Friday, April 14, 2006

aqui estamos y no nos vamos

A few reasons why Monday’s immigration rally in San Francisco was good.

1) It was short.

2) It had a mix of broad and narrow scope, i.e. Broad: Everyone deserves justice and citizenship in our country, regardless of where they came from or how they got here. No human being is “illegal.” Narrow: Boo HR 4437.

3) Our union was keeping things live with chants adapted (on the spot) for the occasion. "El pueblo-Arriba! La migra-a bajo!" etc. Local 2, baby.

There’s been tons of coverage on this issue already, obviously, and I’d expect that pretty much everyone reading this will be familiar with the relevant stuff here anyway. What interests me is the relation between the massive pro-immigration demonstrations (for lack of a better term), and the anti-war/anti-Bush mobilizations last month.

Leading up to, and following, the March 18 protests, I spent a lot of time talking with other folks in the movement about the effectiveness and utility of "mass mobilization." I’ve been complaining for a while now that, instead of being a focused demonstration of support for a particular change or set of changes, these anti-war mobilizations end up turning into Lefty-Con 2006. Hardly a rare complaint on the left, or anywhere else of the political spectrum for that matter, but no less valid for it. These are basically just large gatherings of people with similar, or related, or at least non-conflicting interests (like vegans and First Amendment advocates). That's why the proper term is "mass mobilization," as opposed to "protest." Well, really, I'm just splitting semantic hairs to prove the point -- I don't actually care what you call them. Anyway, Ben Adler wrote an article in Campus Progress last year about the September mobilizations, which I think sums it up very well:

Here we have the opportunity to bring together tens of thousands of Americans to implore someone (the president) with the power to grant a specific, achievable request (withdrawal from Iraq), and it may well be wasted. Where activists could demand a policy change that has significant and growing public support, too many choose to protest every U.S. policy under the sun.

…this view, in its attempt to be all encompassing, is in fact quite myopic; it trades actual gains for people suffering under occupation for the immediate satisfaction of unloading invective on every aspect of U.S. foreign policy for a day.

Should we resent people for believing in Lefty-con, or even just enjoying it? Well, obviously not -- and I admit that the part of myself I'm not crazy about frequently prompts me towards derision, either because I've decided to be holier-than-thou for the moment, or because I'm guilty about doing little to challenge US military aggression, or because I have a jerky knee despite my best efforts. But regardless of how mature I feel like being on a given day, I still don’t go to “mass mobilizations” as a rule. I don’t get much out of them, they’re rarely effective in my view, and I believe my time could be better spent working on focused campaigns, or taking a break from work on focused campaigns. And I won’t be arrogant enough to say I’ve heard every counter-argument to my position, but I’ve heard plenty. Think globally, act locally. Show the rest of the world visible resistance to the Washington consensus. Give activists a chance to communicate, recharge their “batteries,” get pumped. Etc. etc. etc.

Here’s the thing: it seems like whenever I ask organizers and attendees a few direct, strategic questions, things get way too murky for my taste. Who’s in charge of making the change you want to see happen? What do you think is most likely to influence their decision? Assuming they’re not inclined to make the change of their own volition, what do we believe will persuade them, threaten them, or leave them no option but to make that change? Those are the critical strategic questions to me. If you want to win change, as opposed to just demanding it, then strategic questions should be at the center of every action you perform and every dollar you spend.

If, for instance, I thought that mass mobilizations of leftists had any significant impact on the people who set U.S. military policy, then I would attend them. Unfortunately, even if they did have an effect, the mass mobilizations would still require a focused aim. The goal of gathering a whole lot of people in one place, or multiple places at once, ought to be to demonstrate that an enormous number of people were capable and willing to join together to push/oppose a particular course of action. And either the numbers, the demographics, the location, or the activity (ideally all) should demonstrate to people in power that they need to heed the will of the gatherers. Meanwhile, all that Lefty-Cons demonstrate is that thousands of leftists understand how to operate a listserve, and are willing to indulge each other for a short period of time. I know that sounds harsh, but it's hard for me to imagine how this kind of event would inspire someone (in an accountable way) to further action. I’m all for it if it does. And if there’s literally no other way to transform that person into a progressive, critically thinking, active member of society, then all the more reason for mass mobilizations to take place. I'm trying to work the scorn out of my system, and replace it with bland support, or at least indifference. But without clear, persuasive answers to the strategic questions I posed above, you will not find me there.

All that said, the immigration protests were the exact opposite of Lefty-con. There's pending legislation in Congress that will profoundly affect millions of immigrant families, communities, and the U.S. economy. Moreover, it will set the course for future federal decisions in this area, and public opinion is in flux.

Should we have a march for immigrant rights, human rights, no more sweatshops, organizing rights, and fair trade? No. We should have a march opposing the crappy legislation, and supporting a humane, just immigration policy to be implemented now, or at least begun now, while there’s a window. We’ve got legislation that’s up in the air, a critical wedge issue in the 2006 midterms, and a group of people that haven’t had any voice on the national stage since 2003. Politicians who are in charge of drafting and approving this legislation are watching their constituents because they know what's at stake. They're seeing business and labor unite on lobbying day, and they're seeing huge numbers of "legal," voting immigrants (and the naturalized-by-birth children of "illegals") turn out across the country. They're seeing the politicization of immigrant communities that are less than a generation old, and growing at enormous rates in hundreds of major cities. That covers who's in charge and who/what might be likely to influence their decision. It's clear that the organizing is there to make this one of the crucial political issues of the next ten years, and that leaves people and powerful institutions with no choice but to address it. Also, sad to say -- it's here in town, not across the world. Unlike US foreign policy, we have immediate and effective ways to confronting the injustice in our own communities, which means that voters, workers, taxpayers, and consumers can be mobilized to exert pressure directly on the folks that make these decisions.

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