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Colors of Optimism 

The immigrants’-rights movement energizes a nation

Wednesday, Apr 12 2006

AND THE MARCHERS kept marching.

Up and down the coasts, through the deserts and mountain country, in the Deep South, all over the Northeast and in the plains, on Broadway in New York City, by the hundreds of thousands on the Mall in Washington, and through L.A.’s Chinatown, immigration-rights marches brought millions onto the streets of America on Monday.

A million more marched the day before, with at least half of them walking peacefully through Dallas.

Monday marked one month since the historic March 10 rally and march on the Loop in Chicago, where hundreds of thousands of residents of that multicultural, muscular city gave a listless country a preview of what was to come by the sheer size and diversity of their presence.

March 10 already feels like it belongs to another era.

By March 25, when more than half a million gathered in downtown Los Angeles for the largest peaceful demonstration since anyone around here could remember, there was little doubt a movement had begun that was unlike any in the nation’s history. Then Monday happened. The demonstrations spread. And grew.

Black Muslim, Christian and civil-rights leaders were present at events in cities including Detroit and Seattle, and here in L.A. At La Placita, the Rev. Norman Copeland, presiding elder for the Los Angeles conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, made connections between the “walls” that separated blacks from their civil rights in a previous era and the “walls” separating immigrants from their rights today.

“Black Americans have faced walls before, walls of segregation, walls of discrimination, walls of slavery, legal walls that would not allow my father to eat in a restaurant or sleep in a hotel,” Copeland said. “Walls are the breeding ground of fear and confusion.”

Then, invoking a rallying cry everyone in Los Angeles can understand, he hollered: “Fight on! Fight on! Fight on!”

During the march through Chinatown, a neighborhood with its own nasty history of racial discrimination against the Chinese immigrants who came to build California late in the Industrial Revolution, NAACP president and CEO Bruce Gordon stood at the center-front — flanked very symbolically by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and state Senator Gil Cedillo, rivals and old friends.

African-American leaders have attended many of the immigration-rights events since the beginning, but organizing leaders and media figures overshadowed their presence. Earl Ofari Hutchinson, the columnist and political commentator, has drawn attention to the fact that the “old guard” of black organizations such as the NAACP, the Urban League and the Congressional Black Caucus, have been slow to stake their position on the immigration-rights movement. “Just getting a speaker to come to a rally is not enough,” Hutchinson said. “There’s still a feeling-out process on the part of the mainstream older civil-rights organizations. It’s overwhelmed them in many ways.”

That’s part of it, of course, but so is the widely held and dangerously generalized notion that tensions exist in Los Angeles between blacks and Latinos. For this reason, organizers at the vigil and march downtown on Monday had a point person ready to tackle a topic that is laced with inadmissible, Crash-prone stereotypes.

Shannon Lawrence, a 28-year-old political coordinator in South Los Angeles for Service Employees International Union Local 434B, said L.A. blacks are seriously discussing their place in the new movement, and tackling some of their own prejudices. “At the end of the day, everybody is an immigrant to this country, but second of all, we all live in the same community, we all shop in the same stores, we all go to the same libraries, our kids go to the same schools,” Lawrence said. “There should be no reason why my neighbors should not be able to participate the same way I do.”

The immigration-rights movement, he added, is “really calling people out on their own personal beliefs. I think it’s forcing them to look in the mirror, and in looking in the mirror, people are realizing that we’re more the same than we are different.”

A hopeful message, but one that maybe hasn’t resonated with African-Americans who are filling the infosphere with angry messages about the immigration marches. For Hutchinson, the response is a sign of deeper problems that leaders on both sides of the divide have failed to actively address. In an interview Tuesday, he said that African-Americans have a legitimate concern on the question of jobs, but that instead of first “pointing fingers,” community leaders must also tackle the social ills that afflict black America, such as failing schools and broken homes.

“There still is a disconnect between what they’re doing at the top and what many African-Americans feel at the bottom. They do not see the illegal-immigrants’-rights movement as their movement,” Hutchinson said. “It’s not going by polls, it’s not quantitative, it’s just what people are saying. As a matter of fact, many are very hostile to it: ‘How dare you make that comparison.’?”

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