Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Takin' It to the Streets

I am a member of the demonstration generation.
Fueled by the confluence of the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam war protests, perhaps no other recent generation took to the streets as often as those of us who came of age in the 1960s.
We didn't invent marching for a cause.
That honor in this country goes to the colonists who took to the streets to protest the tyrany of English rule.
But we marched and cheered and shouted and sang long enough and loud enough to eventually help bring an end to segregation in this country and a stop to a war whose goals were as clouded and ill conceived as today's adventure in Iraq.
Many of us were guided by the words of Martin Luther King. In his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," Dr. King spoke of "direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the. . . community."
We did just that. Looking back, it seemed like right and truth and justice drove us. We were idealistic and motivated. We were also naive.
I thought about that this week as I watched students pouring out of their schools to march in protest of the more Draconian aspects of immigration policy being debated in Congress.
They are young, idealistic and, I'm relativly sure, convinced they have truth and justice on their side. They have been vocal but nonviolent.
Let's hope they can stay that way.
Just as surely as the civil rights movement begat the Black Panthers and the peace movement begat the Weathermen, there are those who would hijack causes such as the immigration rights movement and turn it to their own nefarious ends.
History teaches us that this is so.
Remember the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee? Some of the original members were organizers of sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in the South. SNCC played a leading role in the Freedom Rides and the 1963 March on Washington, seminal events in the civil rights movement. Ultimately, the group was taken over by the likes of H. Rap Brown who embraced violence which he said "was as American as apple pie."
The Students for a Democratic Society? Rejecting the ideal of participatory democracy, many members broke off and formed the Weathermen who called for a series of militant actions to achieve the revolutionary overthrow of the government of the United States, and of capitalism as a whole.
Seen an anti-war demonstration lately? In many cases, front and center, is a group of anarchists whose main goal seems to be to create of climate of violence and mistrust between the demonstrators and police and bring discredit to the cause . They were primarily the instigators of trouble between the police and demonstrators outside Staples Center during the Democratice convention in 2000.
Today's reality for many us is that yesterday's idealism has been replaced with disillutionment and distrust.
Having said that, I believe attempts to radicalize and polarize the immigrants rights movement may fail because so many of those participating have a financial and emotional stake in this country.
To underscore that point, I was cheered to read the words of Gustavo Arellano, writing in the Orange County Weekly about last weekend's demonstration:
"Those Latino multitudes who marched waving the Stars and Stripes sought the right to remain here and enter the American social contract. They want the responsibilities and burdens of citizenship. Sure, there were Mexican flags, and people shouted "Me-xi-co! Me-xi-co!" as if they were cheering on the tricolor soccer squad. But the chatter on the streets was that of assimilation. The most telling sign was the young people at the protest - the children of immigrants, who chanted in Spanish then talked to each other in perfect English. They are the legacy of the illegal immigrants, the reason why the illegals want to belong."
Let's hope this movement follows the examples of Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez and that the mistakes of the past aren't repeated in the future.

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