by Gary Phillips
As the electoral battle over California's anti-immigrant Prop. 187 reached its peak last fall, a huge march took place from Boyle Heights to L.A.'s City Hall October 16. Even the Los Angeles Police Department admitted that 70,000 people had turned out-some 30,000 less than most other estimates. At the rally itself, Temple and Spring streets were awash in a leitmotif of resistance: swirling Mexican flags; the painted image of the Virgin of Guadalupe; posters of Governor Wilson's neck in a noose; union locals' silk-screened signs proclaiming opposition to 187, and hacks for then-gubernatorial hopeful Kathleen Brown weaving about with "Proposition 187 No, Brown Yes" placards. The demonstration was remarkable for its immense turnout despite protracted pre-march infighting in the anti-187 camp. One set of organizers had argued that mass actions would only alienate white voters; others said it was time to take it to the streets. The rally was the largest in L.A. since the '20s, when the labor and socialist movements took to the streets confronting the notorious "open shop" City of Angels. And finally it was curious, perhaps even ominous, that there were only a smattering of African Americans at the demonstration. It would be easy to dismiss the lack of a larger Black mobilization on the pre-march factional battles. But that too would only highlight the lurking antagonisms among community-based Latino and immigrant rights organizations and their Black counterparts. In the streets of Los Angeles-as in cities across the nation-those antagonisms have a much edgier nature than just verbal barbs. In the Venice section of L.A., the Black Shoreline Gangster Crips and the Chicano Venice 13 gangs conducted a campaign of tit-for-tat body counts. These bloody machinations wreak havoc on already suffering communities, and provide fuel for conservative and liberal politicians to further demonize and criminalize Black and Brown youth in the eyes if an increasingly whiter, older electorate. Indeed, one of the failures of the campaign against 187 was not tying the struggle against it to Proposition 184, the "Three Strikes, You're Out" measure also on the November ballot. Certainly some grassroots groups, such as South Central Youth Empowered thru Action, the Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA), and the precinct-based Coalition '94 sought to link the two as civil rights issues requiring a united fightback. But ultimately it was a failure on the part of virtually all elected Black politicians-Ron Dellums from northern California being a notable exception-to take a stand against 187, and even being split in their support of 184. And it was a failure of elected Latino politicians to vocally oppose 184. In Los Angeles, the most visible Black mainstream opposition to 187 were the executive directors of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Urban League, and the African American weekly, the Sentinel. Ultimately, of those who did go to the polls in California, Blacks were a bare majority (53 percent, the same as the Asian vote) against 187, Latinos overwhelmingly in opposition, and whites (who were 81 percent of the 1994 electorate) a clear majority for the initiative. In the heart of South Central L.A.-which along with Venice and Compton are the focal points of Black-Latino tension [in California]-Prop. 187 passed. Meanwhile, Proposition 184 passed by roughly a 3 to 1 margin statewide; and in Southern California, only in the 8th councilmanic district of South Central did it fail. These results provide a potent warning to progressives and the left. Inevitably, when the talk of rebuilding the movement for social justice has us lamenting and mumbling something about bouncing back in '96, we had best be keeping our eyes on the ground, our shoulder to the wheel. This past July in Compton, adjacent to Watts, Black CPD officer Michael Jackson was videotaped baton-whipping Felipe Soltero, a five-foot three-inch unarmed teenager. For the Latino community, the incident symbolized their disenfranchisement and recalled the impact of the famous Rodney King video on the African American community in 1991; likewise, it galvanized demands for equity from an unresponsive system. An enclave of the Klan in the '20s, Compton is today known from Brixton, England to Davenport, Iowa as the Darwinian blast furnace from which gangsta rap was forged. But it is also a town that's nearly equally divided between Latinos and African Americans, with the former beginning to overshadow the latter in population. Yet among all elected officials, only one Latino holds public office. In a mirror inverse of the rest of the country, Blacks represent 80% of the voting population. Simultaneously, that number represents hard-fought battles, years of work in the trenches to empower a Black community which not long ago was fighting for a voice in a heretofore white suburb. Still, that doesn't erase certain truths Latinos have raised about issues of representation and access-even as a multiracial grouping of activists led by CAPA converged on police headquarters decrying the alleged police abuse. Their work attests to the need to build on issues which affect low-income communities across racial barriers. The Republican ascendancy and the utter ideological bankruptcy of the Clinton administration have erased all doubt that there is any way to make progress other than by doing the grunt work at the grassroots. That's the only way to open up a serious dialog across racial lines, let alone to build progressive working coalitions among Blacks, Browns, whites, and Asians in the next five years. National civil rights organizations can begin to set the tone for this rebuilding process. But even if they have the will, pragmatically can they do it? One of the striking lessons from the firing of Ben Chavis was how important it was to the NAACP board that the Ford Foundation was holding up a $500,000 grant pending a settlement of their internal controversies. Certainly any institution has a fiduciary responsibility to its donors, share holders and/or board members. But it's telling when you have an organization that supposedly has hundreds of thousands of dues-paying members that the Board felt most accountable to outside funders. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) has also strayed far from that day in 1957 when it was organized with $11,000 in seed money from the Packinghouse Workers. Part of SCLC's original charter stated it could not receive foundation grants. Nowadays the group plays the foundation game and has received money from such corporate giants as Shell Oil. Meanwhile, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) reaps beaucoup ducats from such companies as Anheuser-Busch, and the National Council for La Raza receives money from Nestlé. And the Urban League, the second oldest Black civil rights organization, is very cozy with a funding base that only further removes them from the disenfranchised. This state of affairs can't help but create external-or worse, self-imposed-constraints on how "down" any of these organizations can get. Facing a racist right wing eager to implement its "Contract on America," these civil rights organizations need to reinvent themselves if they are going to be capable of contributing to any kind of effective counter-offensive. In L.A., several unions-mostly among janitors and garment workers, and coming on among hotel workers-have been revitalized in the struggle to represent a growing immigrant work force. But as these and other efforts to link labor and community (a model from the '20s and '30s reshaped in the '90s) roll out, where are the Black workers in this equation? The Urban League issues its yearly report on the "State of Black America," but does little to translate those statistics into a sector-by-sector analysis that would begin to target the areas of work Black folks are increasingly being segmented into. In addition to the report, what if the group worked with Black trade unionists to create an organizing apparatus to reach out to these workers? They might lose their corporate funding and legally not be able to get foundation dollars-but that might not be so bad. It would give them incentive to be sustained by dues, and by having to subsist more on their members' monies, they'd have to win something for them. And this could spur some creative thinking on how to tap non-traditional sources of money. Imagine some education grants underwritten by Ice-T or Ice Cube (that's not being facetious-both rap stars have given money to inner city causes). Or let's try this: Already some grassroots groups are conducting Spanish classes for African Americans in South Central. Let's take that further and do Black history classes in Spanish for immigrants as adjuncts to those courses. Bottom line, we in the left, and specifically the small but hardy Black left, must redeploy and engage the battles where the people are at: fights around drug trafficking, public transportation, police abuse, public education, crime, economic justice. The right has no long-term solutions, so if we get into the trenches we can regain the initiative over time. But tomorrow won't be better unless we confront our days of reckoning now. Reprinted with permission from the February 1995 issue of Crossroads Magazine.