Several hundred people gathered at Garfield Park in Grand Rapids for a public vigil in support of immigrant rights and organized in conjunction with rallies and marches all across the US. This vigil was organized by the Michigan Organizing Project (MOP), which has been working on immigrant rights in West Michigan for several years and was the main group responsible for the 10,000 strong march in Grand Rapids in late March.
This event had a much different feel to it in that the organizers wanted to stress less of a protest and more that the immigrant community was a “peaceful” community. Much of the program consisted of prayers, hymns and speeches by people from the Christian community. Those in attendance were asked at the beginning to put down their signs and their flags because this was not “a political event.” Unlike in past actions, this event did not include a “what are our next steps” component, nor any short and long term organizing strategies.
At one point during the vigil someone driving in a pick up truck kept circling the park with a bull horn telling “illegal immigrants to leave the country.” Several people from the vigil began walking towards the street to confront the man in the truck, but event spokesperson urged them to come back and not “create any conflicts.” There were several people who were there who clearly struggled with the overtly religious aspect of the vigil and some who were Jewish or who practiced no spiritual traditions felt excluded. One of the organizers of the earlier meetings and community forums expressed concern that “MOP was excluding other sectors of the community who have worked hard on this issue.” The religious aspect was so overt that it provided extra incentive for white evangelicals to hand out Christian literature during the entire vigil.
Local Media Coverage
All three of the Grand Rapids-based TV stations, the Grand Rapids Press, several of the Hispanic newspapers, and two of local Spanish language radio stations were at the vigil. The Grand Rapids Press tied the article in to the larger action of workers not going to work and students not going to school. The Press article also interviewed several people who attended the vigil, one Latina woman and 3, a Latino school principal, and 2 White people who were there to support the immigrant community.
The TV coverage was significantly different, particularly in how the day was framed and the language that was used. During each of the 3 evening newscasts, WOOD TV 8 kept referring to the people involved as “illegals”—even asking the question “how many illegal immigrants are there in West Michigan?” and “who are they?” WOOD TV 8 also interviewed immigration lawyer Rick Kessler about the people who make fake working papers for undocumented workers in a very sensationalized manner. Kessler told this writer at the vigil that he knew that “the reporter was going to twist my words to make them fit the story.”
All 3 of the TV station news coverage provided limited commentary from those who participated in the vigil and only WOOD TV 8 had a comment from one of the organizers. Both channels 8 and 13 gave significant time to people who were counter-demonstrating, as well as announcing when another counter-demonstration would take place. Only channel 17 reminded viewers the specifics of the federal legislation that passed in the House, legislation that has prompted such public resistance. WZZM 13 also included taped phone comments for their “Talk Back” segment, with all but one of the comments against undocumented immigrants being in the United States.