Take Their Law and Shove It

Against the Current, No. 54, January/February 1995

Jim Lauderdale

PROPOSITION 187 PASSED, but one thing remains certain: The voice of those whom the right wing and the neoliberals sought to make marginal, invisible and silent will continue to speak with power, clarity and conviction.

The campaign gave the lie to any myth that those most affected by 187’s draconian provisions had any intention of being silenced. On October 16 a demonstration of 100,000 people, mostly immigrant workers and supporters, filled the streets in front of Los Angeles City Hall in opposition to Proposition 187.

This historic outpouring, which surpassed even the largest Vietnam era marches in Los Angeles, was organized by several pro-immigrant rights coalitions, the union-based Los Angeles Organizing Committee to Defeat 187 and hundreds of community groups from the Latino, Asian and Pacific Islander and Indian Subcontinent communities.

Under the provisions of Ballot Initiative 187, public school teachers, public health professionals and other citizens would be legally required to report suspected “illegals” to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

As of January 1995, up to 400,000 students currently enrolled in the public schools would be subject to a 90-day notification of intent to dismiss, prior to deportation to a school in their country of origin. This would leave many school-age children uneducated and unattended.

Only students are targeted for removal. Health service contacts carry no such provision; immigrants in question would be free to go on living in poverty and working in the United States for starvation wages, but denied health care in the event of illness.

Health care workers realize that the potential for disaster is staggering, since they would be required to act as surrogates for the INS in refusing suspected “illegals” of all but emergency medical care. This would entail denying immunizations, tuberculosis tests (currently there is a TB epidemic in Los Angeles), and neonatal exams that go a long way in reducing birth defects and infant mortality.

Among teachers and health workers there is sizable sentiment for open resistance and mass non-compliance campaigns. These have official union support among the heavily unionized workers in both sectors. Other semi-public and private sector unions also realize the disastrous consequences that passage of this initiative implies for organizing and bargaining in the LA area.

For these reasons the organization of the October 16 demonstration had a high profile among public sector unions like Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 660, the United Teachers Union of Los Angeles, and service unions like the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Local 11. Private sector unions ranging from the ILGWU and UFCW to UE were also represented, not only numerically but as organizing resources.

This union centrality cast some interesting contradictions on organizing the demonstration. For unions in an election year to rely on a mass action strategy has long been virtually unheard-of, as it tends to put politicians on the spot in ways that drive campaign managers near to nervous breakdown. In this case the conflict went further than anyone anticipated.

At the outset there was cohesion between the local LA Organizing Committee to Defeat 187 and the “broader” statewide effort known as Tax Payers Against 187, largely funded by the State Council of SEIU and closely tied to Democrat Kathleen Brown’s gubernatorial effort.

The crucial break came when Dean Tipps of Tax Payers demanded that the demonstration be abandoned as a serious effort so as not to embarrass Brown or create a “backlash.” Tax Payers’ strategy was to focus on white voters and win their opposition to 187 based on the cost of lost revenues to the state resulting from federal cutoffs over 187’s unconstitutional provisions.

The LA Committee wasn’t buying it. The backlash already existed; what was needed was a mass movement to fight the immigrant-bashing. At one point during the widening rift, a photograph taken at a press conference when the two groups were still speaking was circulated statewide for press purposes — but with the General Manager of SEIU Local 660, Gilbert Cedillo, an outspoken opponent of the Tax Payer strategy, whited out!

This led to some jokes around the union office about Gilbert having been “Trotskyized,” a reference to a Stalin-era touch-up job done on a picture of Lenin and Trotsky.

The turnout of the October 16 demonstration, unpredicted by even the most optimistic of its organizers, gave the lie to the strategy that had touched off the debate. Within days the dominant conversation topic throughout the state was the image of the demonstration on the front pages of every newspaper and television lead story.

It was in the wake of the demonstration that a substantial list of newspapers, even some of the Democrats most responsible for contributing to anti-immigrant hysteria, like Sen. Dianne “Send the Army to the Border” Feinstein, came out against 187. Most important, a popular movement had been born.

In the aftermath of the march, hundreds of high schools statewide (but mostly in LA) experienced walkouts. Rallies, teach-ins, marches and walkouts involving 10,000 students followed one another in dizzying succession.

The power and dynamism of this movement will be tested in the aftermath of the election. But it will not be silenced. In that, regardless of the vote, lies the hope of victory.

ATC 54, January-February 1995