The mammoth immigrants rights protests in San Francisco and across America have made one point crystal clear: the Latino community is no longer an “invisible giant.” More Latinos took to the streets on May 1, 2006 than at any time in American history, with many people coming out not because they were told to protest by some leader but because they personally identified with the cause. Politicians ignore this growing movement at their peril. Many of these new marchers will soon become new voters, and can shift national politics leftward as Latino voters have done in California. Meanwhile, the corporate media invents its own reality. CNN is highlighting Lou Dobbs’ claim that “radical groups,” including the ANSWER coalition, have “taken control” of the immigrants rights movement, while the San Francisco Chronicle and other media criticize the movement’s “tactics.”

As tens of thousands of Latino immigrants marched through San Francisco, the debate about the decision to call for a work, school and business boycott became as irrelevant to current political reality as President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech of May 1, 2003 is to the current nightmare in Iraq.

The grassroots turnout by the Latino community was as breathtaking as it was politically momentous.

As SEIU Vice-President Eliseo Medina described it, “I have been organizing for 41 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it. Rather than organizers creating an activity, it’s the activity that is creating an organization.”

(Coincidentally, Medina's high-profile campaign on behalf of immigrant janitors ended with a big victory yesterday (and he ended his 11-day hunger strike), as the University of Miami's cleaning contractor agreed to recognize the union if 60% of janitors signed cards seeking unionization.)

Media Response

Unfortunately, while America’s corporate media loves “people power” when exhibited in the Ukraine or the Philippines, it gets suspicious when massive numbers, particularly non-whites, take to the streets in America.

For example, as Latinos were making history yesterday, CNN’s website headlined Lou Dobbs’ assertion that “radical elements” have “seized control” of the movement. Dobbs’ noted that he has interviewed Juan Gutierrez of the ANSWER coalition several times over the past months, and that the movement’s leadership showed its “true colors” by scheduling the protests on a day commemorated worldwide by various “socialist, communist and even anarchic organizations.”

To paraphrase former Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport’s 1979 inauguration speech, if being for affordable housing, health care and immigrant rights means one is a radical, then I guess many of those marching yesterday are radicals. But the marchers themselves disproved the notion of sectarian control, and Dobbs seems to be exhibiting the racist attitude that Latinos lack the skills to build a mass movement seemingly overnight on their own---so it must be the work of outside agitators.

Dobbs’ strategy is straight from the 1960’s. The corporate media picks a radical with little political base to speak for a movement, and then accuses the movement of having radical leadership.

The other residue of the 1960’s press coverage was seen in the San Francisco Chronicle’s May 1 editorial, “Protests could backfire.” After assuring readers that the paper agrees with the cause, the editorial criticizes the tactical decision to hold a one-day work stoppage.

According to the Chronicle, an unsuccessful work stoppage could show that “the United States can manage fine without undocumented workers,” hurt school districts due to their receiving less state money due to absent students, and otherwise “divide the emerging movement rather than strengthening it.”

Of course, the Chronicle does not mention that America’s large agricultural corporations had already conceded that they could not stay open without immigrant workers. Nor does the paper note that the real loss of money to immigrant school districts has come from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s refusal to return $2 billion that he borrowed from the schools and promised to return; the Chronicle routinely ignores the Governor’s action while now shifting the blame for inadequate school funding to immigrant kids.

As for the work stoppage dividing the movement, the working families marching down Market Street yesterday sure looked unified to me. Nevertheless, the Chronicle's Tuesday front-page story on the protests echoed the "backlash" message included in the prior day's editorial.

Editorials praising the cause but criticizing the tactics were a staple of the Civil Rights Movement. Editorial writers continually cautioned Martin Luther King, Jr. over statements and tactics that they claimed would provoke a “backlash” against civil rights.

Militancy of any sort makes editorial writers nervous, and aggressive tactics are scorned even when a less confrontational approach---such as an innocent march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge---has already proved sufficient to provoke white violence.

Since the vast majority of those participating in the immigrant protests rely primarily on Spanish-language media, the ability of CNN, the Chronicle, and other corporate media to discourage grassroots action is limited. Although large corporations like Univision also own Spanish radio and television outlets, local stations have more freedom than their English-language counterparts and have played a key organizing role in building the movement.

Progress Toward Legalization

Ultimately, Congressional action will decide if immigrants obtain legalization this year, and under what terms.The May 1 protests strengthened the hand of legalization advocates in two key ways.

First, it showed the popular base for legalization is large and still growing. Despite what anti-immigrant politicians and their media allies say publicly, elected officials know a real movement exists and that failure to respond to its needs will have consequences in November.

Second, powerful corporate interests such as Tyson Foods, Cargill and other agribusiness giants have publicly thrown their support to legalization. These mega-corporations, along with the US Chamber of Commerce, view legalization as necessary to ensure stable profits.

Despite talk about the protests causing an anti-immigrant “backlash,” there is surprisingly little evidence of this despite massive street protests since March. Such rancor has been particularly absent outside the Southwest and nearby states. House and Senate Republicans are not going to risk losing corporate financial support in an election year when their base is not stirred up over the issue.

It is also worth noting that the political “backlash” related to immigration has transformed California into among the bluest of states, and typically helped Democrats and hurt Republicans. Congressional Republicans know this history, and do not want to anger Latino voters prior to the November elections.

President Bush desperately needs a political victory. Although he has been a mere bystander in the immigration debate, signing an immigration bill would enable Bush to claim he got something done. That’s why many believe Bush will force House Republicans to agree to a deal.

Should a deal be struck, it will most likely not provide legalization for nearly five million immigrants. Many activists will attack the legislation for this inadequacy, but a measure that protects seven million immigrants from daily fears of deportation can only be described as an unprecedented victory.

The families pushing baby strollers down major thoroughfares across America are not going away. This power can quickly be reignited should legislative efforts stall, and after legislation is signed.

The pressure for full legalization continues to build. With Latino voting steadily rising, the clock is running out for Lou Dobbs and others hostile to immigrant rights.

As 2006 unfolds, the times they are a changing.

Send feedback to rshaw@beyondchron.org