theory: Immigration and the Categorization of American Cities

A part of Latino Memphis’ (somewhat limited) success in their attempt to shed light on the realities undocumented families face was the location of their activism. Memphis, Tennessee is categorized as a “welcoming city,” and this has a drastic effect on the marchers’ willingness to participate and the local police’s lack of antagonism. Only in a “welcoming city,” which I learned about after attending the event, would an undocumented immigrant shout through a loudspeaker that he was undocumented and proud of it.

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Marcos Villa leads chants in support of DACA and access to education for Latinx children

Cities across the United States are categorized into one of three groups to identify the political stance of the city’s local government in regards to encounters concerning law enforcement and undocumented immigrants. These categories are listed as “sanctuary cities” (or “safe cities”), “welcoming cities,” or simply “cities” (https://americasvoice.org/blog/what-is-a-sanctuary-city/). According to AmericasVote.org these terms describe the city’s “…cooperation with federal immigration enforcement agents in order to protect low-priority immigrants from deportation, while still turning over those who have committed serious crimes.” The distinction between “welcoming cities” and “sanctuary cities” is simply the extent to which the local government is willing to go to protect undocumented immigrants.

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Sanctuary Cities across the U.S. (does not include “welcoming cities”)

In 2016, on the cusp of Mayor Jim Strickland’s election for Memphis mayor, Strickland stated that the “Memphis Police Department is not in the business of enforcing federal immigration policy, nor do we believe that is MPD’s function or mission.” He continued, “It’s not something that we do, and it’s not something we intend to do.”

Analysis: Place–City and Site

It is quite plausible that, had this type of event taken place in a city wherein there is more Latinx antagonism, fewer community members may have participated in the march, violence may have erupted, or, in the least, the palpable and optimistic energy of the crowd may have been tinged with more anxiety

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Students stand before crowd to speak about their experiences as undocumented DACA recipients

Even more, using the National Civil Rights Museum, a national attraction, as both a shield (surely, no one would antagonize the peaceful protestors at the site of Martin Luther King’s Jr’s murder) and a rhetorical tool (the museum honors peace and civil rights) undergirds the sheer amount of influence place can have on the formation and delivery of a message or execution of an activist effort.

Finally, in large part, the march began to peak as the protestors headed down Beale Street, known for its musical history, tourist attractions, and bars. The juxtaposition between the rhetorical meaning of that street (history, consumerism, leisure) and the intentions of the protestors (to effect change, amplification of marginalized voices, awareness) seemed to clash, resulting in the joyous, playful waves of the bystanders and passerby.

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Latino Memphis staff member leads chant

Success: Lost Intent?

Simply put, the intent of the movement seemed to be lost on those who were not a part of it. Rather than a protest, the large mass of people seemed to be received as a downtown, late-Saturday parade. Much of this miscommunication had to have been colored, in part, by the state-sanctioned nature of the event and other odd juxtapositions between how the mass operated and what conceptions of activism we as a society believe to be legitimate activism. By this, I mean the forms of activism to which many in the U.S. are accustomed are serious and angry or anger-inducing. Even more, the diverse body of the rhetors–noticeably, there were many white, black, Asian and Latinx individuals participating–may also have impacted the reception of the action, as there was less of a “threat” of the “other” than there is when a movement is a majority of a particular race.

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Sign in support of DACA

These characteristics and the ultimate intent of this action, which took place in the city of Memphis, at the National Civil Rights Museum, and through Beale Street, are very much impacted by places that defined it. Having taken place in locations right with history and, for the most part, civil rights history, the action certainly benefitted by capitalizing on past activist efforts.

Citation

Endres, Danielle, and Samantha Senda-Cook. “Location matters: The rhetoric of place in protest.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 97.3 (2011): 257-282.