I must confess, I don’t like attending rallies. Perhaps it comes from too many years of policing them or maybe because I haven’t really seen how rallies, protests and marches make a difference. They all seem to follow the same formula: chanting, impassioned speeches, more chanting, then some call to action. It’s the action part that never seems to happen. If it does happen, it doesn’t carry the weight or force of the rally. It seems disconnected.
But in the last two weeks something has changed. One rally I attended recently included the same speeches and chants, but the crowd was different. It was larger and engaged, and the people were social with each other. The protesters seemed to have a greater sense of unity. I listened as people talked among themselves about what to do and how to move to action, and the level of engagement on topics such as immigration, inclusion and basic civility where more empathic. I heard conversations about heritage and people’s shared stories of their family’s immigration to the United States. I learned that many of my friends are children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. I learned that people are afraid of what is happening, what will happen and then what will happen after that.
Perhaps it’s fear over sweeping changes in federal policy that drives people to attend these rallies. And I think many are afraid because they don’t know what to do as so much is changing, and quickly. Rallies provide them a podium where they can be heard, not for the speakers but for the attendees. It provides them with the opportunity to share their stories with other rally attendees, many whom they don’t know. It provides attendees with the opportunity to explore similarities between stories and find a common theme and a common voice. And we all share stories of immigration.
Many speeches and even people who hold signs with the slogan “we are all immigrants” provides a basis for strangers to find a common voice. Inspired by this, I talked with a stranger at the rally about being the grandson of an Irish immigrant. I shared the story my grandfather often told about living in a tight knit neighborhood and how other neighbors talked about being scared to venture out alone because they were afraid of being attacked. That was Bangor in 1903.
The stranger told me about his family’s immigration history. His grandmother, a Francophone, came to Lewiston to work in the textile mills. Lewiston was sold to the French Canadians as a bustling place to find work, but it was not without its challenges. Jobs were not that plentiful, and the French speaking, Catholic workers were forced to live in separate parts of the city, often cut off from the rest of Lewiston. He said his grandmother told him it was illegal to speak French outside of the home. That was 1928.
Through that brief conversation we found ourselves discovering a commonality. While we were both grandchildren of immigrants, we easily remembered the stories of struggle and the fear our grandparents faced as new arrivals in Maine. Through this we also were able to have a greater appreciation of the fear, isolation and threats that are prevalent at the moment.
We are all immigrants, and we all have stories of immigration in our family histories. Whatever your relationship to immigration happens to be, it is important to share that story with strangers. Through open discussion we can find a common voice that will carry the slogan “we are all immigrants,” and that common voice can then be translated into the rally collective. A collective that then has the voices of 1,000 people rather than the few speakers and chant leaders. One thousand voices recounting how immigration to Maine has shaped their lives is a powerful testament to how we are all connected.
I’m still not a rally person, but I can see the value in holding them if only for the opportunity to find a collective voice. Harnessing the dynamics of the group into that single voice is the challenge for all who attend.
Thomas Chalmers McLaughlin is grandson of immigrants. He teaches in the School of Social Work at the University of New England in Biddeford. He lives on Peaks Island.