A Serendipitous Encounter
Protest and Patriotism in LA
By Edward Shanahan
Once off the freeway, we began navigating the Main Street, Spring Street, Broadway blocks, in the vicinity of City Hall, looking for a place to park.
Funny, there didn’t seem to be much in the way of traffic; mostly there were lots of people ambling along the car-free streets in a relaxed, festive mood. We were even more puzzled when it became clear that most of the intersections we came to were blocked by barriers. Somehow without realizing it, we were suddenly trapped inside this perimeter of blocked-off streets, but seeing no police, we skirted one of the barriers, drove another couple of blocks and stashed the car in a $6 parking space, just before the lot was closed and the “full” sign posted.
Pedestrians – the bulk of them Mexicans - were massing along the side streets and heading for what turned out to be the start of a major demonstration. Thrust as we were into the middle of this melee, we decided to stick around. This looked interesting. But even more significant, this swelling crowd, it turned out, was the start of something important, even historic.
For on that day – March 25 – the immigration rights genie was out of the bottle and the national political debate on immigration, legal and illegal, would grow in intensity and urgency. Such is the power of the people when they gather in great numbers and give voice to an emotional and human cause. Clearly, the genie is not going back into the bottle.
The longer we remained watching the marchers, reading signs of protest and patriotism, and listening to the speakers urging on the demonstrators, even two Gringos from Northampton realized we had witnessed something unique – the very creation of a powerful political movement.
I was reminded of a similar feeling I had while being on hand in 1963 at the March on Washington for Justice and Jobs, the largest of the civil rights demonstrations up to that time and the one best remembered down the years for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
The rhetoric on that Los Angeles day might not be recalled as long as King’s speech, principally because virtually all of the speakers were communicating in the language of their audience – Spanish.
Of the hundreds of thousands of people surging through the streets around City Hall, there were only a handful of non-Latinos, which was not surprising because the march had been heavily promoted mainly on Spanish language television and radio stations.
And the marchers represented a range of points of view – many opposing specific “immigration reform” bills, such as HR 4437, others seeking respect for their work and status in this country, and most expressing their loyalty and support for the United States.
It was not an angry crowd; the marchers did not plead, did not rant, did not threaten, but did convey a sense of racial and ethnic pride in their contribution to this country, regardless of their legal status.
It is only necessary to spend a couple of weeks traveling in Arizona and Southern California to understand the depth of dependency we all have on the work of the Latino immigrants, legal and illegal, and mostly the hard-working Mexicans, who toil in the restaurant kitchens, harvest the crops, tend the lawns and gardens for the well-to-do, perform the hardest, nastiest work on the construction sites and take the most menial work at the lowest possible wages that employers find it necessary to pay.
The current Congressional debate about legislation to normalize conditions for 11 million illegal immigrants and millions of others who are here legally, will not produce definitive and lasting solutions. There will be lots of political posturing. Those favoring amnesty for the illegals will be matched by those who want to erect longer, thicker, higher, and stronger walls and fences on the border to keep new immigrants out and to make sure those who are sent home don’t return. Gook luck. The border, of course, is a completely arbitrary line, not actually recognizing that much of Mexico still thrives emotionally on both sides of it.
The political debate is way behind what it we saw emerge in Los Angeles. And once a movement and its legions are in the vanguard, then it is only a matter of time before the political process confronts the new reality, as happened with civil rights for African Americans 40 years ago.
We may have taken a few wrong turns in our rental car that Saturday morning in Los Angeles, but it opened our eyes and minds in ways that the nation as a whole will come to recognize too in the coming months and years.
For now, Congress will tinker around the edges of the issues involving Immigrant America, but there will be more substantive struggles ahead. And it appears the emerging immigrants’ rights movement is mobilized, ready and eager to move forward to take its place in the broader American society.
downstreet.net©2001. All rights reserved.