Rebuilding the Pro-Immigrant Movement: Lessons from MacArthur Park
Victor Manuel Rodriguez
Professor, Department of Chicano and Latino Studies, California State University, Long Beach
May 4, 2007
In the aftermath of the police riot which captured the focus of the media and political pundits this week, one fact is clear: the pro-immigrant movement has lost momentum. While what happened in MacArthur Park was an atrocious violation of civil rights and constitutional protections, it is important to discern what is going on with a social movement that seemed invincible just one year ago. It is also important to understand what is happening with law enforcement in Los Angeles as the context for the May 1 events.
Most of the media characterized the attacks on the marchers as a return to the “old LAPD.” Probably a more accurate analysis is that the Los Angeles Police Department as an institution seems to be intractable to deep reform. Only 15 years ago, Rodney King was awarded $3.8 million for suffering a beating by a few “bad apples.” In 1993, members of the LAPD beat a peaceful demonstration by hundreds of Latino janitors and their families, some women miscarried and eventually, the Service Employees International Union settled with the police department for a sum of $2.35 million.
After the 2000 Democratic National convention in Los Angeles, a federal lawsuit was filed by seven news reporters, initially represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and then handled by Michael Diamond and Sharon Jackson of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP a major Los Angeles law firm. The department settled with an agreement to develop a protocol that would govern the way LAPD handled their relationship with the press. This protocol included training about first amendment rights, setting up a place to provide access to the media and the appointment of a press liaison officer to coordinate between the police and the press.
Last July 8, 2006 Los Angeles Police Department officers beat and injured, Christen Westberry, José Villa, and Natividad Carrera, three participants in a peaceful demonstration against the anti-immigrant minutemen organization.
All of the previous events are captured in video, but contrary to the public response to the Rodney King beating these latter events seemed to have encountered a desensitized public and normalized the way law enforcement deals with citizens, especially citizens of color, engaged in constitutionally protected activities.
Very likely, the three investigations which are being carried—internal affairs, police department and inspector general---out will issue a critique of law enforcement’s “over reaction” and “abuse of authority” and develop new protocols and reforms. Unfortunately, “bad apples” will again be blamed and LAPD will continue its institutionalized practice of political repression. The problem with the LAPD is not a few “bad individuals” the problem lies in that the institution’s default operating system is one of controlling dissent and not of protecting civil liberties. Since the “Red Squad” days to today, this institution was created for control of the masses and today the masses are immigrant Latinos. All “reforms” of the LAPD have basically just scratched the surface. This institution has changed as much as it could in order to continue performing the function for which it was created. The only way of making the department accountable to the community that pays the taxes that finance this organization, is creating structures that oversee it that are connected to the community. This is the challenge that Mayor Villaraigosa faces, but a challenge that given the state of the immigrant social movement he will not choose to face.
Anyone who has followed the immigrant social movement after the huge demonstrations of last year are not surprised by the weak performance this time around. Internal divisions between immigrant organizations and leaders about strategy, tactics and ideology have fractured the movement. Despite efforts to develop consensus and the creation of fora for their development in the form of summits and conferences, the fractures continue to expand.
Also, the shifting of energy and resources into the legislative arena has diffused the movement’s energy. The Civil Rights movement began to lose momentum as it began to shift its arena of struggle from the streets into the courtroom. A false sense of success provided by the early court victories and congressional legislation led to the belief that racism in the United States had been tamed. Unfortunately, as we have learned since then: racism does not obey the law. The organizers were substituted by the men in suits, and the masses returned to their daily life. What was left was a network of bureaucratized organizations led by the middle classes for whom litigation and the legislative arena where the main spaces for struggle.
Today, something similar is happening in the immigrant social movement. Major mainstream Latino organizations are supporting the recent legislative effort at “comprehensive immigration reform” by congressmen Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ). Their legislative piece, H.R. 1645, the Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act of 2007 or the STRIVE Act of 2007 would basically enshrine in the law a system of indentured servitude in the form of another shameful guest worker program. It would also place onerous obstacles to an effective and speedy process of amnesty for undocumented immigrants. The only way to explain how Congressman Luis Gutierrez has agreed to this oppressive legislation, particularly given his long-standing progressive actions and positions on immigration is that the weakening of the immigrant social movement has diminished the leverage the movement had on congressional politics. Politicians after all, whether progressive or not are about compromise and results.
Finally, probably the most important strategic and tactical advance that a segment of the immigrant social movement has achieved was the development of alliances with other groups. One reason for the initial success of the Civil Rights movement was its ability to cut across racial, political lines and forge broad coalitions. Jews, Catholics, whites, Latinos, Asians and American Indians all developed coalitions that were initially effective in broadening the movement. This building of cross-racial alliances is still an objective but not one that seems to be a focus of much of the immigrant movement. It is somewhat ironic that the event in MacArthur Park, organized by, among others, the Multiethnic Immigrant Workers Organizing Network (MIWON) was the most diverse mass demonstration held in Los Angeles and the one that suffered the most repression.
On May 1 when it was most necessary to evidence the potential strength of the immigration social movement, most of the politicians who have ridden on the immigrant wave were not there. Last year, millions marched and no police brutality occurred. This time around, did the LAPD feel emboldened by the perceived weakness of the movement? It may be time again to return to the streets and bring in more organizers and less attorneys.