A Test of Our Courage

Against the Current, No. 122, May/June 2006

Mike Davis

MIKE DAVIS WAS interviewed by Jon Wiener on KPFK, Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles, on March 29, 2006.  The interview has been slightly abridged for publication.  Many thanks to Meleiza Figueroa for transcribing this for ATC on very short notice.  Also included here are some additional questions from ATC. Mike Davis is the author, most recently, of the book Planet of Slums, discussing the ecological catastrophe of urban concentrations of the global poor.  He teaches history at the University of California-Irvine.

Jon Wiener: Last Saturday saw the biggest demonstration in the history of Los Angeles—something like half a million or a million people demonstrated downtown in favor of immigrant rights, and against the legislation the House has passed, making it a crime to help undocumented workers, even to provide medical care.  What, from your perspective, is going on here?

Mike Davis: This is one of the most inspiring events of a lifetime and clearly shows that a generation exists which will fight to attain equality, and will not accept the bad schools and the occupational ghettos to which they’ve been confined.

The birth of this new power, the self-conscious, militant Latino working class, goes back to the astonishing [Prop]187 protest, but I don’t think that anybody—from talking to people who were at the demonstration—expected something on this scale.  This is quite earth-shaking in LA’s history and—apart from maybe some of the antiwar demonstrations and the civil rights movement’s March on Washington—close to being the largest demonstration ever seen in an American city.

JW: Now, isn’t it true—as the opponents of current immigration say—that undocumented workers keep wages low, especially for the unskilled work that recent immigrants do?

MD: No—what keeps wages low is the whole apparatus of repression that makes it difficult and sometimes impossible for immigrant workers to organize, to form unions, to raise wages, to apply existing labor law—and of course there is vast literature attesting to how this process works.

I think the point, the real message this weekend, was people not simply saying “we’re here and we’re going to stay,” but saying that they intend to create better lives for themselves and for everybody else.  This is an enormous engine of social change, not just for people who are immigrants or who have immigrants in their family, but for all of us who want to see a more just and equal California.

Against the Current: So, what would you say should be our political approach to poor Black workers who are the ones who are most directly hurt by competition from immigrants for jobs?

MD: The impact of low-wage immigration is actually most directly felt by other immigrants.  If any group has an economic self-interest in opposing or restricting undocumented immigration, it would be the earlier cohort of Latino immigrants in sectors like apparel manufacture, landscaping, catering, and so on. By and large, Latinos compete with Latinos in a segmented labor marketplace.

Although it is, of course, possible to cite some examples where Latinos have seemingly displaced Black workers—services, recent construction work in New Orleans, etc.—the impact is usually exaggerated.  Incomparably larger problems for blue-collar African-Americans have been the decline of manufacturing jobs and stagnation in public employment, as well as discrimination and restricted access to so-called “edge city” labor markets with their burgeoning back office, distribution and defense employment.

In political terms, the Latinization of U.S. cities could become a new leverage for Black demands as much as source of competition.  More than ever, the unity of Blacks and Latinos remains the strategic fulcrum of progressive politics and social forward motion.

JW: A lot of what we saw, including Monday and Tuesday, was high school students taking the lead in these—

MD: I had 500 high school students march by my corner this morning, and it was almost like Christmas morning, I must say I couldn’t have been more happy.  I should also say that there’s a missing dimension of this, which is kind of clear to me because I live within sight of the border—I write from my roof, you know, looking south.

It’s apparent from where I sit that there is, really, a border invasion; I mean, we can’t delude ourselves that there’s not—because gringos are taking over Baja California at the speed of light.

Something I’ve seen missing in all this discussion is the fact that in the last decade, the number of Americans in Mexico has quintupled, from about 200,000 to now around at least a million; with vast plans afoot in Baja California, for a dozen luxury yacht resorts strung along the coast; for the conversion of the colonial city of Loreto into a New Urbanist planned community for 40-50,000 wealthy North Americans.

There’s another side to this debate that is seldom discussed.  Right now Tijuana has a burgeoning population of Americans who can’t afford to live here, in San Diego.  Clearly what we’re seeing on the other side, from the vigilantes and their supporters—these are the echoes of a dying culture.

ATC: Could you say a bit more about the latter group of people, presumably Anglos?  You say they are moving en masse to take advantage of the lower cost of living in Tijuana.  Do they then come back across the border to work in the United States?

MD: The socio-economic integration of the United States and Mexico—a process associated with, but far larger than NAFTA—is irreversible destiny and it is uprooting millions of Mexicans—former corn growers and domestic manufacturing workers alike—and forcing them toward El Norte.

But equally, it opens Mexico to colonization by U.S. citizens seeking retirement paradises, second homes, and speculative opportunities.  The difference is that the U.S. transplants enjoy increasing rights within Mexico, including property ownership in formerly restricted coastal areas, while Mexican immigrants have become the largest group of disenfranchised and criminalized workers in the First World.

JW: The march on Saturday and the high school walkouts this week are all protesting the bill that passed the House, the one that criminalizes providing help, assistance or even medical care to undocumented workers.  Apparently in response to the Saturday demonstration, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted on Monday 12-6 in favor of what’s considered to be a progressive immigration bill.

Four Republicans supported this bill, which would basically double the number of border patrol agents, expand facilities for detaining illegal immigrants, make it possible to deport them more quickly, and create an 11-year process to provide documentation or some kind of alien residency for people who are currently illegal.  This is the supposedly good plan that’s being supported by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and other papers.  What’s your assessment of what effect this will have?

MD: This shows two things.  First, the aftershocks of the earthquake in Los Angeles were clearly felt in the halls of the Senate.  And the second is that the Democrats—particularly the Democrats like Senator Dianne Feinstein and Governor Napolitano in Arizona—played a very dangerous game for years, which is that they’ve tried to take this issue away from the Republicans by being tougher on border control.

It’s analogous to Hillary Clinton being tougher on the war on terrorism than Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney.  And in many ways the Democrats collaborated in making this backlash happen.

Unquestionably it’s a very important phenomenon at the grassroots of the Republican Party.  What’s kind of striking about it, however, is that in the 1890s, when you had an equivalent backlash against Jewish and Catholic immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe, often it was from skilled trades, from native white workers defending what they perceived to be their privilege.

Today, if you look at the congressional districts which were in the main seat of this anti-immigrant hysteria, at the people who were its organizers and main sponsors, none of them could exist for more than a few seconds without Spanish-speaking slaves who blow-dry their lawns and wipe their babies’ behinds.

This is not a phenomenon as in Europe with Le Pen, where, you know, it’s angry native workers protesting the immigration.  The hysteria’s coming from groups of people whose whole standard of living is subsidized by immigration, and they’re deeply complicit in the exploitation of immigrants.

ATC: In 2002 and 2004, there was a huge increase in the proportion of the Latino vote that went to the Republicans, and this was one major factor in their electoral successes.  But with local far-right Republicans mobilizing politically around anti-immigration and the Republican congressional majority advancing the most vicious anti-immigrant law in memory, can Bush and company maintain these gains?  What does all this portend for Republican power?

MD: Bush’s dilemma is excruciating: caught between the rock of nativist extremism and the hard spot of employer demands for a neo-bracero program, as well as the growing strategic power of the Latino vote.  I think it is likely that Rove and other White House strategists were blindsided by the scale and ferocity of the anti-immigrant backlash.  Geographically it is a rebellion of fast-growing Republican suburbs with notorious epicenters in northern San Diego and Orange counties in California; the greater Phoenix area in Arizona; the white-flight cordon around Atlanta; and Suffolk County in eastern Long Island.

These are all traditionally monochromatic, upscale areas where residents deeply resent that the immigrants who wait upon them also live amongst them.  The thrust of the new nativism in local and state politics, of course, is more dangerous than the impact so far on national politics: especially the proliferation of legislation and new laws requiring local police to enforce immigration laws.  This is Jim Crow 21st century style and local Latino communities now face unprecedented harassment and fear.

“We’re All Felons”

JW: The House bill, which did pass and which is going to have to be reconciled with the Senate bill, calls for building a 700-mile wall and calls for basically deporting about 10 million people.

MD: Yes, this is a bill which is as scary as the internment of the Japanese in 1942.  In my whole household, it would immediately criminalize everybody in my extended family.  We used to shout that we’re all immigrants, now we can shout that we’re all felons.  And it’s probably, of course, not going to happen now; I think the most likely scenario is deadlock for another year.

I think this is what a lot of people see, but the discourse about the border grows every year more and more inhuman, and I do attach a lot of the blame to the Democrats who’ve been so deeply complicit in this.  And, of course, the whole idea of a border patrol is an absurdity to begin with.

The fates of Mexico and the United States and of other countries in America are inextricably bound together, and that just has to be accepted from the very beginning.  The most courageous statement has come from a source many of us have trouble dealing with because of his stance on other issues—and that’s Cardinal Mahony.

JW: And remind us about Cardinal Mahony’s position on immigration?

MD: He’s said that the right to labor is holy.  He sided 100% with the immigrants and has said that he and other members of the church, other priests and bishops and cardinals, would be the first to go to jail.  And much as we may resent his positions on other things—his suspected involvement in burying the issue of sexual mistreatment of children by priests—on this issue, he stands tall, almost gigantically.

This is absolutely the right position to take; and you know, this is a defining moment, the next year or two. It’s not an issue that people feel like they can just ignore and stand on the sidelines, that it only concerns Latinos and some crazy reactionary Republicans in Orange County.  This issue is going to involve all of us, I think, on a very personal level.  We’re going to have to make—all of us—some fundamental moral choices.

JW: I want to turn to New Orleans now. When was your last visit to New Orleans?  I know you’ve been covering this story since Katrina…

MD: I was there in January, Jon. New Orleans has become so surreal.  It’s this kind of beauty strip along the river, which includes the garden district and uptown and the French quarter, where life has returned to normal—the bistros are full of Tulane students, property values are soaring, everything looks prosperous.  You still have problems getting your mail delivered, but basically it’s the status quo ante.

But you go a few blocks north or east of this, and there’s this vast ghost city just rotting in silence with, here and there, maybe every few blocks or so on, some families, forlorn, living in trailers or even people living in their cars.  Three hundred thousand people from New Orleans are still in exile, 200,000 jobs have been lost, and everything is still in limbo.

For instance, suppose you’re a Black middle class homeowner in New Orleans/ Eastern Gentilly and you want to rebuild.  One of the least covered parts of the New Orleans story Is that New Orleans was not just a city of housing projects and poor neighborhoods, it was a vibrant city of middle-class African-American neighborhoods.  But if you want to try and do something about rebuilding your house, you can’t because everything was held up until FEMA produced flood maps.

These flood maps, essential to getting flood insurance and knowing how high your foundations have to be, were supposed to come out in January, then they were postponed [twice—they were finally published in April—ed.].  Insurance companies are canceling insurance, not only in New Orleans but throughout Southern Louisiana.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development refuses to say anything about what it’s going to do with public housing in New Orleans.

HUD took over public housing in New Orleans in 2002, and there are these huge public housing projects, maybe not what some people imagine they look like.  Some of them are actually made of out red brick, they’re well-built and above all, they represent desperately needed housing.  And they sit there while HUD procrastinates.

It’s getting to the point that my friends in New Orleans feel like they’re living in an alternate reality.  And most of the city just still sits there, slowly rotting away, while figures in the White House seem to show no urgency at all about this.  And the longer they wait, and the smaller and whiter New Orleans becomes, the more it shifts the balance of power in Louisiana.  And this is a very important stake.

The Cost of Neglect

JW: Suppose we had a decent government in Washington, a mayor who was engaged and committed, and a state government similarly engaged.  What would it take?  This is still a massive job to rebuild 200,000-300,000 houses.

MD: It’s become a more massive job because of the decay that’s occurred.  Something I haven’t seen covered very well about New Orleans—some homes were only slightly damaged by water, they only had a foot or two of water, but then they sat there for weeks and months, and the mold destroyed the houses.  There needed to be energetic action taken immediately to dry homes and begin to repair homes.  The damage to houses has been immensely compounded by inaction and neglect.

The crucial thing is that jobs depend on housing, and the ability to repair your house depends on having a job, they go together.  And what happened almost immediately after Katrina is that the Bush Administration made a decision to let city government essentially collapse, forcing the city to lay off a large part of city government.

The schools were taken over by the state, and thousands of unionized school teachers were laid off. This is the biggest, deliberate destruction of the unions since the air traffic controllers under Reagan.

Similarly lost were thousands of jobs in the two major hospitals that were closed down, one of which will not be rebuilt.  So, right off the beginning there were decisions to really decimate the economic base of the Black-fueled working class and the Black middle class in New Orleans.

Now, finally, the businesses—large businesses—are screaming because they have a problem getting low-wage workers.  No one said it required slave labor to run hotels and service for Mardi Gras and the tourist sector, but right from the beginning, from September to October, there should have been an all-out effort—first of all, to freeze employment in place, support city government, not allow it to run into bankruptcy, and make possible the kind of temporary shelter that occurred in Mississippi.

Nothing’s more striking now than this boom on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where most people were able to move trailers onto their house sites very early on. Now Mississippi is booming, jobs are restored, property values are increasing, and New Orleans remains a ghost city.

ATC 122, May-June 2006