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Wednesday, April 12, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Stunning turnout credited to word-of-mouth network

Seattle Times staff reporter

How did they pull that off?

How did 30 area groups with just two weeks' lead time assemble one of the biggest demonstrations Seattle has seen in years — drawing onto downtown streets vast numbers of people who every day go out of their way to stay out of the way.

A day after a march in support of immigration rights brought between 20,000 and 30,000 peaceful demonstrators into downtown Seattle streets, many folks were still asking how. The huge turnout shocked even the event's organizers, who say they believe that in the end about 30,000 people attended the rally and march.

Jorge Quiroga, board president of El Comité Pro-Amnistia General Y Justicia Social, an immigrant-advocacy group and the event's lead organizer, said the turnout was in large part a result of the Latino network — a word-of-mouth system within the close-knit Spanish-speaking community that can get word out in record speed on everything from immigration raids to immigration rallies.

For days, Spanish-language radio stations pulsed with the news of the event, which was also talked up at Catholic Masses and other church services throughout the state.

The march Monday from St. Mary's Church in the Central Area to the downtown federal building was part of a National Day of Action that brought largely Latino crowds to city streets across the country in a call for immigration measures that would provide workplace protections, help reunite families and make American citizenship a possibility for those who arrived here illegally.

In Seattle, demonstrators were brought by busloads and carloads from Bellingham to Spokane.

Quiroga said people made fun of him last Friday when he first began predicting a crowd of between 5,000 and 10,000.

He told a priest at St. Mary's, a Catholic church, that organizers might need portable toilets to accommodate the crowd. "He looked at me like I was crazy."

Latinos are the largest minority group in the state, according to the 2000 census, which counted more than 441,000. Fewer than half live in the Puget Sound region, where many work in the construction, landscape and hospitality industries, and in restaurant kitchens.

The march went through downtown at the height of the commute — frustrating motorists who were delayed. Quiroga said it was planned for late in the day to enable as many workers as possible to participate.

Seattle police officials say they don't recall another event in recent history that drew such a large crowd and virtually no problems.

"This was one of the largest in recent years and certainly the most efficient and the most peaceful," police spokesman Rich Pruitt said. "They weren't trying to take over downtown. It was a fantastic, peaceful voicing of opinion."

One child who got lost was reunited with his parents within a block and there were one or two medical emergencies. There were at least two incidents involving counter-demonstrations — one in which two boys exposed their white T-shirts with racist slurs. There were no arrests or citations.

That was vastly different from the World Trade Organization protest that resulted in mayhem on Nov. 29, 1999, when an estimated 20,000 protesters rallied at Seattle Center for a march downtown. There, police fired paintball guns and pepper spray at groups of demonstrators who broke windows, sprayed graffiti on buildings and tried to block delegates to the international business conference.

More recently, in February 2003, crowds estimated at between 15,000 and 30,000 took to Seattle's streets to protest the planned invasion of Iraq. One arrest, for defacing public property, was made.

Monday's immigration march was organized by labor unions, church groups and agencies such as Casa Latina, which dispatches day laborers. When they started planning the event, they expected a few thousand demonstrators, Quiroga said.

Then the calls started coming — from churches, from social-service organizations, from immigrant-rights groups.

"Centro Latino de Tacoma (which assists immigrants) called to say they could bring two busloads of people," he recalled. "Later they called to say it would be five buses." Then 10.

"We don't know how many they ended up bringing," Quiroga said.

Organizers handed out fliers. Those who got the fliers made copies to hand out to others, who in turn copied and passed them along to others still.

And then there was the Latino network, built largely around cellphones. "We have an easy way to get to the people when we are in different little communities," Quiroga said. "People are very resourceful."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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