A Protest of, for and by Workers

Standing by the dais at the Wilshire and La Brea rally, I was trying to figure out what accounted for such an overwhelmingly positive vibe. And then it hit me: This was actually a sea-size demonstration of workers, for workers and — most importantly — by workers.

That’s truly an oddity among the galaxy of demonstrations-as-we know-them. Go to just about any other protest in modern America and what you’re most likely to find is one more thinly disguised act of noblesse oblige — self-validating middle-class and student activists very earnestly demonstrating on behalf of this or that oppressed group, or for some abstract cause. I stopped going to protest demos a few years ago, when I realized I was seeing the same predictable cast of characters over and over and over again, only now with longer and grayer ponytails.

How absolutely refreshing it was on Monday, then, to be bobbing on a wave of thousands of ordinary people actually protesting on their own behalf. Not in solidarity with someone else. Not in support of someone else. And, therefore, no need for the usual paraphernalia of your standard lefty march. No giant puppets. Neither freaky costumes nor face paint. No trace of anyone in a fright wig. None of the usual self-indulgent countercultural poses and postures. No Radical Cheerleaders, thank God. No “Free Mumia” posters. And, best of all, no painfully endless lineup of Professional Activist speakers on the podium, draped in kaffiyehs and sunglasses, unreeling their obsessive single-issue rants. No ding-a-lings hawking The Militant or the Revolutionary Worker. And, finally, no gaggle of frustrated, self-righteous, lapsed-Catholic movie stars hogging the mikes.

The only celebrity speakers, at least at the rally backed by the church, labor and the major pro-immigrant agencies, were Cardinal Mahony, Mayor Tony and star DJ “El Cucuy,” who tastefully kept his remarks to about two minutes. The handful of other speakers were, believe it or not, rather anonymous workers and students offering some peer-to-peer testimony to the audience. Even the rally logistics were handled ably by volunteer squads of unionized janitors and hotel workers. Altogether a totally adult, mainstream event, albeit conducted mostly in Spanish. A pro-working-class demonstration populated by bona fide workers.

The discipline and order were no less than dazzling, allowing the event to unfold in an atmosphere of absolute tranquillity and serenity. When I spent some time behind the lines with the LAPD field command, I found the mood so mellow I almost expected the lazing boys and girls in blue to start breaking out some bongs.

I had expressed some fears last week that fringe groups like ANSWER, along with freelance operators like Nativo Lopez, were diverting this new, rapidly burgeoning movement with their call for an economic boycott (the ideological boneheads at ANSWER were further polluting matters by openly calling for “amnesty”). Fortunately, they were out-organized by the labor-church coalition that refused to endorse the walkout from schools and jobs. The marginal groups were submerged by the massive number of participants who turned out and who are keeping their eyes firmly on the prize: sensible, achievable and comprehensive immigration reform that will acknowledge and legalize those currently working in the shadows.

Monday’s protests will certainly have a mixed effect. For every forward push, there’s some backlash. That’s no surprise. So those who already have a beef with the protesters will only harden their attitudes. The question is, Who has the momentum? In the last six weeks — against all predictions — it has been and remains with the pro-immigrant forces.

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