L.A.'s Two May Day Marches

On May Day, hundreds of thousands of people demanding rights for undocumented immigrants marched down Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, the epicenter of this burgeoning national movement. The sky was clear and blue and the breeze was mercifully cool as it took more than two hours for all the marchers to make their way down the office-tower canyon of Wilshire Blvd. to the rally site, packing the six-lane street from curb to curb and making lots of cheerful noise. It was a thrilling afternoon; in many ways the most overwhelming demonstration I've ever seen.

The marchers, estimated by the police at 400,000 people, were almost all Mexican-American and mostly young. The advance guard consisted of a brigade of adolescent boys on short bicycles doing wheelies while they shouted the march slogan, "Si se puede!" ("Yes we can!"). Then came the seemingly endless throngs of kids, families, and groups, many carrying handmade signs: "We may be immigrants/But we are hard workers"; "You might hate us/But you need us"; "This land is your land/This land is my land"; a guy in a Dodger cap held a sign that said "Let our people stay!", and another young guy's sign said, "Deport Arnold/Not my homies."

The key organizing groups carried huge banners: "Hotel Workers Rising", UNITE-HERE, plus the Garment Workers Center, the Instituto de Educacion Popular, the Day Laborer Project, Pacific Islanders for Immigrants' Rights, Columbianos por una Reforma Migratoria Justa, the Organization of Hot Dog Vendors in Solidarity, and the L.A. Taxi Workers Alliance, who rode in three yellow cabs. People for the American Way had a big banner and six people behind it, three of them talking on cell phones.

This was one of two competing immigration May Day protests held in Los Angeles, with different organizers and different politics. The monumental Wilshire Boulevard march had been called by labor unions, immigrant rights groups, the pro-immigrant Cardinal Roger Mahony, and the new Latino mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, as an alternative to another march held at noon downtown, the "Boycott" march, which called on immigrant Angelinos to boycott school and work to show what would happen to L.A. on a "day without immigrants" -- although more of the signs called it "Un Dia Sin Latinos," or the admirably bilingual "Primo de Mayo, A Day without a Mexican." The "boycott" march, which demanded "nothing less than full amnesty" and "full rights for all immigrants," had virtually no institutional support, except for small left-wing groups like ANSWER-LA.

The unions, the immigrant rights organizations, the cardinal and the mayor opposed the boycott out of a concern that it would alienate mainstream voters and members of Congress. As an alternative they organized an after-school, after work, afternoon march, with much less radical demands than "full amnesty." This "We Are America" coalition instead calls for "legalization with a path to citizenship for hard-working immigrants," plus "an effective visa program for future immigrants that protects their rights and includes a path to citizenship" -- basically the McCain-Kennedy bill.

The all-important Spanish language radio DJs, who proved to be the secret force behind the massive March 25 demonstration that stunned Anglo L.A. with its size and intensity, did not support the boycotts. Instead they joined the mayor and the cardinal in calling on kids to stay in school today and come to the afternoon march.

But the hundreds of thousands marching in L.A. today probably didn't care much about the different politics of the two marches, as Marc Cooper has argued. And when the mayor and the cardinal tell kids not to boycott school for the day, many find it hard to resist defying authority, especially for this cause.

The downtown march four hours earlier had an estimated 300,000 people. As the march stepped off at noon, the side streets were full of vendors grilling sausages, peppers and onions. These marchers were also cheerful, peaceful, and mostly young -- many very young, alongside their parents. The signs showed that marchers know about the key legislation, a lot more than the great majority of Anglos. "Alto a la HR 4437" was a popular sign, and many young women wore tank tops that said "Contra 4437" -- referring to the bill passed recently by the House, officially "HR 4437," that would make undocumented aliens into felons.

When hundreds of thousands take to the streets on a day like today, we are witnessing the birth of a movement for social justice of historic proportions. What I remember best is a somber ten-year old girl who marched by with her Mexican-American family, carrying a sign that read "We Are Not Criminals." That summed it up for me.

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