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Interview with Jesse Díaz of the L.A. March 25th Coalition

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Jesse Díaz is co-founder of the Los Angeles March 25 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. An edited down version of this interview appeared in the July/August issue of Justice.

Can you describe the campaign for the March 25 demonstration?

J: The estimate that we had going into the march was definitely 1 million, and that had only been done in terms of mobilizations on Capitol Hill – and one in New York City during the Vietnam War. By the end of our campaign we were seeing mobilizations take place among the people themselves. We had only gotten together and made the call and we were able to maneuver through the media and use the media as an organizing tool. We used a lot of organizing tools: the traditional organizing tools, flyers – that whole bit – but at the end of the campaign we couldn’t even rent a bus in the state of California. The buses that were being rented were from out of state. So that kind of tells you the kind of mobilization that was taking place among churches, community organizations, the unions, and everybody else. It was a mass, mass mobilization. There were also people coming from Mexico, and out of state, contacts that we were getting from places like New York and others to support the March, the March 25 mobilization itself.

Personally, I was trying to mobilize the day laborers to get out. We did a good job on that, but people were basically organizing themselves – so that was what was different this time.

There were basically eight of us in the group, eight organizations, maybe 15 of us that were in the group at the time. There were only four spokespeople who were in the media, and the campaign ended the night before the press conference and it was only at that time that the mainstream media came on board. They had not been at any of our press conferences. They had heard about it, but when they were there that Friday night at our press conference and we estimated that we were going to get a million, it was unheard of – they could not believe it. So we gave them all the information. They still couldn’t believe it.

When Saturday morning came I was in Los Angeles and there were just people everywhere. There were people taking the train from all over the greater LA area. There were people getting up at 6:30 in the morning, and by the time that train was halfway to downtown Los Angeles, that train was so packed that it couldn’t fit any more people. The buses were everywhere; there were traffic jams. People were trying to get there at noon because the march started at noon, but there were people everywhere. The march was supposed to begin at Olympic and Broadway, but there were so many people – we did not count on people coming in from the northside and they filled up all of Broadway and there was no way for us to get to the front of the march. By 8:00 AM the police had estimated that there were already 300,000 people. There were people getting there at 5:00 in the morning. The DJ’s were there at 6:00, the DJ’s that had helped as part the media campaign. There were people from Wisconsin, from Chicago, from Atlanta, Arkansas, all the way to Oregon and Washington as well as other parts of the Southwest. They had come in busloads from Phoenix and Las Vegas. From the north, one radio station had sent ten buses, Ventura County, San Fernando Valley, Orange County, there were just buses coming in. So these were coming in all through the night. There were celebrations and people getting ready to march during the pre-dawn hours. I got there at 8:30 and there were people wall to wall.

We had tried to get our banner up. We had made a banner that said “Residencia Permanente – March 25 Coalition” and that was going to be our banner to lead the march. But when we got there, there was simply not enough room for us to fit through the crowd and get to the front. Just imagine how Times’ Square gets when they drop the ball. At the other end we were trying to get our security, which was only like twenty of them, they were trying to open up the crowd to get the march going, which was nearly impossible. People wanted to march. There were already people at City Hall. There were something like 2, 3, 4 hundred thousand people at City Hall – you’ve seen the picture, that picture was taken before the march even started. That picture doesn’t include the people on three streets that were going to lead us to city hall. We had to get up eight blocks to find an area that was less condensed to officially begin the march. That’s where the security opened up for the front of the march to begin. There were so many people that we lost some of the people that were supposed to be at the front of the march. We opened up the floodgates so to speak, and we turned the corner, but there was no way that we were going to march all the way to city hall, and we had to do a single file line type thing to push through the crowd so we linked arms and walked behind some Nation of Islam members that were part of the security team. I had lost the passes for everybody who was supposed to be on stage. We had lost the banner, I lost the banner for the Day Laborers’ Center which was supposed to be there, it was just a madhouse. Some of the pictures are amazing, how many people were there in that small an area. The police estimated 500,000. But there was also a news station there who said it was closer to 2 million people, between 1.7 and 2 million people and that’s their estimation from the aerial photos and they’re experts in that, they have the estimations and whatever. I would say that it was over two million because of all the people who were still walking to the march from the outside because the buses, the trains, and the cars – there were literally cars parked on the freeway all around downtown because they could not get to the exits downtown. Buses had to park at Dodger Stadium because there was no parking downtown. So, basically, we shut down downtown. There was no way that cars were going to get through downtown. It was amazing. At 10:30 there were still people getting dropped off at freeway exits and there were people running in with banners and signs.

We got up at the front of the stage and began with the program, I don’t know if you saw pictures of that, we let some doves go and we allowed the speakers to speak. The one that we had up there was Felipe Aguirre, the one who started the sanctuary movement in the city of Maywood, CA. He passed a resolution in Maywood first, then in San Francisco, so it was important that we had him as part of the program, that was one of the highlights.

When I walked up there and said a few words, people responded to a boycott. They were like just ready and there was a roar through the crowd that they wanted to do a boycott. So that’s why we felt that it was time for a boycott and we basically made the call to the pueblo to go ahead and start thinking about having a boycott.

What prepared the LA leadership to take this bold lead?

J: That summer, our coalition was called La Tierra Es De Todos. There were a few other immigrants and community members, but really no community organizations, no politicians. We had literally no support from the establishment, but we still organized a group of people to go out in the desert and confront the Minutemen.

We were having counterdemonstrations against them, and we were basically trouncing them in terms of numbers, and the media started picking it up at that point, that was the end of 2004, so we had been working on this way back then, and that’s where it all started in terms of mobilizations. So it has been a long thing in terms of mobilizations, that summer when we went to the desert to confront the Minutemen, that is recorded – you can go to Google and put “Minutemen” and “Jesse Diaz” and you’ll see it all there.

During November and December there was a group formed called La Alianza Mexicana Nacional, spearheaded by Gloria Salcedo. She was the only one who took that leap to go out into the desert to mobilize her membership and the leadership of her organization. So after HR4437 passed in the house and I got in contact with her and the people that were still doing the work out in the desert, I joined their group, the Placita Olvera Pro-Immigrant Working Group. They were doing stuff with the sanctuary movement, and they were organizing actions, rallies, vigils and stuff like that. They were doing petition drives to try and persuade the LA city council to also pass the sanctuary resolution against HR-4437, taking the lead from Maywood which had already passed the sanctuary resolution along with San Francisco.

[When I got involved,] I told them that they needed to do a mass mobilization. By that time there was already talk of groups in Houston, Washington, DC and some other areas that had already mobilized some small marches and that kind of led us to the idea of having a mobilization here in Los Angeles. So we put everything together and massed our resources to see what we could do, and they basically thought that we were crazy. People didn’t participate or support our group – some people didn’t really believe in having a mass mobilization.

They didn’t believe that we could do it, that it could be pulled off. Traditionally, when you talk about a mass mobilization in Los Angeles, you’re talking about 150,000, that was the biggest one against [Proposition] 187 back in ’93-’94. That was the largest that we had seen in Los Angeles. So we were saying “How are we going to get 100,000 people out?” I was thinking of getting 100,000 or 125,000 people – that was my goal. So it was always going to be a major mobilization, in terms of how many people were mobilizing.

When we had the media campaign and we did our first press conference, at that time too I also said that we should have a boycott and people thought that that was really crazy, but the idea was always there to do a march and a boycott, so we put that march together.

At the end of the March campaign, we started seeing all of the traditional media, longstanding activists, leaders in the community start coming on board. They started seeing our success and then everybody wanted a part of it. It’s sad, you know some of the unions came on board at that time that had been resisting, some of the mainstream NGO-type organizations here in Los Angeles, they came on board, or wanted to come on board – but they didn’t really put anything in to the organizing. We opened the door to them and allowed them to come in.

The United Farm Workers had also tried to co-opt the march into an event on March 26th, the following day. We won that by only one vote. If we hadn’t won that vote, then the March 25 march would not have happened. They came to the table – they wanted to move our march to march 26th because that was going to be the Cesar Chavez “misa” or mass that they have every year. So how do you get 150,000 people to march, to go around the cathedral, where they’re going to have the misa and it only holds 5,000 people? So we told them that the events were separate, we have a political march over here, and then you have a spiritual event, a mass. You have like a bunch of like, leftists and workers– they’re not going to want to go to a mass. You know you’re going to have those people over here, the hardcore Catholics that might not be involved in politics; they’re not going to want to march. So we said that we cannot reconcile the two, and they kept on trying to take that march from us – and we fought and fought and fought and finally we got it and there were two events, and that is why some people said that there was a division, this and that. There was no division. There were two events, and we agreed to keep the two separate.

Anyway, the leaders started coming on board at the end of the campaign. By the time the march happened we were having huge meetings, and some of the leaders came in, some of the “federaciones” came in – they had been very apolitical prior to the march but we still have some of them in the coalition – in addition to the far left groups that stayed in the coalition. That is kind of the character of the group. It’s a non-mainstream, non-moderate type group. That’s why we’ve gotten so much criticism not just from people amongst ourselves but from the extreme right and everybody. They see that we’re workers and that we can get it on, we have some political savvy in terms of MAPA, the Mexican American Political Association in the group. 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 people recognize that and that is why we are able to have some authority, because we’re recognized for that – the past history.

Now in terms of the leadership, we can talk about “Somos America.” Even after the march some groups that were not a part of Somos America, they were going for the McCain-Kennedy bill. But the primary difference was whether or not to support McCain-Kennedy. The principle of the immigrants rights movement has been, has always been for full amnesty. Full, immediate, unconditional, universal, immediate amnesty for everybody. And these people were still trying to push Kennedy-McCain. You can’t forget that some of these groups had already been working for eight years. And this has been slowly surfacing here in Los Angeles – that some of that leadership – mainly CARECEN and CHIRLA – at the forefront of the movement over the past few years, in terms of money, these are multi-million dollar budget organizations, these are the people who are able to go to Washington DC and lobby. And these are the people who have been working behind the scenes trying to put together the Kennedy-McCain Bill. That is why they are so tied to the compromise. We’re finding out that the unions have been talking about having contracts that include the guest-worker program. And during the time leading up to the march I was asking myself “Why do they want this compromise guest worker program and all that bullshit?” And it turns out that the unions, mainly SEIU, have been talking with big corporations to handle those contracts of the guest workers. So it’s like they’re looking for the money. All of the money, that’s where it’s at. So that’s why the Hagel-Martinez bill looks so corporate. It’s a corporate or typical looking bill. That’s the bottom line. And that’s why the corporations are pushing for it, that’s why they’re so adamant and so loyal to those compromises like Kennedy-McCain and all the other ones– that’s the defining difference between us and them.

We went to the planning meeting to try to work with them. And then April 10th happened. It was a flop here in Los Angeles, it was embarrassing. They were only able to mobilize maybe 20,000 people. They used Cardinal Mahoney, they used all that to try to get the folks out, but the people were not really buying it. So the whole thing after that was “let’s try to work together with them.” [When we met] up to plan for the May 1 thing, they didn’t want to do the boycott, because the boycott is anti-corporate. So they didn’t want to get involved with that, and they started using that as a defining difference between us in terms of the demands of the protest. They basically kicked us out, and they became Somos America. They had a march that afternoon [May 1] at 4:00.

And so those were the two marches in Los Angeles on May 1. The marches were secondary for us, that was a big thing, but we just weren’t pushing the march because we knew the march was going to happen, because people weren’t going to work, but that wasn’t our primary thing, our primary thing was basically to push the boycott. And I had gone around the country by that time trying to organize the boycott. I went to New York and to Washington. But here at home there were a lot of divisions and a lot of mudslinging between us. And the people saw it and saw that they were using Cardinal Mahoney and all of that, along with the media. They hired four media experts to counter our media campaign, even though there were so few of us. Anyway, leading up to the boycott, a lot of people jumped on board. For every organization or person that attacked us, two or three more would come on board. So it was kind of like a roller coaster ride at the end. We went to Mexico, and we made a call in Mexico and that was very successful. The government called for a state boycott of American products and a strike of workers in American companies. From what I understand the boycott happened all over Mexico and all the way down to South and Central America. And we started getting contacts from a lot of countries, India, Malaysia, Greece, Italy, Spain, New Zealand, and Australia, and it just became an international effort. We knew that a lot of other countries observe May 1 in terms of not going to work and all that, but this was different. It was going to be a boycott in terms of all consumerism against the American economy and all the products that it represents. So, we moved that forward and we got a lot of support nationally, of people from 2,3,4 hundred organizations that signed on, and many more who sent us emails. It was just amazing the mobilization that happened on that day. The difference between March 25, and May 1 was that people were on the street on March 25 going about their regular business as we were marching. On May 1, the street was completely empty, all the stores were closed downtown, it was like a ghost-town. There was nobody on the freeway. The freeway was completely empty at 8:00 in the morning. That was a major difference. And we knew that people were not mobilizing from outside of the area like on March 25. We knew that the people that were mobilizing for the May 1 march were going to be a more organic outgrowth of the local population. And downtown that morning there were hundreds of thousands of people ready to march again. We came with more security and we tried to be more prepared than on March 25, but we ended up losing the front of the march again and we had to run up a few blocks.

What was the thinking behind May 1?

J: That was the first sign, when we saw the truckers come on board, we knew that it would be big in terms of labor. The premise was for the boycott was that the American economy is heavily, heavily dependent on immigrants. All that year, when we were [counter-protesting against] the Minutemen, we encountered the idea that immigrants are a drain on the economy. And this assertion was coming out of think tanks, that they put up. At the turn of the twentieth century they had a lot of think tanks like they have now to put policy forward, so their numbers are basically lies, and they are not bound by research ethics, so they can convolute, they can misinterpret. But according to real academic numbers, the studies have shown over and over that immigrants contribute more to society than they take out. So having seen the things written by the academy and having seen the whole thing when you study immigration, I figured that the only way to prove that was to do it with the boycott and to follow this thing about “The Day Without a Mexican” and the way to do that was to call on all the immigrants not to go to work. To take it to the extreme, we said not to even go to school, because the public schools get paid for every head. In hindsight we wouldn’t have called for that because we found out that after April 15th, two weeks prior to the boycott, they stopped counting the heads of the students, so basically after that it was a moot point. Had we known that we would not have made the call not to go to school, so that was a lack of research on our part. Anyway the thing to do was to not have them buy or sell, so we had already done that on Dec. 12th 2003, when we had a statewide boycott for the license bill. Well over a million people participated in that. There were people marching all over the place and a lot of stores closed in solidarity.

But this time the conditions were ripe for a boycott. They were ready to show their contributions to the economy. So it was basically premised on the idea that if immigrants drain the economy, if they don’t work, they don’t buy, they don’t sell, they don’t go to school, and they’re completely out of our society, then the economy should boom. The stock market should surge. This was the message we were putting out there. And if this happens, then they’ve made their point that the immigrants do drain the economy. But without the immigrants out there, you see that there’s no way that the storeowners can operate or the factories can run. 80 percent of the workers were walking out. How could these factories run with 20 percent of their employees, or even 50 percent? There was a restaurant around here where 20 employees out of 200 were not going to be there and the employers decided to close. A lot of the owners, regardless of whether the workers were going to come in or not, closed in recognition of the day, and that was one of the most defining features of May 1. Unlike the Dec. 12th boycott in 2003, some of the owners were in solidarity.

But in many cases many of the workers were threatened that they were going to lose their jobs. And they still didn’t go to work, and there were only like eight or nine that lost their jobs up in Northern California, and a handful here. And there were also 7 or 8 in Wisconsin or Minneapolis or something that some groups have been working on, but it was only a handful of people out of the millions of folks that didn’t go to work that day. So everywhere you looked it was like a national holiday. It was like nothing that I had ever seen before – it was like magic. There were people that had never communicated together in terms of our community organizing here in Los Angeles that were talking together for the first time in many years. There was just a lot of community, like a big community day, like I said it was just like a magic day because everybody was in solidarity with everybody, celebrating their contributions to our economy and our society. That was the background of the boycott and I think we proved our point. The success of the boycott wasn’t even May 1.

It was the tactic and the message sent to Washington DC. On Saturday Mahoney and Bush came out in the Los Angeles Times front page against the boycott. And they had this whole thing about guest worker, pathway to citizenship and all that other B.S. When we saw Bush come out in public for the first time against the boycott it meant it was a success. That meant that we had got our message out loud and clear. And everything that came out after that was basically, gananza, it was profit, or like they say in New York “it was cheddar.” And so that next week, Bush comes out here to Orange County and 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.”

March 24th things were still looking very grave for us. The Chicago march had happened. It had gotten a lot of attention, and it started moving things along. But all the eyes were on Los Angeles. The whole country’s eyes were on us. In fact the whole of Mexico was watching us too. They were waiting to see what we would do. That’s when I knew that we would have to push. The Chicago march didn’t really push the national debate. March 24th, going into the LA march, the Sensenbrenner bill was still alive and well. They were discussing it, they were not changing it, it was still completely there. They were sitting on it. After the march, on Monday the 27th Senate debate began, and that is why we had strategically made March 25 the day of the march. The Senate debate began and they said no fences, no criminalization, no increased law enforcement, everything contrary to HR-4437. The next day, Tuesday, they even said something about amnesty. So we knew that the Los Angeles march did shape the national debate. The same thing for May 1. It changed the mind of George Bush from “Guest Worker” to “Pathway to Citizenship.”

Now are we satisfied with that, with “Pathway to citizenship?” No. That’s not our goal. Because that is a masqueraded, over-glorified guest worker program. And one of our points of unity is completely against anything that looks or appears to be a guest worker program.

So we have shaped the national debate through the mass mobilizations in Los Angeles spearheaded by the March 25 coalition. I guess we’ve taken the leadership role in this movement, because we’ve been doing this since 1968. If you look at Bert Corona, he’s basically the founder of the immigrant rights movement, and all of these folks that I’m working with are his disciples. He’s the one that got the amnesty in 1986. In essence it’s in this movement recently that I’ve launched myself into a kind of leadership role, I guess, as they say. I’m a hard worker. I’m observant. And I put other people first, so I don’t really consider myself too much of a leader. So I’m doing what I’m doing for the sake of my people and for their welfare, that’s basically where my drive comes from.

We recently had a conference for the Western region, which is mostly California, and many of the cities were represented, and we have a plan of action. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, it’s going to take a lot of additional organizing in terms of flyering, campaigning, forums, and stuff like that. Tonight at the meeting we’re going to have to put forward an action committee to make sure that the plan or strategy is followed through coming out of that conference. So we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, educating people over the next few months. We’re going to have another mobilization again on Labor Day here in Los Angeles. There’s always been something to organize around.

Now we’re focusing on education. Many of our people are confused, with Somos America going around, masquerading with this guest worker program as a “pathway to citizenship.” This is something that divides us even more. They’ve already divided us in terms of ethnicity. Ethnicity and nationality, U.S.-born Mexicans pitted against the Mexican-born immigrants. Now we have divisions being built up among the undocumented putting them even further into the shadows of those of us that were born here. They’re dividing us even more, fragmenting our community even more, and that can have long-term effects on us in terms of class. [The Senate compromise bill divides the] people living here 5 years, those 2-5 years, and those less than 2 years. That division is definitely a wrong message to send to our people, since our people might actually believe that some are better than the others, just in terms of how long they’ve been here. It’s going to divide families. What will happen to the man who has been here for five years who sends for his wife who has been here three months. What’s going to happen if she has to go back and he can stay? It’s ridiculous. That’s why we’re pushing forward for full, immediate, unconditional amnesty, and that’s basically the crux of the movement. That’s what the movement is couched in and that’s our primary goal.

Right now the INS is having raids here and there and you notice it isn’t really being covered by the mainstream media, so it’s going to take community organizing, some basic phone trees 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?

J: One of the things that came out of the regional conference was to have a mock voter campaign. To have a questionnaire for undocumented immigrants at polling places or around town to let them vote, and to tally up those votes and bring those together and form a database and give the results. Now in terms of politicians: some of our group supports the Green Party. Others still support the Democratic Party, but they’re more progressive Democrats. I think that you really can’t have it both ways. You can’t be in the immigrant rights movement and take a moderate stance. It’s got to be a very progressive stance. Sometimes it comes down to the issue of being true to the movement, to stay true to the movement and to stay true to the people you basically can’t sell out. So there are people who are looking for alternative parties. I think that this is happening more and more. I think that what would be ideal in the next few years, considering America, I think that the tide will turn. I think that the talk, the dialogue of launching or bringing together a third party, will be more worker-friendly, so that it will be a party of the workers or a workers’ party. That’s the ideal where it would be everybody from 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. And I think that people are going in that direction. We just need leadership right now, and hopefully that’s what we’re working for.

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