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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.
The IAF had a new burst of activity in the 1970s and made its presence felt in Los Angeles through groups like the United Neighborhoods Organization. UNO took a leading role in Eastside activism, championing immigration reform and anti-gang programs and working for affordable housing. Other IAF groups — the South Central Organizing Committee, the Pomona-based East Valleys Organization, and VOICE, the San Fernando Valley Organized in Community Effort — fought for change around the county.
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.
Karen Jaye, principal of the Fernangeles Elementary School in Sun Valley, said she became involved with L.A. Metro — now One L.A. — to empower her neighborhood to resist expansion of the Bradley landfill.
“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.
It went the same way for state Senator Gil Cedillo, who was challenged to keep fighting for driver’s licenses for undocumented workers; Representative Xavier Becerra, who was challenged on his support of education for those workers’ children; and Supervisor Yvonne Burke, who was asked to keep open King-Drew Medical Center. Although there were a few Korean and African-American congregations present, the vast majority of participants were Latino, many of them immigrants, and most were on the same page with the invited officials on the issues.
Even Sheriff Lee Baca, who did not agree with most of those present on driver’s licenses, was given a free pass.
“My answer is yes,” Baca said when asked whether he would “work” with One L.A. on immigration issues. The sheriff then listed a variety of issues well outside his jurisdiction that he thought the group should work on, like affordable health care and better insurance. Perhaps noting the large number of T-shirts, buttons and signs that named churches around the county, Baca added, “Without God we’re not going to get anywhere.” The crowd cheered.
There was only the slightest hint of pressure when Mayor James Hahn was asked for support on inclusionary zoning, a housing program that requires developers to make a portion of their units available at below-market rates. Hahn, a skeptic on the current proposal circulating among neighborhood groups for comment, drew cheers with his response — that he wanted a solution that didn’t create a new problem.
“It’s early,” said a One L.A. participant. “We’re just being founded today. We’re being nice now. We’re getting acquainted. But the time will come when we put them on the spot. Keep paying attention.”
Cedillo, who got the biggest cheers of the day when he promised to keep up the fight for legal licenses for the undocumented, said he was impressed by the power in the room.
“This is what California looks like today,” he said. “While people don’t have a vote, they have a lot of other ways that they can be felt and express themselves politically, and One L.A. does that.”
Sylvia Hernandez, a student at Santa Monica College who hopes to become a social worker, said that confronting elected officials who agree with One L.A. members is just a start. She placed her demand for educational opportunities for the undocumented before Becerra to let him know that he has support for his efforts, she said.
“If we don’t organize, if they don’t see a lot of people here agreeing with us, I don’t think we can be able to do anything,” Hernandez said.
Eventually, she said, the message would have to be brought to officials who are not already on the same page as One L.A.
“But we have to go step by step,” she said.