Colors of Optimism
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.’?”
The responsibility is on the immigration advocates, Hutchinson said, to aggressively reach out to older civil-rights organizations, in the same way those very organizations created broader and ultimately stronger coalitions during the 1950s and ’60s by reaching out beyond their African-American constituents.
But what is it about Los Angeles, where this black-brown divide seems to be on everyone’s nervous radars? Whenever I am visiting relatives in the Bay Area or at home in San Diego, there doesn’t seem to be that “black-brown tension” that apparently permeates everyday life in L.A.
Visiting over the weekend in the old barrios in San Diego where I grew up — Sherman Heights, Barrio Logan, Shelltown, Chollas Heights, National City, City Heights — I was reminded that in the state’s second-largest city, blacks and Latinos have, and continue to live in, relative harmony. Both groups there have rich, deeply rooted histories, and have shared the same neighborhoods for decades, meaning in San Diego brown kids grow up with black playmates and black teens are seen walking down the street with brown teens — and it’s not a head-turning anomaly.
Geographic distance and racial isolation in Los Angeles are partly to blame for the fomenting of tensions, Hutchinson said, but L.A. has something to learn from its less flashy, less wound-up neighbor to the south.
SAN DIEGO HIT A MILESTONE on Sunday, and the national media barely had time or energy to notice. Police and the Union-Tribune said about 50,000 people marched from Balboa Park to the county administration building on the San Diego Harbor, which made it the largest demonstration in San Diego history.
Local Spanish-language-press reporters didn’t buy the figure, and could be overheard at the media tent pressing the march organizers to inflate their estimates to 150,000 or more. Whatever the actual number, the march’s size was another overwhelming sight. By the time my mother, siblings and cousins — from San Diego and Tijuana — reached the destination, my older brother and sister-in-law, who stayed behind at the park with their two kids, said the end of the march was still far off. People were jammed side by side for almost two miles.
“Never, never seen something like this in San Diego,” said Daniel Castañeda, a 48-year-old landscaper from Escondido, who wore a long ponytail, held an enormous U.S. flag on a long pole and wore a T-shirt covered with the Aztec sun stone and the words “Children of the Sun.”
“I’m a son of immigrants myself. As a Chicano, I’ve been waiting for this for years.”
All people know about San Diego, Castañeda said, is that “it’s a vacation spot and we have a border problem. We got to fix it somehow. I wish Mexico would get its shit together.”
In this spirit, and this being San Diego, there were a few instances where the city’s intolerant character and traditional disdain for Tijuana came through.
A small group of “Save America” demonstrators reached the administration building first, and squared off with some of the more hardcore San Diego Chicanos who came looking for a fight. The counterdemonstrators were a micro-percentage of the total number of people there, but local TV news program KFMB gave the “Save America” camp equal time on its evening newscast.
At one point during the march, on Broadway at First Street, a guy who looked like a Camp Pendleton Marine, or maybe a La Jolla heir or San Diego State party dude, threatened to ram through the march when the light turned green. “It’s green! Go!” he screamed at the motorist in front of him, who was waving and honking her horn in support of the march. The dude tried going around the van in front of him, prompting my mother, a smiley, good-natured woman who never backs away from a fight, to stand in the crosswalk, joined by some of my teenage cousins. They held the line until the guy was given room to back up. He zoomed off, his tires screeching angrily on the pavement.
The national media were still reeling from the size and scope of the marches by Monday night. Images were beamed to viewers from Jonesborough, Tennessee; Birmingham, Alabama; Dodge City, Kansas; Tyler, Texas, and broadcast live from outside La Placita in Los Angeles, where people kept vigil past sundown, as if they were waiting for the Independence Day grito or New Year’s Eve.
The scenes from La Placita appeared on Anderson Cooper’s CNN evening news program 360, where a remarkable thing happened during the call-in portion. Cooper took a call from Erica, a nervous-sounding woman in Alabama who, by the sound of her Southern twang, might have been expected to use her airtime to rail against “the illegals.”
Instead, Erica had a simple, raw question. “My husband, if he has to go back, what’s gonna happen? Who’s gonna raise my children? Who’s gonna give my children the love that my husband does?”
It was a breathtaking moment.
“Wait, you’re saying your husband is illegal?” Cooper asked.
“He is,” Erica said.
“But you’re legal?”
“Yes, I am. I’m an American citizen. I was born here.”
“Well,” Cooper said, “by law, my understanding is, he should be able to become an American citizen.”
Cooper was right. But he seemed oblivious to the actual weight of Erica’s plea — would the immigration wars tear her family apart?
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