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Immigrants rise up in LA — Interview with leading organizer Jesse Díaz

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Jesse Díaz is cofounder of the Los Angeles March 25th Coalition, which organized a demonstration of over one million for immigrant rights. Jesse and the Coalition also put out the call for the “Gran Paro Americano 2006,” a nationwide boycott by immigrant workers on May 1, in which millions protested, went on strike, and walked out of school. Justice’s Hank Gonzalez recently interviewed Jesse about the beginnings of the immigrant rights movement and the way forward for this historic struggle.

Can you describe the campaign for the March 25th demonstration?
By the end of our campaign, we were seeing mobilizations take place among the people themselves. It was a mass, mass mobilization.

When the mainstream media was there at our press conference and we estimated we were going to get a million, they didn’t believe us. The police estimated 500,000, but there was also a news station there who said it was between 1.7 and 2 million people, and that’s their estimation from the aerial photos.

When I walked up to the stage and said a few words, people responded to a boycott. There was a roar through the crowd that they wanted to do a boycott.

What prepared the LA leadership to take this bold lead?
That summer I was involved in a coalition called La Tierra es de Todos. There were no big organizations and no politicians. We had literally no support of the establishment. We still organized people to go out in the desert and successfully confront the Minutemen.

After HR 4437 passed in the House [in December 2005], I got involved with the Placita Olvera Pro-Immigrant Working Group. They were organizing actions, rallies, vigils, and petitions. I intervened and told them they needed to do a mass mobilization.

People basically thought we were crazy. People didn’t participate, they didn’t support our group – some people didn’t really believe in having a mass mobilization. At the end of the March 25th campaign is when we started seeing the traditional media, longstanding activists, and leaders in the community start coming aboard.

A lot of leftist groups have stayed in the coalition, along with MAPA – the Mexican American Political Association. It’s still a non-mainstream, leftist kind of group. That’s why we’ve gotten so much criticism from the extreme right and everybody. They see that we’re workers and that we can get it on, and they know that the history of some of the members is embedded in the struggle in ’86 when they passed the last amnesty. So in our group we have that history and that is why we are able to have some authority.

What was the thinking behind May 1st?
The premise for the boycott was that the American economy is heavily, heavily dependent on immigrants. When we were doing protests against the Minutemen, we encountered the idea that immigrants are a drain on the economy. But studies have shown over and over that immigrants contribute more to society than they take out.

So I figured that the only way to prove that was to do it with the boycott and call on all immigrants not to go to work. When we saw the Port of LA truckers come aboard, we knew that it would be big in terms of labor. In many cases, the workers were threatened that they were going to lose their jobs, and they still didn’t go to work. So everywhere you looked, it was like a national holiday. It was like nothing that I had ever seen before. It was like magic.

I think we proved our point. On Saturday Cardinal Mahoney and Bush came out in the front page of the LA Times against the boycott. And they had this whole thing about guest worker, pathway to citizenship, and all that other B.S. That next week Bush changed his whole tune. He came to Orange County, the birthplace of the Minutemen, one of the most conservative areas of California, and he said that “realistically, there is no way that we can deport 12 million undocumented folks.”

On March 24th, before the march, the Sensenbrenner bill was still alive and well. After the march, on the 27th, the Senate debate began. It changed the mind of George Bush from “Guest Worker” to “Pathway to Citizenship.” Now are we satisfied with that? No. That’s not our goal – it’s an over-glorified guest worker program. One of our points of unity is completely against anything that looks like a guest worker program. So we have shaped the national debate through the mass mobilizations in Los Angeles, spearheaded by the March 25th Coalition.

We’re pushing forward for full, immediate, unconditional amnesty – that’s basically the crux of the movement. Right now, the INS is having raids here and there and you notice it isn’t really being covered by the mainstream media. It’s going to take community organizing to counter these. The raids are having big effects on our communities, in terms of people not going to the doctor, not going to clinics, parents not sending their kids to school, so it’s going to be a tough road over the next few months.

Is the immigrant rights movement in California supporting any independent electoral campaigns?
There is some of our group that support the Green Party. Others still support the Democratic Party, but they’re more progressive Democrats. I think you really can’t have it both ways. You can’t be in the immigrant rights movement and take a moderate stance. Sometimes, it comes down to being true to the movement; to stay true to the people, you basically can’t sell out.

There are people who are looking for alternative parties. I think this is happening more and more. I think the tide will turn. I think the talk, the dialogue of launching or bringing together a third party, will be more worker-friendly – so it will be a party of the workers or a workers’ party. That’s the ideal that everybody from the underclass, the working class, and the middle class would really buy into when they see the damage that’s been done by the Democrats and the Republicans.

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