Flag Waving as Visual Argument: 2006 Immigration Demonstrations and Cultural Citizenship

Article excerpt

From March through May, 2006, massive demonstrations, rallies, and protests regarding immigration debates in Congress and the media occurred in many cities and towns throughout the United States. The first major rally took place on Saturday, March 25, 2006, when an estimated 500,000 people gathered in downtown Los Angeles, in part to express opposition to the Sensenbrenner bill, also known as House Resolution 4377: Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in December, 2005 (Watanabe & Becerra, March 26, 2006). Ensuing debates in the U.S. Senate over similar immigration control measures also sparked interest in the Los Angeles rally (and subsequent demonstrations as well). Key participants and organizers of one of the largest demonstrations in Los Angeles history included labor leaders, civil rights activists, local media (especially radio DJs), and the Roman Catholic Church, led by the Archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahoney (Watanabe & Becerra, March 26, 2006, March 28, 2006). Although other events, scheduled for March 31 (a holiday in some states celebrating Cesar Chavez's birthday), April 9, April 10, and May 1, had been planned before the Los Angeles rally, the latter was the impetus that drew national attention to the immigration debates and legislation in Congress.

Subsequent rallies also drew large numbers of participants in cities across the nation. On Sunday, April 9, in anticipation of the National Day of Action scheduled for the next day, large crowds turned out in several cities, most notably in Dallas where crowds were estimated at 350,000-500,000 (Miller, 2006). The following day, April 10, rallies in 140 cities drew large crowds. Organizers chose the April 10 date for rallies and vigils because Representatives and Senators had returned to their home states during Congressional recess and would be able to see large turnouts of constituents at the demonstrations (Watanabe, 2006). Finally, coinciding with International Workers' Day, rallies on May 1 were called a "Day Without an Immigrant." Participants were asked to avoid shopping and going to work or school, although organizers were divided on whether or not to encourage work stoppages and walkouts in schools, given the controversies that had arisen in previous demonstrations (Archibold, 2006). These rallies occurred in more than 70 cities, drawing crowds as large as 400,000 in Chicago, 300,000-400,000 in Los Angeles, and 75,000 in Denver ("Taking it to the streets," 2006).

At each of these rallies, demonstrations, and protests, there were numerous speakers, chants, posters, t-shirts, and other verbal statements. However, the groundswell of media attention was driven in large part by visual aspects, particularly flag waving. To avoid incendiary reactions, organizers encouraged people to carry U.S. American flags (Archibold, 2006; Gorman, Miller, & Landsberg, 2006; Watanabe & Becerra, March 28, 2006). While a variety of Latin American and other national flags were present, attention and debate were fueled especially by the presence of Mexican flags. Soto (2006) observes that "the use of a foreign flag in political rallies is not new" (p. B 1). Nonetheless, the presence of Mexican flags fueled criticism of the protests, the protestors, and their methods while further obfuscating substantive debate about policy changes ("The good, the bad," 2006; Page, 2006; Soto, 2006).

In this essay, we argue that flag waving constitutes a visual argument about cultural citizenship that is interpreted differently by different audiences. In what follows, we explore the literature relating to visual argument and then explain how flag waving functions as visual argument for two audiences: immigrant rights advocates and anti-immigration advocates. We conclude with some observations about what flag waving means for cultural citizenship and the study of visual argument. …