Don’t Forget About Arkansas: March for Immigration Reform in Dardanelle, Arkansas

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A few weeks ago the Arkansas United Community Coalition Held a rally in Dardanelle, Arkansas calling for immigrant reform. They picked the small town of Dardanelle because it’s home to congressman Tom Cotton, the Republican who’s running against Senator Pryor in the upcoming state senate race. Rallies are relatively common in places like Little Rock, but in little towns like Dardanelle they’re virtually unheard of. We asked those who attended if they’d be willing to share their thoughts on the event, including what led them to join the march, why they support immigration reform, and why they think movements in small towns matter. Below are a few thoughts from Benji Hardy, a writer from Little Rock who drove down to attend the event.

Were you at the rally? We’d love to hear your story. Email our editor by clicking on the “contact us” link above.

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Sunday before last, I drove from Little Rock to Dardanelle to participate in a march for immigration reform organized via AUCC, the Arkansas United Community Coalition. Dardanelle is a town of 4,700 that sits on the south bank of the Arkansas River where Highway 7 runs south from Russellville. Though I grew up about an hour upriver in the comparably small town of Ozark, I haven’t spent a lot of time in Dardanelle proper. (However, some of the best episodes of my teenage years were spent experimenting with mild delinquency across the river in Russellville.) Our football team, the Hillbillies, would occasionally play the Dardanelle Sand Lizards, and I’d like to think we shared some camaraderie being the two schools with the most ridiculous mascots in the state. I didn’t play football, but as a timid band kid I was ferried around to all the games and I clearly remember the school grounds at Dardanelle — flat, well-kempt, and cozy. They had a well-stocked concession stand, which I appreciated greatly.

Avis Cotton was likely in the stands back then, because for forty years she worked at Dardanelle Middle School, first as a teacher and then for two decades as principal. I was introduced to Avis and her husband Len at the Dardanelle community center last month during a public BBQ dinner sponsored by their son, Republican Congressman Tom Cotton. The congressman was there to declare his candidacy for the US Senate seat currently occupied by Democrat Mark Pryor, an announcement that had been expected for months. The event drew a crowd of about 300 from Dardanelle and surrounding Yell County, a mix diverse in age and almost completely uniform in race, all excited about the announcement and the BBQ dinner and nearly all friendly even when I mentioned the liberal publication I was there reporting with. Avis and Len were a lean and intelligent and handsome couple in their 60s. They shook my hand and wished me well, shining with pride for their son.

Tom Cotton has an impressive backstory any way you cut it: Army ranger, Harvard Law School, solid true-red small town roots. He’s smart, he’s sincere, and he’s serious. He’s also grim and rather cold; he emits a strange mix of shark-eyed ambition and slightly dreamy detachment. I didn’t fight through the throng of admirers to meet him at the BBQ dinner, but I knew and intensely disliked his positions. In his one term as Representative of Arkansas’ fourth congressional district — which encompasses both Ozark and Dardanelle, as well as most of the rest of the River Valley — Cotton has become known as the most hardline conservative member of the state’s delegation, a quite remarkable feat. He wants to defund the ACA, of course, but he also voted against bills that enjoyed support from other Republicans: disaster relief for Hurricane Sandy victims, the student loan bill, and the June incarnation of the farm bill. The chances he’ll vote for comprehensive immigration reform are zero. In fact, he’s emerged as one of the leading Republican voices against reform. But despite all this, or because of it, Cotton and Pryor are polling neck and neck; it’s seen as one of the most crucial Senate races in the country. Though the election is over a year away, millions of dollars are already being poured into the state for the long, hard fight ahead.

 

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So that’s the first reason we were rallying in Yell County: it’s Tom Cotton’s backyard, and we wanted to let him know that his position on immigration would come at the price of alienating Latinos, even if it played well to his white conservative base.  A second reason is that Tom Cotton’s backyard is home to several thousand immigrants from Mexico and Central America. The crowd at that BBQ event may have been representative of Dardanelle’s demographics fifty years ago, but today the town is 20% Hispanic. (The other county seat, Danville, is now over half Latino.) Jobs created by the poultry industry have drawn families to this rural corner of Arkansas from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico, people looking for a better life and finding a new home in the process.

This is what I was thinking as I headed into the midday heat in my un-airconditioned car: is this a stupid way to spend my Sunday? I was thinking of that Republican BBQ and of growing up in Ozark, of the unshakable conservatism that seemed to permeate the air in the River Valley. I didn’t really know what to expect from the rally, but privately I had my doubts. I hadn’t seen any promotion of the event whatsoever in Central Arkansas. How many people could it really hope to bring out? I went out of solidarity, curiosity, and the fact that I have a dear friend in the area that I meet up with afterwards. But even so,  I kept second guessing myself as I sweated my way west on I-40. And it was hot; when we had a string of unseasonably cool and rainy days in Arkansas mid-August, everyone knew we’d surely pay for it in September. That first weekend of the month, the debt came due with temperatures of up to 100 degrees.

I reached Dardanelle around 2 p.m. We assembled beneath a pavilion at Riverfront Park, which occupies a wide indeterminate space between the river and the levy that guards old downtown Dardanelle from its occasional excesses. Twenty or so people were there, milling around, making signs and prepping materials, a mix of excitement and sun-induced lethargy. There was a family selling tamales and sleek glass bottles of chilled orange Fanta from a folding table in the grass.  A DJ blared thumping dance music from massive speakers, but the beats seemed lost and tinny in the glare and the heat. I was happy to find two acquaintances of mine from my recent tentative forays into the immigration cause, Special and Rosa, both organizers in their twenties from small towns in south Arkansas. Rosa, a native of De Queen, is Latina; Special, who lives in McGeehe, is black and came to activsim via her work as an ESL teacher. They are both endlessly energetic and effusive organizers, and they both have – as affectionately phrased by another organizer – “very big mouths.”

As 3:00 approached, people began arriving in greater and greater numbers. Suddenly, I realized, the pavilion’s oasis of shade had grown surprisingly crowded, with close to a hundred people milling around. The crowd was predominately Latino, though a good number of Anglo folks were on hand as well. There were lots of families, kids of all ages variously giggling and standing at solemn attention and smacking each other with their posterboard protest signs while their parents patiently waited for the march to begin. Many others in attendance looked to be in their teens or twenties, thanks to the work of the young activist Ingrid Hernandez. Ingrid, a graduate of Dardanelle High who’s originally from El Salvador, was the person most responsible for organizing the whole event. I watched her remain in constant motion throughout the three hours I was there: giving directions for voter registration, talking to the police, handing out leaflets that coached the crowd on protest chants, and finally taking up a spot at the front of the assembling mass with a bullhorn in hand. “¡Dos líneas! Two lines!” she shouted, and people moved to follow her instructions. Before we set out, two officers from the Dardanelle PD addressed the group. Courteous in the extreme, they informed us that the police presence we’d encounter was only to keep the peace and provide traffic control. “We just want y’all to have a good march,” one told us. They genuinely seemed to mean it.

 

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By the time Ingrid led us out of the park and into the deserted streets of old downtown, the crowd had reached close to 150 people – a remarkable number for a town with a population of under five thousand. Civic action isn’t common where I grew up, and a protest a tenth that size would get some serious stares in Ozark (especially in the comatose heat of a summer afternoon). And the looks we got from the few people downtown did not fail to disappoint: we had the undivided attention of everybody who happened to be out and about. We made ourselves too noisy to ignore, anyway. There were plenty of ¡Si, se puede!s of course, but also ¡Justicia! ¡Ahora! and ¡Cotton – escucha / Estamos en la lucha! [Cotton — listen / We are in this fight] Special and Rosa stationed themselves near the midsection of the column and kept the chants rolling.

As we marched down Second St, I saw a man leaned against a car in front of a modest ranch-style home, his arms crossed as he watched the crowd flowing by. Then I noticed the police cruiser parked in the driveway and I remembered the plan had been to pass directly by the Cottons’ house. Len Cotton, silently gazed out at the activists, his body rigid and his face impassive. The volume of the chants picked up, but we didn’t linger.

The crowd neared the main thoroughfare of town. People peered out from parked vehicles at both gas stations on the corner of Highway 7 and Second St. The stares weren’t exactly hostile, but they couldn’t be classified as friendly, either. And honestly, our presentation could have been better: nobody handed out flyers or otherwise engaged the public. The chants remained exclusively in Spanish, which is all good and well for pride and solidarity but perhaps not as great for purposes of bridge-building. I worried what some of the drivers trapped in their baking cars on Highway 7 must have thought as the cops stopped traffic to allow us to cross the street en masse: these people come to our country, our town, and this is how they behave? They make a racket, hold up traffic, and won’t even speak English? Who do they think they are? I wondered if some of them had been at the Tom Cotton BBQ a month ago, and if they were making plans to scale up their donations to his campaign as they fumed in their idling cars. Maybe, maybe not.

Still. The march was good. It made an impression, it rallied enthusiasm, and it sent an important reminder that we simply can’t hear enough times: there is more to small towns in Arkansas, and everywhere, than the Tea Party. There’s a tightrope to walk between being too confrontational on the one hand and being too timid on the other, and the reason I’m not an organizer myself is that I’ll always be clueless about how to do that. Thankfully, there are people like Ingrid, Rosa, and Special who aren’t — and the lesson to be taken from the march is that a town of 4,700, with the aid help of a dedicated organizer, can build a movement as large as a city ten times larger.

 

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As we wound a circuit back to the park, I lingered for a while on a corner and let the chanting stream flow past me. I took some pictures and and then fell into step again near Rosa and Special, who were still indefatigably buoying the chants despite the sweat pouring off of both of them. By the time we reached the pavillion, the heat had taken a toll.. Everyone was covered in sweat and some older folks looked alarmingly flushed, but the mood was celebratory. Most people stuck around to hear at least some of the speakers that followed. I tried to concentrate hard enough to comprehend the speeches — I’m ashamed to say my own Spanish is almost nonfunctional — but ended up mostly chatting with Special and Rosa.

Towards the end of the rally, a woman hesitantly came up to us. She was a white woman of perhaps fifty with a perm, Transition lenses, and two shy teenage kids. She turned to Special. “I want to thank you for doing this,” she began. “See, I grew up in Nashville, south Arkansas. It’s different down there.”

“It is, that’s true. I’m from McGehee, so I know south Arkansas,” Special said. The woman nodded emphatically. “They make you racist down there. You turn racist. And that’s what I was, I grew up thinking I was better than everyone because I’m white. I spent my life thinking those horrible things. And then I met a Hispanic man, and we’re married now, and he changed my whole world. And I just feel so ashamed now. I feel so ashamed of the way I used to think, and about the way our country is, and I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…”

Her voice broke and her mouth quivered, and Special stepped forward to give her a long hug. Then Rosa did the same.

I think that counts as a success.

Let’s keep it going. Join us to rally for immigration reform in Rogers on October 5th or Little Rock on October 12th.

AUCC is organizing two marches and rallies for immigration reform during the first two weeks of October — the first in Rogers, AR on 10/5 and the second in Little Rock on 10/12.  

On the afternoon of October 12th, we will march to the Capitol building from across the Broadway bridge to send the message that Arkansans demand dignified and humane treatment for immigrants, including a pathway to citizenship for undocumented families. Please join us on that day, and please help us spread the word! For more information, contact director@arkansascoalition.org or email Benji at the address below.

 

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Benji Hardy is a writer for the Arkansas Legislative Digest and occasional contributor to the Arkansas Times. He’s worked in education, politics, and the nonprofit sector. He grew up in rural Arkansas and has mixed feelings about everything. Email him at benji.hardy@gmail.com