Well, what purpose do marches serve anyway?

An estimated 15,000 people marched from Mission Dolores Park to San Francisco City Hall on June 30, one of 600 marches across the country, to protest the Trump administration’s policies on family detention and child separation.

The Families Belong Together March and Rally became a throbbing, moving mass of humanity, their voices amplifying the message that stripping families of their children is a ruthless policy that is disconnected from America’s steady ground spring of ethics and compassion.

My social media feeds were commandeered by pictures of indignant, saddened folks. One woman looked into a news camera with tears in her eyes. The man beside her spoke up. “We have a young child, and we know how that feels and what it would mean to be separated from our son.”

“I’m at the corner of Castro and El Camino in Mountain View. Thousands of people are here chanting slogans, carrying placards and candles. We are marching to the city hall. Huge crowds, speeches. Wish you were here,” a friend texted me.

A fellow writer wrote on her Facebook wall, “Glad to be part of a community that turns out for immigrants.”

At these exclamations of participation, a non-marching friend remarked, cynically, “Well, what purpose does it serve anyway? Nothing changes.”

This is not an unusual question and neither is it inappropriate. It’s a question every generation has asked and answered.

Certainly, there is no righteousness to marching. Marching is one way to engage with an issue we feel strongly about. Some who don’t believe in marching might well write to their congress members; reach out to victims; donate money; sign up to volunteer for critical tasks for their causes; or launch grassroots movements. Some marchers possibly do many of those, too.

Marching is a community option. Marchers feel they are not alone in their experiences and feelings. Marching is an act of defiance.

In an NPR interview last year, host reporter Lourdes Garcia-Navarro asked Harvard professor Leah Wright Rigueur what turns a protest into a movement that can be sustained. “… While protest is an excellent way of people voicing their dissent … it has to translate into something concrete, tangible … if we don’t see institutions and structures come out of this moment, then it becomes simply a visible kind of protest movement,” Riguer responded.

I think Professor Rigueur is talking about large-scale achievements and misses the point of smaller successes.

Marches are small, individual moments. And each structure or institution that Rigueur references is drawn from these singular moments. We’re not likely to see what we hope for right away.

It took the civil rights movement over 20 years, many protests, marches, sit-ins, opinion essays, murders and violent reactions from the populace before inch by inch institutions of equal rights took shape. Today, 80 years later, there are far too many chinks in those institutions.

That said, it still doesn’t take away from what years of marches and sit-ins wrought.

As I write this, 54 children under the age of 5 are being returned to their parents. U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw ruled last month setting the deadline of July 10 to return children under the age of 5, and July 26 as the date by which all children — the number far exceeding 2,000 — must be reunited with their parents. While 54 is only half the estimated children under the age of 5, I would still count it as a move in the right direction.

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in California ruled on July 9 to reject the Trump administration’s plans to detain families with their children indefinitely.

Perhaps these are victories caused by the public display of outrage. The mood of the nation is on record.

I recently saw the short Chinese film “Bus 44,” directed by Chinese American filmmaker Dayyan Eng. It’s a brilliant, provocative movie demanding discomfort from its viewers for its realistic depiction of despair, selfishness and hopefulness — traits that make us composite human beings.

In the movie, a female bus driver is driving down a highway with a bus full of people and stops to pick up a couple of passengers who turn out to be highway robbers. The two men proceed to rob the passengers and are about to leave with their stolen goods, when one of the robbers decides he’s not done. He drags the woman bus driver out of the bus as she screams, begs and flails. Her desperate cries for help continue to be heard inside the bus as she is pulled across the harsh, unforgiving landscape, by a harsh, unsparing individual. The passengers in the bus watch through the windows, rooted to their seats.

We march because we cannot afford to be the people rooted to our seats as we become helpless witnesses to scenes of depravity through grimy windows.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

Jaya Padmanabhan
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Jaya Padmanabhan

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