Making Sense of el Clamor P?blico
Last Monday's Boycott was more than a lot of noise
luis carlos rodriguez
When strategizing and projecting the effectiveness of political actions, the mainstream political left tends to work within official channels, ignoring the divergent voices emanating from the margins. For this reason, the potential effectiveness of demonstration sponsored by the mainstream sometimes falls short because what is sanctioned is often out of touch with the grassroots and ignores what history teaches us: sustained political change is also advanced by what transpires beneath the mainstream political surface. Nothing new in politics, this pattern exemplifies the growing inability of the mainstream political left to understand the validity of social actions emanating from the periphery and occurring at the ground level.
Published on LatinoLA: May 7, 2006
With regard to last Monday?s massive mobilization of immigrant groups and their supporters in Los Angeles, it seems that many in the mainstream political left are suffering from amnesia. This is apparent when one considers how organized labor, and civic and religious leaders failed to endorse what was dubbed ?The Great American Boycott? or ?A Day without Immigrants.? When social movements become institutionalized some progressive folks forget that what builds the social capital necessary for sustained political change also depends upon marginalized groups envisioning and believing, on their own terms, that a better world is possible and on whether or not their voices will be taken into consideration by the political mainstream.
Championed by grassroots organizations and immigrant rights groups on the political fringes, the boycott was at best seen as pointless and at worst as counterproductive by immigrant and labor rights organizations such as the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Angela Salas, executive director of CHIRLA, felt that a work and school boycott had the potential to ?not only alienate members of Congress but many Americans? as well. Although Maria Elena Durazo, executive director of the LA County Fed, reminded many that ?there [was] no one single action?that won rights for African-Americans and other people in this country,? organized labor nonetheless officially chose to boycott the boycott.
Similarly, Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Cardinal Roger M. Mahoney, and Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Roy Romer weighed-in against students participating in the boycott by walking out of school. This position even though the mayor referred to the earlier (and unofficial) march toward city hall as ?celebratory,? ?very peaceful,? and ?very positive.? Additionally, in a recent Los Angeles Times Opinion piece from April 28th Mark Cooper referred to boycott supporters as not only making ?a lot of noise,? but of also stifling political change. On his blog a few days later, Cooper would further report that he was ?pleased that the bigger of the two events in Los Angeles was that which did not explicitly endorse the boycott.? The mainstream political left, it would seem, not only ?knows best? but its tactics were also validated because it had the bigger turnout.
The discourse about what are ?proper? strategies to utilize when pressuring congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform reveals not only the obvious break between the political mainstream and the grassroots. Perhaps more importantly, this rupture exemplifies a pattern of mainstream political left?s inability to understand the necessary importance and validity of political action called for by the margins; to heed it as something other than ?a lot of noise.? While the boycott, walkouts, and the unofficial marches and rallies may not directly translate into what Nativo Lopez, president of the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA), saw as ?augmented voter power and a voting bloc,? the potential for protesters and participants to develop a greater political consciousness by participating in organic social action, is what the political mainstream should remember because it is something they can also from.
Individuals participating in collective actions on their own terms, many times sparked by smaller, unofficial (and more transparent) organizations existing on the political fringes, are what build the cultural base necessary to sustain long-term, transformative social change. The late educator and anticolonialist Paulo Freire, for example, knew that once individuals are able to see beyond their limit situations, they also have the ability to envision a better world and thus are more likely to act in order to change it. Indeed, this is what he meant by praxis. According to Freire, cultural politicization, or conscientization, is what enables individuals to recognize, understand, and eventually transform reality. In this process the student/teacher dichotomy is disturbed as both lean from one another. Yet, the strategies and calls for political action emanating from the periphery and the validity of political action occurring at the ground level registers only as noise on the radar of the mainstream political left. Unfortunately, change in peoples? everyday lives, which is also largely ignored by the media, muffled by official political discourse, and dismissed by institutionalized progressives, is where the most dynamic political transformations in society are occurring ?on the daily,? and what needs to be cultivated, tapped, and learned from.
With respect to immigration reform, history tells us that the mainstream can benefit from listening to the grassroots.
In July of 1974, the Center for Autonomous Social Action (CASA), MAPA and other political organizations involved in the Chicano Civil Rights Movement criticized the United Farm Workers for their harsh stand on immigration, such as reporting undocumented workers to the INS, in an open letter published on the Associated Press. Not unlike the rallying calls made last Monday, the letter stated that regardless of legal status ?all workers have the right to seek work in order to support themselves and their families.? Although they would later change their policy the UFW would dismiss the political fringe?s pleas as ignorant to the official ?workers? struggle.? Cesar Chavez would rebut demands to change the UFW?s official strategy for immigration reform by stating in an interview on El Malcriado that CASA and others were merely making a lot of noise, ?they don?t know because they are not workers.? The margins had it right back then and maybe it?s important to listen to them now.
To some, it may seem ironic that members of at least one of the groups which criticized and proposed unpopular demands on the UFW, are the same LA labor and civic leaders who were unwilling to validate the political periphery?s boycott, marches, and rallies. These patterns need to change.
The inability to notice how the imagination of not only marginalized groups but all people can be positively affected by participation in last Monday?s grassroots actions on either side of the US/Mexico border, led the mainstream left to question the wisdom of the boycott/walkout, dismissing it as ignorant and counterproductive. Rather than dismissing unsanctioned actions as ?a lot of noise,? the mainstream left would better serve their constituents (and themselves_ by attempting to decipher and make sense of the clamor p?blico. Doing so, however, will require them/us to not only fix their/our ears on the ground, but more importantly, to also listen, dialogue and learn from the congress of voices speaking, chanting, and disagreeing on the margins.
What gives lasting value to social movements is not necessarily approval from political majority of them or their tactics. Rather, what builds the social capital necessary for sustained social and political change depends on whether or not everyday people can envision and believe that a better world is possible. "Freedom dreams," to borrow from Robin D. G. Kelly, are not only constructed out of a politics of accommodation dictated from the top/center, they are also a politics of hope expressed from the bottom/margins. What sustained the politics behind Dr. King?s "I have a dream" and what will validate Villaraigosa?s "Dream with me," was and is not dependent on whether these claims for social justice fit snuggly within the political mainstream. What sustains real social change is dependent upon whether or not the mainstream?s visions of change are able to incorporate and learn from the ongoing and oftentimes divergent dreams of those living on the political, economic, and cultural margins. Real transformative political change depends upon whether the marginalized politics of hope which emanate from those whom daily perform the important yet undetected work of keeping a perpetual nightmare at bay, resonates with the political mainstream. However, this will depend upon the willingness of the mainstream political left to appreciate and learn from the noise the margin makes when they decide, on there own terms, to take to the streets.