They started coming shortly after noon. First a few buses, then whole caravans, from across the county pulled up in front of the Los Angeles Convention Center on a hot July day, and out poured church congregations, school leaders, union members. From St. Michael’s in South L.A. came dozens of parishioners in white T-shirts printed in red with the image of the sword-wielding archangel. From Precious Blood on Hoover came a spirited bunch in their red T-shirts. In light green were workers from UCLA, members of AFSCME Local 3299. Down at St. Vicente on Figueroa, they did without the buses and marched in formation up the street and into the hall, wearing their dark green.
By the time the gavel came down Sunday to launch the “founding convention” of a movement called One L.A., more than 12,000 cheering people from about 120 organizations filled the Convention Center and joined in enthusiastic calls for empowerment, for immigration reform, for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, for affordable housing, for better health care and education.
“Can we count on your help to stand against expansion of Bradley landfill?” a One L.A. co-chair demanded of state Senator Richard Alarcon.
“Absolutely!” Alarcon replied.
Similar challenges were posed to nearly a dozen elected officials.
Organizers of the new activist group claim that they can reinvent the political culture of Los Angeles by building a new generation of leaders. A program of “house meetings” brings families together to talk about the things they need and expect from government and from each other, Precious Blood’s Father Mike Montoya said several weeks before Sunday’s official kickoff.
“Together we have the power that each of us alone may lack,” Montoya said.
Carlos Lopez, who participates in one of the neighborhood councils set up by the city of Los Angeles, said One L.A. may allow residents to empower themselves in a way that the councils — now a part of the City Hall structure — cannot. He pointed out that the mayor, the police chief, nearly half the city council, the state Assembly speaker and a member of the Board of Supervisors came to the convention, even though One L.A. has no official status in the halls of government.
“I’m glad the elected officials were here,” said Lopez, a timekeeper at the One L.A. convention. “They listened, and hopefully they’ll pay attention.”
One L.A. organizers have been working for nearly five years to establish a new presence in Los Angeles for the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a movement started in Chicago iÏn 1940 by legendary organizer Saul Alinsky.
Alinsky brought together black and immigrant workers to improve their neighborhoods by encouraging them to meet face-to-face, identify their problems and confront public officials. Often described as an “in-your-face” approach to mobilizing, Alinsky’s confrontational stance became one foundation for the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
But the organizations gradually lost their steam, and supporters and critics still argue over the reasons. Some say they emphasized projects over training new leaders. Others contend that Los Angeles, with its vast area, disparate communities and heritage of isolation, simply wore down the efforts at creating a culture of engagement and activism.
The groups’ last big splash in L.A. was in the early 1990s as supporters of Hope in Youth, an anti-gang program that was adopted, and later dropped, by the Los Angeles City Council.
As L.A. Metro, the name given to the new IAF organizing effort that began in 1999, activists say that this year they helped block random stops in the city of Maywood that were harassing undocumented drivers and helped defeat an Inglewood ballot measure that would have erased environmental and planning requirements for a Wal-Mart.
“We already have 80 times more asthma than on other campuses” because of the monstrous garbage hill, Jaye said.
The standard operating procedure for IAF groups is to “invite” a public official to attend a meeting and be confronted by vocal activists demanding support on a particular issue. Mayors, police chiefs, council members and bureaucrats who decline the invitations soon discover people coming to their offices in organized — and vocal — displays of community power.
On Sunday, invited guests were savvy enough about the Alinsky model to accept the invitation and be prepared for challenges. Most of the challenges, though, were quite friendly. Alarcon, for example, a former city councilman and now a candidate for mayor, has made blocking expansion of the Bradley landfill a cornerstone of his tenure in public service, so it was not at all difficult for him to promise to continue the fight. In fact, it was an opportunity to remind the thousands of assembled participants that he was their champion against the dump.