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The Immigrant Throng

An Anti-immigration Rally Meets An Immigration Rights Rally.

August 17, 2006
By ADAM BULGER, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer

The anti-illegal immigration rally held at the Capitol building in Hartford on August 8 was political spectacle of the purest sort, as was the counter demonstration organized by local activists. Held in the shadow of the state’s Democratic primary, the event was coordinated by part of a national anti-illegal immigration group called the 21st Century Paul Revere Riders. Like the Minutemen, the riders are opposed to illegal immigration, only they express that opposition by traveling the country on motorcycles.

Hartford was their 40th, or maybe 41st stop — event organizer Frosty Wooldridge wasn’t sure. It was the first time the counter-protestors had encountered them, though, and they took advantage of it, outnumbering the Riders two to one.

The counter-demonstrators had gathered at Minuteman Park outside the Armory when I arrived around 11:15. I recognized a lot of faces from other demonstrations. They were seasoned veterans, and had come prepared. Seven “peace keepers,” who were there to marshal the protesters, wore bright yellow vests and talked with members of the crowd. They had professional-looking signs and banners, along with immigrants’ rights literature and shirts.

Organizations ranging from Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) to the Connecticut Chapter of NOW endorsed the rally. Maggie Russell of Latinos Contra La Guerra (Latinos against the War) was partially inspired to protest the event by her parents, who are immigrants.

“A lot of groups in Hartford are enraged. We live in such a diverse city,” Russell said. “It’s filled with immigrants, from the North End to the South End.”

Hartford activist Jerimarie Liesegang, who came along with Queers without Borders, said there were parallels between immigrant struggles and those of gay people.

“The issue affects a lot of people in the communities. There are gay people in the immigrant community and immigrants in the gay community,” Leisegang said, noting that the protest represented “general bigotry.”

There was evident energy in the crowd, and they looked ready to face the Riders and pronounce their counter message.

“By no means am I saying that they don’t have a right to talk. I’m just going to talk louder,” Russell said.

The counter-rally was primarily organized by Peter Goselin of the National Lawyers Guild’s Connecticut Chapter. Thanks to a tip off from local activists who monitor anti-immigration web sites, he heard about the event. The loose-knit coalition protesting the event formed quickly.

I asked him if anyone in his coalition brought a chopper. He apparently didn’t think the question was as funny as I thought it was.

“This whole business of motorcycles is they’re trying to make a fake working-class statement. But they’re not working people,” Goselin said. “These are people who are able to take the summer off.”

At a quarter after 12, no motorcyclists had shown up, and it looked like maybe none would. The six police officers stationed by the north entrance to the Capitol looked bored and drank Gatorade. Just as I was working out an angle about a motorcycle immigration rally that didn’t happen, Earl Jackson and Bruce Coolbeth pulled into the Capitol building’s parking lot on their bikes. Jackson, who wore a yellow T-shirt reading “no amnesty for illegals,” had heard about the rally through an XM Satellite radio show hosted by Libertarian Rollye James. Coolbeth, whose arms and neck were covered in tattoos, had “South Vietnam University” written on his bike windshield.

“I’m more socially liberal than you’d probably expect,” Jackson said. “It’s not so much about immigration as it is about border security. If your basement is flooded, you should plug up the hole first.”

Waiting for the motorcycles to show, I walked back to the counter-protest. On Capitol Ave, I saw Diane and Bob Black and Larainne Bellito walking towards the Capitol building holding anti-immigration signs. The trio, who looked as suburban as a minivan, told me they came from Danbury, where they were a part of an anti-immigration group with hundreds of members.

“Obviously, not everyone shows up at every rally, because they have to work,” Diane Black said.

As we spoke, the counter-protest marched by, and the Danbury group’s comments were lost in the din of megaphones, chanting and drumming.

“These are the people who call us racists because we’re trying to protect our country,” Bellito said.

Maybe it was the sun, but when I met Frosty Wooldridge all I could think was that he looked like Will Ferell in some Grizzly Adams-themed comedy sketch. He wore an American flag bandana on his head and a leather support belt around his waist. His face was red from sun and wind, and he seemed a little rattled. Before handing me a list of six illegal immigration bullet points he wanted to impart, he tried to recite them from memory. This led into a great exchange where I would tell him he was on four, not three, and so forth.

“We don’t know the intentions of millions of illegals. We don’t know their terrorist intentions; we don’t know what kind of diseases they’re carrying,” Wooldridge said when he got the order right long enough to stay on point.

I asked him what diseases illegal immigrants were carrying over the border. After a short, but dramatic pause, Wooldridge blurted out “leprosy,” like it had only just then occurred to him.

Which, of course, did absolutely nothing to kill the Ferrell comparison. Incidentally, John Shanley, professor of medicine and director of infectious disease at the UConn Health Center, said that while leprosy does still exist and is found in immigrants from South and Latin America, it is far less contagious and easily treated than its scary Biblical reputation implies. Shanley said tuberculosis, the other disease Wooldridge accused illegal immigrants of infecting Americans with, presented far more of a health risk.

Wooldridge and his crew started the rally. Until they plugged in a megaphone they were in danger of getting drowned out by the counter-protesters, who had finished their march and gathered nearby. The anti-immigration people mostly wore jeans and T-shirts, with the notable exception of one gentleman who wore an Uncle Sam suit over an Iwantyououtofmycountry.com T-shirt.

The speakers were more boring than scary or funny, with the exception of Rick Chiesa, who ripped out a Larry the Cable Guy “git-r-done” during his speech.

Speaking after the event, Goselin cautioned me against writing Wooldridge and his group off as a collection of buffoons. Goselin said that in his writings and public statements, Wooldridge has dehumanized illegal immigrants, portraying them as scum and carriers of disease.

“This is not the language of immigration reform. This is the language of eugenics. This is the language of the master race. That’s what Frosty Wooldridge is,” Goselin said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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