An estimated 200 people converged on De la Guerra Plaza in downtown Santa Barbara on Thursday night to protest a recent headline in the Santa Barbara News-Press that referred to undocumented immigrants as “Illegals.”
The demonstrators, who gathered outside the newspaper’s iconic building, also stopped traffic on State Street as they marched, chanting slogans such as “News-Press, you’re a mess” and “Undocumented, unafraid” in response to the headline.
The protest was prompted by a front-page headline in Saturday’s edition of the News-Press, which read, “Illegals line up for driver’s licenses.”
The headline accompanied a story on Assembly Bill 60, a California law that went into effect Jan. 1, which no longer requires motorists to prove legal U.S. residence to obtain a driver’s license.
The headline ran with a photo of people lined up at the Department of Motor Vehicles without specifying whether those pictured were undocumented.
Opponents of the headline maintain that it violates Associated Press guidelines, which were changed last year to say that the term “illegal” should be used to describe an action and not a person. The stylebook also calls for specificity about how a person may have entered the country illegally and from where.
The paper’s use of the term “Illegals” as a noun upset many in the community, including those who gathered on the plaza Thursday night in front of the newspaper’s front doors.
One of those calling for a retraction of the paper’s headline was Savannah Maya, who spoke into a megaphone while encircled by supporters on the grass of the plaza.
Maya lamented the lack of a direct local media outlet in Spanish that speaks to and on behalf of the Latino community, and said that many local media outlets have a history of biased reporting and do not accurately portray a large portion of the city.
She called upon the News-Press and other local media outlets to use language that is “fair and objective rather than inflammatory and biased.”
“They thought we were going to read it on Saturday over coffee and breakfast and be OK with it,” Maya said of the paper and its staff. “But it’s not OK. We will not stand for it and will be heard.”
The News-Press, which is reported to be the oldest daily newspaper in Southern California, has experienced waning goodwill in the community since a massive exodus of reporters and editors took place beginning in 2006. Those who left cited editorial interference from owner and publisher Wendy McCaw and other supervisors.
It’s unclear how much impact this week’s call to boycott the paper will have, but those present Thursday raised their voices, promising to do their part to hold the paper accountable.
An online petition also has been circulating calling for the retraction.
Don Katich, News-Press director of news operations, sent a statement to Noozhawk earlier in the day, asserting that “it has been the practice for nearly 10 years at the Santa Barbara News-Press to describe people living in this country illegally as ‘illegals’ regardless of their country of origin.”
Though the practice is under fire by opponents, he said, even the White House website uses the term when describing those who have been deported for being in the country illegally.
“It is an appropriate term in describing someone as “illegal” if they are in this country illegally,” he said, adding that “outrage voiced by immigration advocates should be directed at the current immigration system that takes years of bureaucratic red tape to complete.”
Some choose to skirt the law and enter the country on their own terms, Katich said, and “are illegal in the eyes of this valued system and the Santa Barbara News-Press calls them so.”
National and regional media outlets picked up on the headline, and turmoil continued into the week as the paper was also targeted by vandals at some point between 7 p.m. Wednesday and 7 a.m. Thursday, when graffiti was discovered on the building’s exterior by City Hall staff.
“The border is illegal not the people who cross it” and “fight back” were spray painted on the building and its sidewalks, along with the addresses of two websites — imaginenoborders.org and nooneisillegal.org.
About $1,500 worth of damage was done, according to Sgt. Riley Harwood of the Santa Barbara Police Department.
The damage had been painted over by the time Thursday night’s speakers took the plaza.
One of those speakers was Nayra Pacheco, who moved from Mexico to the United States as a 6-year-old. She said her own family members, including her father, have worked at the News-Press as employees. Pacheco’s father delivered papers there, and to hear about the headline language “pisses me off,” she said.
“They’ve hired so many undocumented people,” Pacheco said.
Looming from a second-story window of the News-Press was a video camera, trained on the events below in De la Guerra Plaza.
The red blinking light signaling active recording prompted umbrage from several, including Pacheco.
“See that camera up there? It was put there to intimidate us,” she said.
“Shame!” one woman called out in response.
Ana Becerra, who works for Santa Barbara-based social justice organization Just Communities, also spoke on the lawn, saying she was drawn into the discussion on behalf of her organization, but also took offense at the headline on a personal level.
“This newspaper serves to divide us,” she said, admonishing people not only to boycott the paper, but its advertisers. “If we go spend our money there, it’s shame on us.”
The group also took to State Street, marching several blocks before stopping in the middle of the road to hear from more speakers.
Retract the statement within 10 days, the event’s organizers said, setting a deadline of 3 p.m. on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Otherwise, more protests will follow, they said.
“They should know we’re going to be back,” Pacheco said to cheers from those gathered around her in the middle of State Street.
— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.