L.A.’s largest act of civil ?disobedience was also its ?most polite
There was a time when Maria Elena Durazo couldn’t get arrested in this town. That was years ago, when she was just beginning her David-versus-Goliath struggle to wrest control of Los Angeles’ hotel-and-restaurant workers union from a crew of good old boys indifferent to the city’s growing Latino work force. Durazo won her battle — today she leads both UNITE HERE Local 11 and the L.A. County Federation of Labor. And she can tick off several arrests since the late 1980s. Now she’s trying to go to jail once more, this time on behalf of the mostly immigrant hospitality workers that UNITE HERE is trying to organize at airport hotels. And she’s not alone.
It’s a cool afternoon, September 28, as nearly 2,000 labor, religious and social activists swarm across Vicksburg Avenue just outside Los Angeles International Airport. In the crowd are 320 volunteers, like Durazo, who have agreed to be arrested. You can tell who they are by their color-coded armbands, which indicate their arrest assignments (blue for Hilton, red for Westin). Few are hotel workers — the union’s strained relationship with management and the tenuous immigration status of some members mean that it will be the substitutes getting busted today. When Durazo checks in with the organizers, she learns that she will be arrested at the Hilton; others, including state senators Richard Alarcón, Gil Cedillo and Assemblyman Paul Koretz, will be taken in at the Westin.
“Right now I’m not feeling the butterflies, but I always do,” says Durazo, who wears a red UNITE HERE T-shirt, blue jeans and red Saucony sneaks. She always advises people to dress comfortably for a planned arrest.
Assemblywoman Judy Chu, who couldn’t stop herself from wearing an attractive purple blazer and black slacks, keeps looking at her wrist where her watch should be. But like her wedding ring and all other jewelry, she’s left it at home to expedite booking after the bust.
“There have been a couple of times when folks fainted in the process of getting arrested because the handcuffs were too tight,” Durazo says. “You have to prepare for anything. There’s always the unknown.”
But there is less unknown than you might think at an event like this. Today’s action will be called the largest act of civil disobedience in Los Angeles’ history, but because of the intricate choreography worked out between the union and its religious supporters and the LAPD, the names of the arrestees — who promised not to go limp when approached by officers — were given to police in advance of the protest. The city also established a detour for airport car traffic. This arrangement reflects not only the enormous power of Los Angeles’ labor movement, but also the evolution of protest into a form of political kabuki in which the sensitivities of all concerned are incorporated into a ceremonial dance — a dance timed for the six o’clock news, and one that will cause the least amount of inconvenience to airport motorists.
“Behind those luxurious rooms is poverty,” shouts Durazo, pointing to the high-rise hotels that surround the protestors at a brief rally. “Now let us march! Now let us make history!” Durazo is transformed onstage; her fiery public-speaking voice and compact stature make her a kind of Anna Magnani of the labor movement. Soon the marchers flow from Vicksburg Avenue onto Century Boulevard, with “I Am a Human Being” signs hung around their necks, an allusion to the 1968 Memphis sanitation strikers, whose rallying cry was “I Am a Man.” (The fateful Memphis strike’s leader, the Rev. James M. Lawson, had recently trained many of the protesters how to get arrested.)
When the chanting marchers reach the Hilton, the blue-armband contingent forms three lines on Century. Then they sit, each demonstrator back to back with another. Durazo and Chu are in the center of the middle row. The Rev. Joe Frazier, with sunglasses and this week’s New Yorker tucked under one arm, blesses a braided loaf of challah, which is broken into little pieces for the arrestees. Flowers are handed to each person sitting in the street as photographers and reporters dart in and out of the rows.
Now the police SUVs parked behind the marchers slowly back out and the ritual of protest begins as the vehicles are replaced by some two-dozen mounted police, who solemnly and ceremoniously ride their horses around the protesters and out of sight. The flowers, which cannot be taken to jail, are collected from the protesters as a dispersal order is respectfully read in English and Spanish over a P.A. (One half expects the announcement to be delivered in sign language as well.)
The sun dips below the Pacific, and a cool wind blows up Century, the chill briefly giving everyone — the protesters sitting in the road, their cheering supporters on the sidewalk, the short-sleeved cops standing guard — a common enemy. Even one of the tiny contingent of Minutemen supporters across the street has to literally wrap himself in the American flag to keep warm.
Finally the arrests begin. Three cops approach each of the protesters, read them their rights, video their arrest and apply plastic wrist constraints. When it’s Durazo’s turn, the crowd cheers as she flashes a victory sign before being marched onto the bus for a ride to the Van Nuys jail. Others look grim and a little lonely on their way to the pat-down, but Durazo smiles and jokes with her arresting officer, as though trying to make the young man comfortable in his job. Meanwhile, a drum and gong keep a steady, solemn rhythm from the sidewalk, music for the dance that will end only when the last protester has safely made it onto the bus.