I watched policeman arrest forty people for the crime of sitting on the sidewalk on Pennsylvania Ave. outside the front fence of the White House. As the arrests took place, an ethnically diverse crowd of perhaps 5,000 people shouted for Obama to intervene in Arizona and to protect immigrants nationwide. Police on horseback tried to keep from falling off their agitated horses.
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I made my way to the White House, in search of the immigration rally. Upon arrival, I saw that many people had gathered in Lafayette Square, the seven-acre public park located directly north of the White House. I noticed a large public bus parked near the White House but thought little of it. Thousands of people were singing and dancing to very catchy Latino music. The atmosphere was pleasantly festive and friendly; serious when a speaker stepped up to the podium.
Many people held signs that were appeals to Obama not to forget his promises to immigrants (see my photos of signs).
On stage the speaker said, "Obama we still want to support you, we give you this chance!"
He didn't say "last chance," but the Hispanic woman who stood beside me shaking her head seemed to be thinking just that.
After I took pictures of protesters and their signs, I escaped the blazing sun for a nearby coffee shop. I picked up a copy of the New York Times and became absorbed in an article about how the Democrats were now willing to pass the kind of tough immigration legislation long favored by Republicans.
Half an hour later when I returned to the protest, something peculiar seemed to be happening outside the White House. The public bus had moved nearer to the demonstration. On the street in front of the White House five policemen rode on horseback. A chain of protesters had been formed along Pennsylvania Ave. I asked a woman in the line about its purpose.
"If protesters cross the line, they will be arrested."
Across the street in front of the White House a head police officer explained to reporters the procedure for making arrests. The officer said that it is legal to protest while you are moving about, but it is illegal to protest while remaining in a stationary position. He said that anyone protesting in "a stationary position" in front of the White House would be arrested after a third warning. Warnings would be issued three minutes apart. Bystanders not wishing to be arrested would be kept out of an arrest zone (A box 50 meters by 50 meters along the front fence of the White House).
The protesters cheered and one by one a group of men and women of many races stepped forward and took a place in on the sidewalk in front of the White House. Each person held the letter of a sign that read: "Stop deporting our family." Latino protesters wore white t-shirts that read, "Arrest me not my family". Non-Latinos wore black t-shirts that read, "Arrest me not my friends" or "Deport me instead".
Beside me the a news reporter was filing a story by mobile phone.
"I'm outside the White House. This is starting to get quite exciting," she said.
I overheard this reporter say that one Congressman from Illinios was among those to be arrested.
When the reporter hung up, I pointed to the forty people lined up and asked: "Which one is the Congressman?"
"You don't know? Well I'm from (name of major news organization). I need to you to move aside so I can be in front."
As this very important reporter, moving toward the police tape, turned to another reporter and said, "Would you believe the guy doesn't know about the Congressman?"
The other reporter scowled something sarcastic in reply. (Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez is pictured in the photo above. More photos of his arrest here).
The area in front of the White House was now clear of all people except for the forty seated in a row. The policeman got on a blow horn and gave the first warning. The protesters sang songs and chanted for Obama to take notice of the plight of immigrants (see video). Two more warnings were issued.
One by one the protesters were forced to stand, then they were handcuffed and escorted toward the "out of service" public bus (around which a crowd had gathered). Once half the seated protesters had been arrested, the bus moved forward into the empty zone to be free of the crowd, and the arrests continued.
After the bus was full, the protesters were taken off the bus one at a time to have their photos taken. According to the officer who spoke with the group of journalists, the arrested protesters could face a fine of up to $500 and 30 days in prison.
As a hot Washington DC afternoon turned to evening, the crowd made way for the mounted officers who escorted the bus down the street.